leslie nikole
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Finally, I’ve gotten a chance to finish Americanah. Her present-past style is easily defined, but the main characters do fizzle out a bit as the climax dwindles down. I don’t pretend to read books, but since it’s May 2013 publication, I’ve been recommending it to many people (friends and customers alike) off of a ten page preview. Based on the preview that I received, I, like many others, thought that this book was about hair and race. However, those two aspects of Ifemelu’s (the novel’s protagonist) life are simply a magnification within the bigger picture — the story of immigration. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentions in her novel, there is a difference between African-Americans, Caribbeans/West Indians, and Africans. Despite the common denominator amongst us all, I feel like I’m not alone in the experience of growing up with a sense of being alienated from African and African-American (with ties to no specific country for sure) peers. However, as Adichie breaks down Ifemelu’s story of immigration, I find that it sounds quite similar to ones I’ve heard before within the Caribbean community.

As political strife bubbles forth in Nigeria, the most brilliant minds of the middle class are slowly making their escape. While briefly mentioned amongst the youth with no ties to politics, except for the strikes at their universities, Ifemelu and her friends are regular teenagers. With a difference in culture, they still make fun, tease, and dream like everyone else. The difference with these children of the middle class, is their fondness of the colonizer. From the beginning of the novel, British educations, vacations, and accents are all held with high esteem, and American equivalents hold second place. While attending university in Lagos is considered excellent, being offered a scholarship for an American university is prestigious. While Ifemelu is not overly obsessed with America in her youth like her friends, her arrival in the new country provides her with a stark contrast, in turn becoming a huge petri-dish full of new experiences. In America, she becomes Black, her hair and body type become different, her accent is completely uncommon, her status in society is erased, and her entire identity needs to be rebuilt.

For anyone hoping to one day work with newly arriving immigrants, I guess as a social worker, I would definitely suggest reading Americanah; if you’re in that position now, I would definitely suggest reading it. Immigrating to a new country, knowing that you’re leaving behind family and familiarity for opportunities you hope will work out is not easy. Ifemelu has a difficult time once she is on her own and away from her aunt’s home in New York, and slowly falls into a « nameless » depression. In her apartment in Philadelphia, she is jobless and burdened by school, all while trying to find a job and send money back home to a struggling family. It is months before Ifemelu finds work because she is without a green card, and when she does find something that works out under the table, she clings to it desperately with the chilling idea of needing to « do what you have to do if you want to succeed. » Within her school’s African Association groups and her friendship with Ginika, Ifemelu does manage to find some solace. Out of all of her new experiences, racism is the one she ultimately cashes in on. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come from a place where 98% of the population has a skin colour like yours (although there are tribal differences) to a country built upon the degradation and enslavement of those same people that look just like you. Ifemelu doesn’t know what to do with racism, because its history and ties with slavery are not in her lineage, summing it up to « when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford. » Her anonymously written blog casts her into the spotlight thanks to her candid musings about race, which finally push her to the top.

Obinze, her boyfriend during her young adulthood, doesn’t get the same glory. With a grant from his mother, he goes to England in hope of following Ifemelu, but is barred from America during their period of immigrant paranoia following the September 11th attacks; ultimately allowing more immigrant women in from « restricted » countries that immigrant men. The jobs he does find in London are ones he would have made joke of back in Nigeria, sent overseas to basically clean bathrooms. Living illegally in London during the colder months, his efforts to hold down a job are stifled and his scheme to stay in the country falls apart. Upon his return to Nigeria he does manage to get himself back on his feet again, but the love and his admiration for the worlds that he held so highly in his youth are gone.

Americanah does not have the best ending, only because I feel as if it is really an essay wrapped up in a novel. Immigration is a difficult process, and with all the new stress and need for re-identification can drive one to desperation. Immigrant women possibly have an easier time finding work doing typically « female oriented » jobs (babysitting, office work, hair dressing) while men only have the choice of hard labour (moving crews or long hours at taxi driving) or having to « stoop » to cleaning crews. Furthermore, as it may be easier for women to become breadwinners in the home, there is an impending role reversal in the home that not everyone may be comfortable with. And that is just the beginning… Americanah is definitely a gem when read for its humour and for its intellect.

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