Our last book club meeting on Americanah was a spirited discussion full of insights, laughter, and passionately differing opinions and reactions. Some of us thought the protagonist Ifemelu was sympathetic and “woke,” and some thought she was annoying and petty. Some of us loved the brave and hopeful resolution of the love story at the end, while others wished the book did not focus so much on Ifemelu’s boyfriends. Some of us felt that it was hard to remember the details of what happened over the course of the book, while others found the writing to be vivid, compelling, and real. One thing we could all agree on, though, was that Adichie’s Americanah is beautifully and masterfully written and very thought-provoking.
Americanah addresses a number of complex themes, including race, class, the American dream, transnationalism, immigration, assimilation and acculturation, mental health, trauma, gender roles and relations, interracial and cross-cultural relationships, and romantic and familial love. Here are some of the insights and questions that arose from our discussion:
- Transnationalism - In an increasingly globalized world, transnationalism has become more common. We could even say that transnationalism is an essential component of the contemporary American novel. Historically, the American Dream has been about making it big in the US and staying in the US. Ifemelu makes it big in the US but ultimately returns to Nigeria because she feels that something is missing in her life. What does that say about the American Dream?
- Complexity - People can be “woke” (conscious/aware/enlightened) about some things but not others. They can be enlightened and also confused and naive. It’s not all or nothing. Case in point: Ifemelu’s blog makes a number of good points about race in the U.S. However, after she breaks up with her white boyfriend, she states in her blog that “romantic love” is the key to solving the race problem. However, she herself failed in her interracial romantic relationship, and she states in the same blog post that American society is structured to make sure that interracial romantic love does not happen. Is she saying that racism will always exist? Even if we hypothetically consider an American population that is primarily mixed and interracial in the future (as a result of widespread interracial romantic love), that in itself will not actually eliminate racism (structural, institutionalized racism and preference for light skin and straight hair will persist—for example, Brazil).
• Hierarchy - Hierarchies are universal in human societies. In the US, the social hierarchy is primarily based on racism and white supremacy, though class is also a crucial component. In Nigeria, class (wealth) dictates the social hierarchy. There is an innate human tendency to rank some people above others, to dominate/oppress. Even if we wishfully and hypothetically envision a future without racism—will there be some other -ism or form of discrimination that will take its place to maintain the social hierarchy?
• Love and Home/Culture - Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is not only driven by her romantic love for Obinze but also an affirmation of her love of Nigeria, even with its many problems. The two are intertwined—loving Obinze also means loving and choosing Nigeria as home.
• From Pundit to Artist - While in the U.S., Ifemelu writes a successful blog on race relations in the U.S. as an outside observer (journalistic/anthropological). When she moves back to Nigeria, she writes a very different yet also successful blog viscerally depicting life in Nigeria—its beauty, ugliness, and contradictions (“poetry” as Obinze puts it). This homecoming and the development of her blog in Nigeria mark her coming into her own as an artist.
Post written by: Amy Chin-Arroyo