Race, class and romance

I’m a little late to the party, but I have no hesitation adding to the mountain of praise for “Americanah,” the lush and captivating novel by Nigerian author Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

Published in 2013, the novel won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award and landed on the “best books of the year” lists of NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other leading publications.

I can see why.

At 588 pages, the novel toggles back and forth between Nigeria, the United States and the United Kingdom in telling the story of a young couple who fall in love as high school students, then fall out of touch as they travel to separate countries for education and work. Years later, Ifemelu and Obinze reconnect in their native Nigeria, drawn to each other once again but facing utterly different life circumstances that stand in the way of their being together. Can they rekindle what they once had, even after they’ve pursued relationships with other people?

It’s a love story, yes. But it is so much more, as so many critics have noted.

adichie_macarthur_large

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos in 2008.

“Americanah” is a book that explores race, culture and class from the African and African-American perspectives, touching on skin color and stereotypes. It’s a book about identity and how it is shaped and tested in ways both obvious and subtle. It’s also a book about family and how those complicated relationships can variously generate feelings of support, frustration, estrangement and belonging.

Adichie writes with such clarity and nuance that you can absorb the meaning of little details at the same time you’re fully cognizant of the book’s overarching themes. Pitch-perfect dialogue and descriptive writing make you feel as if you are right there with her main characters in Lagos, London, New Haven and anywhere else the story goes

On the surface, the novel pivots on the question of what it means to be black in America and Nigeria. It’s not until Ifemelu arrives in the United States to attend college that she realizes she is being judged by the color of her skin, something that was never an issue in her homeland. She struggles to find work and an apartment on account of her race. Later, she takes up with two boyfriends, one white and one black, all the while striving to establish an identity of her own.

Likewise, the book examines the challenges faced by Obinze as an undocumented immigrant in Britain. Where his future seemed bright and limitless in Nigeria, he is forced to live in the shadows in London, dealing with all the fears and indignities that come with the territory. For lack of a passport, he is rendered vulnerable and powerless, forced to conceal his identity and unable to control his destiny.

americanahAdichie, 39, writes with authority, verve and great empathy. She won a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2008 and has written two other books and a short story collection. I’d love to read more of her work but my bookshelf is overflowing with novels waiting their turn.

I close with an excerpt. In this scene, Obinze is at a dinner party at the fashionable north London home of his old classmate, Emenike, and his wife, Georgina, a successful lawyer. Flush with red wine, their guests are discussing whether refugees should be allowed to settle in Britain.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

That is powerful prose.

Photograph: George Osodi, Associated Press.

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