Intersectional book club #1: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

Our first monthly intersectional book club recommendation is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a book I recommended Lena years ago and bonded over with her on. It is a book I think connected for both of us on many levels, and now Lena is a bigger fan of Adichie than I am, having now read more of her works than I have!

Americanah is originally a book I found out about after reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a masterpiece in its own right (definitely worth checking out as well!) Finding out that among Achebe’s fellow Nigerian authors was Adichie, and that she was a female Nigerian author, I felt compelled to read her works; and the first one I laid my hands on was this gem. Great thanks to whatever deity out there, because it really deserves to be read inside out.

The book follows the stories of two people, Ifemelu and Obinze, young Nigerians that meet in high school and date throughout their high school years. After finishing school, both Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s paths lead to immigration to the West: Ifemelu to the United States, and Obinze to the United Kingdom. Stories unfold on how they manage to integrate (and how they do not manage to do so), on the challenges they face in these countries as Nigerians with little means.

Americanah is however, not only a story of the experiences of a black woman in the United States and a black man in the United Kingdom, but also more concretely, a story of immigration and a vision of the problems underlying both countries’ reluctance towards it. For example, Ifemelu constantly distinguishes herself from her African American counterparts, that share the same skin colour as her, that however, have a different ancestral history and vision of identity (also known as the difference between an African American and an American African). She then goes on to clarify that white Americans do not see the difference between these two identities.

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

We can understand Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s challenges not only as those linked to their skin colour (issues of racism, systemic discrimination, difficulty of telling POC apart) but also as those linked to where they come from. Issues of immigration within the United States and the United Kingdom, such as paperwork, financial trouble, lack of stability hit them hard, but also simply, homesickness and lack of relatability in their new surroundings. Although not always, at times, both Ifemelu and Obinze miss being from a country where everyone else looks like them and speaks like them, where food is familiar and the neighbourhoods too. It is the intersection of the issues of skin colour but also of legal status in the new country. Not the best of both worlds.

Not only does Adichie cover their experiences in the West, she turns the story on its head to show another perspective, by having them return to their motherland, Nigeria. Their experiences in Nigeria then, become those of a returning national, which also contains its own set of issues: family pressures, cultural pressures, as well as generational gaps really become a story in itself.

As an immigrant living in the West myself, I empathised strongly with Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s experiences in the West as well as their experiences as a returning national. Living in the West, you are never really considered an individual. You transform into what seems to be another drop in a massive ocean that is your skin colour – which is terribly ironic, because the West in so many ways has abandoned community living for individualism (more on this in a different blog post). Individualism only applies of course, to those with white skin that are considered ‘real locals’. It does not matter how or when you became a person that exists in the West. Whether it be that you are a third-generation local with non-white skin, or if you’ve recently immigrated with non-white skin, as long as you both seem to be ethnically similar, you are the same. Suddenly massive continents like Africa and Asia just become blurry places where everyone has more or less similar backwards cultures with some ‘interesting spiritual stuff’. Speaking various languages becomes something that is fascinating (‘I love Asian languages’, ‘I’ve watched so much anime, love Japanese culture… Are you Japanese too?’), but strangely, not very appealing to recruiters because it happens to be that you’re expected to speak many languages as a foreigner (‘you don’t speak other European languages? Pity’). Those that make it get to have an individual position in society, however, only because they were chosen to be there, and allowed to be there. They become the token, ‘we have diversity, we have person X that does this in our society’, person. It’s a story all too familiar and disconcerting, reminding us of the invisible realities of many invisible people that only become visible at the most inconvenient times (‘all Middle-Eastern people are terrorists’, ‘black men are drug dealers’).

“You read American fiction to learn about dysfunctional white folk doing things that are weird to normal white folks.”

As for the experience of being a returning national, the experiences that echoed the most for me were the gaps between the older and newer generations, the misunderstandings that continue between those two sides as well as the feeling of somehow ‘owing’ something to one’s (immigrant) parents (back home) for any personal successes. Not to mention the constant inner negotiation between your identity as a permanent immigrant in the West and a visitor in your own country. Having left for a long time, you no longer see things the same way people in your country do. Nor do you experience them in the same way. Suddenly things that were so normal seem questionable, and family that you missed quickly become your source of stress (‘when will you get married?’). All these things hit me quite deeply on a personal level.

“Those plates, with their amateur finishing, the slight lumpiness of the edges, would never be shown in the presence of guests in Nigeria. He still was not sure whether Emenike had become a person who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so.”

And that was my two cents on Americanah.

Have I convinced you? Do you want to read about Ifemelu and Obinze?

You now have a month to get this book and read it, it is available on Kindle as well for those who want to save a few coins and trees. See you next month for the next intersectional book club meeting!

Read on,

Meena.

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