I don’t say this kind of thing often (or probably at all), but Americanah may be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of book that makes me look backward and wish I’d read it sooner, that I’d read it at a younger age, that it’d been one of my formative reads.
It is a book that’s easy to feel deeply, passionately for; it is a book that inspires fervor, in a way that’s both numinous and entirely down-to-earth. It’s a book to quote, a book to share, a book to luxuriate in. It’s a warm book, an incisive book, critical and loving all at once.
I’ll start off oddly: by talking, in passing, of Swamplandia! It and Americanah have nothing to do with each other, of course: not in subject matter, not in themes, not in origins. But both happen to be literary novels with massive mainstream success, both describe mundane slice-of-life, both contain a girl’s coming of age.
But, despite my appreciation of Russell’s style, I’d always found Swamplandia! bloated, even stale on its reliance on gendered plot arcs (the girl gets raped; the boy gets to ‘make it’). In a way I find that the Russell demonstrates the limit of the hegemonic imagination while Americanah shows that there is no limit to the subaltern one. A story about a white family feverishly wishing they were something else, stuck in their fantasy of jungle fever, can only be and do so much – and what it is or does doesn’t go very far. Americanah is actually fairly simple in that it is a love story, punctuated by misunderstandings and years-long separation, but it’s also of course much more than that.
“She’s been grumpy today,” Laura said, coming back into the kitchen, Athena’s crying quelled. “I took her to her follow-up from the ear infection and she’s been an absolute bear all day. Oh and I met the most charming Nigerian man today. We get there and it turns out a new doctor has just joined the practice and he’s Nigerian and he came by and said hello to us. He reminded me of you, Ifemelu. I read on the Internet that Nigerians are the most educated immigrant group in this country. Of course, it says nothing about the millions who live on less than a dollar a day back in your country, but when I met the doctor I thought of that article and of you and other privileged Africans who are here in this country.” Laura paused and Ifemelu, as she often did, felt that Laura had more to say but was holding back. It felt strange, to be called privileged. Privileged was people like Kayode DaSilva, whose passport sagged with the weight of visa stamps, who went to London for summer and to Ikoyi Club to swim, who could casually get up and say “We’re going to Frenchies for ice cream.”
“I’ve never been called privileged in my life!” Ifemelu said. “It feels good.”
I recall hearing that, among the critical reaction to Americanah, Adichie was often accused of being inauthentic – that she would tell a story about middle-class, university-educated Nigerians rather than what westerners think of as ‘authentic Nigeria’ (deprived, impoverished, starving). Which is an inherently comedic accusation, one even the text itself preemptively confronts: the speaker here, Laura, is a white American woman – quite well-off, naturally – lecturing Ifemelu, a Nigerian, on how very privileged the latter is. The crux is, how dare Ifemelu be comfortable? How dare she have educated parents? How dare she not serve as inspiration porn or poverty porn? How dare she interact with a white American woman as though she’s an equal?
How dare Ifemelu (and by extension Adichie) exist.
Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Do WASPs Aspire To?
Professor Hunk has a visiting professor colleague, a Jewish guy with a thick accent from the kind of European country where most people drink a glass of antisemitism at breakfast. So Professor Hunk was talking about civil rights and Jewish guy says, “The blacks have not suffered like the Jews.” Professor Hunk replies, “Come on, is this the oppression olympics?”
Jewish guy did not know this, but “oppression olympics” is what smart liberal Americans say, to make you feel stupid and to make you shut up. But there IS an oppression olympics going on. American racial minorities—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews—all get shit from white folks, different kinds of shit, but shit still. Each secretly believes that it gets the worst shit. So, no, there is no United League of the Oppressed. However, all the others think they’re better than blacks because, well, they’re not black.
It’s tremendously delightful, the book, and Ifemelu herself is a fantastic, smart, witty narrator to spend time with. But it’s also infuriating, isn’t it, that even when the very text preempts the ‘you privileged Nigerian!’ in so many words (in bold text), real-life critics still do it. Imagine being someone as intelligent as Adichie having to suffer Dunning-Kruger-afflicted critics complaining her book’s just not authentic. There is simply a vast gulf between their intellectual power and hers. I’ve seen one white man complain this book is ‘mean-spirited’, to which: really? In fact, let’s ratchet up the mean: fucking really?
(Criticisms – the more academic version of fandom ‘privilege call-out’ race to the bottom – of Adichie being too privileged and too ‘aspiring to do white people things’ abound on the Internet.)
She was being absurd, but knowing that did not make her any less so. Pictures she had seen of his ex-girlfriends goaded her, the slender Japanese with straight hair dyed red, the olive-skinned Venezuelan with corkscrew hair that fell to her shoulders, the white girl with waves and waves of russet hair. And now this woman, whose looks she did not care for, but who had long straight hair. She shut the laptop. She felt small and ugly.
It’s a book by a Nigerian woman, writing about a Nigerian woman. Ifemelu deals with her hair and deals with dating a white man, then dating a black American one, and finally deals with going home. There is nothing more authentic than this. Americanah is authentic by definition, because of who it is by and what it is about. (Of course, we all know that when white critics cry for authenticity, sordid – and deeply ignorant – outsider narratives written by white authors is really what they want.)
I mean, even if you’ve never watched Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, the point of all this should still be evident and in an ideal world nobody would have the entitlement to complain of inauthenticity (and if they do, they ought to be self-evidently beneath contempt). That’s what makes this book really so important, a required reading, for – well, everyone ever, but white westerners in particular. Though even then? This book isn’t about them: the last section brings the narrator back to Nigeria itself, where America becomes less real and more peripheral, relevant to Ifemelu’s experiences and views but not what all this is about (whatever the title – actually, the title is not about America, either).
And I think that’s the most crucial part, that in the end the text is about two Nigerians in love, about how they navigate Nigeria. Not about America, at all. Don’t take it personally, babe, but it just ain’t your story.
(Read Aisha’s take on this too.)