Monday, February 03, 2014

Reflections: Americanah

This is a strong and bold novel that primarily focuses on immigrant experience and the subtle and not-so-subtle kinds of racial discrimination faced by people of color in the West. 

Ifemulu is a bright and strong-willed girl in Nigeria, who seems to have her life in order. Her intelligent and doting boyfriend, Obinze  has planned out every detail of their future together. She is determined to make something of herself, but according to Obinze, that means getting out of Nigeria and securing an admission into a university in the U.S or the U.K. Although she is resistant to the idea, she eventually succumbs to the grand plan when her university remains closed due to protests and riots, leaving her rusty and restless. She leaves behind Obinze and embarks on her journey to the land that beckons many such eager students - the United States. Once in the U.S, she is stricken by the harsh reality of the ways of life. Slowly, she fumbles her way and negotiates the new social & cultural paradigms within her new country. She begins severing her ties and relationships back home as she gets mired in her own mistakes and growths. Soon, she becomes an educated scholar, and begins to dissect the social hierarchies inherent in the U.S from the perspective of racial and ethnic discrimination. Back home, Obinze travels to London and faces debilitating humiliations of his own, and realizes for the first time that he will always be regarded as an outsider in the West because of his skin color. Disillusioned and withered, he comes back to Nigeria and makes something of himself. One fine day, after several years and a U.S citizenship, Ifemulu decides to go back home. Visiting Nigeria for the first time since she left, she has many bittersweet experiences, but most importantly she needs to come to her own, to realize where she belongs, what she is meant to be doing, and how to resolve her ambiguous emotions towards Obinze - now a husband and a father. 

Adichie is a fearless and smart writer, much like Ifemulu herself. Through Ifemulu, she takes  another daring stand - of not creating a conventionally likeable, personable protagonist. Why should the protagonist be "nice" in every story?, she asks. I agree, well, mostly. I understand that likeable, ideal protagonists are boring. A multidimensional and quirky personality makes the character and the story much more interesting, deep, and honest. I'm all for it. However, I couldn't warm up to Ifemulu. She annoyed me to no end. Ifemulu is audaciously self-absorbed, self-entitled, opinionated, and ruthlessly critical and judgmental of everyone and everything around her. She is one of those individuals that complains and ridicules at everything from up her high-horse. Even if people are kind and nice, she finds excuses to ridicule them. She puts herself at the center of everything. For all her criticisms and judgments of people around her, she is completely and utterly insensitive and oblivious to how she treats others. She is quick to take offense and even quicker to offend others. So, though I could relate to her initial student experiences in the U.S, I couldn't ever (and I tried really hard) understand or sympathize with her selfish decisions. It is tricky when you struggle to sympathize with the protagonist, because you are no longer invested in her story. You don't root for her, and you want to constantly reach into the book and give her a piece of your mind. I have read many good books with a flawed protagonist, but they have all been shaped such that the reader understands why they are flawed, and finds sympathy and good will toward them - in some measure. In Ifemulu's case, her personality is just so brazen that even though you find her warm heart peeking through in glimmers,  she doesn't ingratiate herself with you. She is an honest and excellent embodiment of such real-life characters, no doubt, which is why she evoked so much emotion and anger in me. Kudos to Adichie for bringing to life such a character, but I think she overstepped the line a bit much in making her too difficult.

So, now that I have hammered my distaste for the protagonist, I'll move onto the story and the content. Adichie has vehemently lifted the rug under American/Western society to expose all the carefully neglected dirt and dust surrounding racism that still persists beneath politically-correct statements and notions. Through this novel, she has voiced, cried, attacked, approached, and analyzed racism with a zealous and confident flair. The reader can sense her own disappointments, frustrations and wounds. She brings up every kind of cultural and racial nuance that dictate interactions between Africans, African-Americans, and Whites. I applaud her discussions, all of which resonate with truth and insight. However, I did feel that some of it was getting a little too sour and bitter, and might I dare say, exaggerated. Being a colored immigrant myself, I understand much of what she talks about. But I also believe that anybody can get riled up over anything if they choose to always read between the lines, hunting for proof to confirm their assumptions, and assuming the worst. 

For example, I don't read between the lines when an American hears my name and compliments that it sounds beautiful. I don't wonder if they are overcompensating for being uncomfortable to pronounce an exotic sounding, weird name and the compliment is just to mask their feeling. Nor do I gloat with pride by taking their remark at face-value. I just move past it with nary a thought. But Adichie doesn't. If someone calls Ifemulu beautiful, she questions the authenticity of the remark and argues that it is a rehearsed statement to reaffirm to others how liberal, open-minded and politically correct one is,  to prove and to proclaim how greatly progressive, gracious and magnanimous they are to a colored immigrant in their superior country. To me, this type of dissection is stretching the discussion on racism a little too far. Maybe there is some truth to it, but it's mostly speculation and mostly harmless, even if someone does overcompensate a little. If I met Adichie and struggle to pronounce her middle name, but honestly tell her she is beautiful, would I be suspected of overcompensating too? If I am obviated from suspicion, is it because my skin color is similar to hers? If so, isn't this also a form of racism towards whites? Another example that most Indians can relate to: Do you take offense if a white person compliments on your English being good? I don't. Many of my friends do, and so does Adichie. I don't expect every person outside of India to know India's history, its current educational system, and its socioeconomic diversity. I can't tell them that every Indian knows English, and knows it well. That's not true. So, maybe their remark is in comparison to certain other Indians they had met. Besides, English is not our national language or native tongue. So, there's nothing offensive about someone remarking on the fluency with which you handle a non-native, non-national language, especially when the remark is from a mono-lingual American who finds it impressive that people can be fluent in multiple languages. I don't relate this comment to any form of underlying racial stereotyping. I just attribute it to simple lack of knowledge of world history. It's not a crime if you don't know enough history or geography. I don't know much world history myself, but nobody would accuse me if I said something naive or ignorant, because I am colored and from a developing country, right?

I think such relentless accusations of racism over every apparently harmless instance drives people into harboring more negative attitudes. It perpetuates the hate and umbrage nursed by those that continue to believe they are victimized, when in reality they just have to utilize the many opportunities staring at them and keep moving on. So, in that regard, I did feel some of the discussion was too much, especially when it came from Ifemulu, who is already highly critical and self-absorbed. Combined with the discussions and rants, I felt there was no end to pleasing her. In a sense, she fails to acknowledge how much this country had also offered to her and made her thrive.

Once she is back home in Nigeria, Ifemulu's experiences and thoughts ring true. Every immigrant can relate to or at least understand the rude jolt when back home -  the bittersweet experiences, the guilt, and the secret wish that we could magically have it all - our sense of identity, home, family, and everything that a developed country has to offer. Adichie sharply brings out the identity crisis of returned emigrants - when the "neither here nor there" phenomenon and the hangover hits. 

At this point, Adichie rushes through the story to bring closure to Ifemulu and Obinze's strained and complicated relationship, when there was so much to explore. The ending seemed asynchronous to the unbridled honesty and realism of the rest of the book.

Despite all my strong opinions, I have to say this book triggers a wealth of intelligent discussion and thought. There's so much more to write about and so much more to analyze about Ifemulu and racism. Given that I read this book last July, this post is a testament to how engaging and memorable it is. The writing is crisp and spiked with Ifemulu's colorful  thoughts and experiences. Everything about it is fearless, honest, and vibrant. Surely a book to read if you are interested in the topics it examines.


Suvasini said...

After reading your review, I couldn't resist the book. :)

Just finished it and must say it was a lovely read. Thank you for that.

It does bring out a host of interesting subjects and so many characters one identifies with. Unlike you however, I did not come to dislike the protagonist. She is judgmental and there are elements in her character which i find shallow but it did not make me dislike her. In fact, I like the growth in her character from the blogger in states who would say what people needed to hear to the editor in Nigeria who walked out of the job because she did not like it. There is a strong element of ego there which I find difficult to understand completely but I was fascinated by her till the very end.

As for your irritation with extreme sensitivity to race, I think, some of it stems from our outside perspective of the african americans. Despite the outsider status, I think I have been almost always been recognized and treated as an Indian which does not elicit the same reactions of fear, mistrust, poverty or crime in most people. Based on cases one hears of racial profiling, I think we would have been more judgmental and sensitive if we had been subjected to it form childhood.
From my personal experience I can say that I am more skeptical of men leering or staring even today - just because that is what we were constantly on guard against back home.

On the whole, I loved the book and its honest opinions on immigration and how it changes people especially since it is something i identify with.

Thank you for the recommendation!

Neeraja said...

Suvasini, so glad you liked the book! Thanks for coming back to discuss!:)

Good that Ifemelu didn't negatively affect you. She definitely influenced my reading experience. I actually thought she didn't change/grow at all :). She remained brash and selfish all through - especially in the end. I wasn't surprised that she left the job in Nigeria - I was actually surprised that she put up with it for as long as she did, because from day 1, she made it clear (to the reader at least) that it wasn't for her. But good that she held your fascination! You probably saw more nuances in her than I did.

You bring up a very good point. And I wanted to talk about it in my post, but it was too long already. I definitely agree with almost everything in the book - especially how the West (and the East) subtly imposes this "rule" that there is one "superior" way of being and "looking", right from how your hair is styled to how your facial features look to the accent that colors your speech. But if Ifemelu's story and experiences were similar to those that face racial profiling and discrimination every single day or have faced a lot in the past, I would have more than readily understood her sensitivity. However, she represents someone different - she is part of the "elite and educated" African community. She has (for the overwhelming part) faced a lot of positive experiences, even positive stereotyping for being a well-educated Nigerian. She has never faced racism the way African Americans have - and she mentions that. So why should she dissect everyone so harshly? If her aunt, nephew or Obinze had those reactions, I would perfectly understand, for their experiences have been harrowing and their sensitivity is "justified" (for lack of a better word). In many places she is speaking on behalf of all the victims of her close fraternity, and I understand that. Still, in her own personal experiences, she was so hard to please and quick to relate everything to race. Regardless of our ethnicity/race, I think all of us can fall trap to this. I know several Indians who strongly feel like every bad customer service experience is because of their accent or skin color and nothing more, and that kind of thinking constantly undermines their confidence, and amplifies their need to over-compensate and aggressively defend who they are. I think it's a vicious cycle and leads to nothing positive or constructive in the end. The commendable thing about this country is despite all the subtle ways in which racism still persists, there are more than enough measures and scaffolds to help people get over and beyond it. Ifemulu's story is one such a positive example, but that positivity doesn't come through as much :)

Thanks again for bringing up these points!