A Book I Won't Be the Same After: Americanah

This book has been like that for me. It has sort of turned everything topsy-turvy. I'm speaking for myself and for many white people who have no idea of what being black in America is like, even though we may think we do.
03/28/2016 01:26 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

I know, I know. You're not supposed to close a sentence with a preposition, as in "After". However, after reading Americanah (Random House, 2014) by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the grammatical "rule" seems like one more affectation that can get in the way of authenticity.

This book has been like that for me. It has sort of turned everything topsy-turvy. I'm speaking for myself and for many white people who have no idea of what being black in America is like, even though we may think we do. And having said that, it can feel like this is an ode to the awareness that gets so deepened precisely when it comes to race. And I say this because the book is so much bigger than any one topic.

I've been a fan of what I call "talking out loud", not only to hash things out and to come to new thoughts and feelings, but also to help us get in touch with the contradictions within. Part of the talking has to include listening, so that perhaps we have a chance to open and even change our minds. It there is nothing new coming towards us or from within us, we have little impetus to be curious. And if we know nobody who can alert us to things that are surprises for us, we can stay very closed, or locked in battles that become repetitive.

I have the age of a very senior citizen, and yet the beauty of this book startled me, in the richness of the characters, of the plot twists, and of the dialogue. The blogging done by the book's protagonist, Ifemelu, is about race (but not only), written from Nigeria but first from America where Ifemelu writes with a glare about some of the glaring but habitual prejudices and presumptions of people who think themselves above prejudice. That to be and live in Nigeria is not to consider oneself as black, and certainly not to consider blackness, as difference is startling. And it is startling, because as the prominent white anti-racist Tim Wise has stated over and again, we as white people are often--too often--oblivious to racism, something inherent in our denial and avoidance.

The amazing aura and environment of Americanah comes through living thoroughly with its characters and benefitting from their observations, at times as strangers in a strange land, and at others as looking at some of the strange aspects of life in their midst. Ifemelu, early on in America, observes the ritual of tipping in restaurants, something that is anathema in many parts of the world. Written of her are the following words: "It was funny to her, only in retrospect. She had struggled to hide her bafflement at the boundaries of hospitality, and also at this business of tipping--paying an extra fifteen or twenty percent of your bill to the waitress--which was suspiciously like bribing, a forced and efficient bribing system." (p. 158)

That was only one of the many punches in the stomach I received while reading, and I say this because the language and the authenticity make the experience of the book also visceral, while at the same time not nagging. All the characters see flaws in themselves, or at least we are helped to see the contradictory aspects, the snobbery even of those who seem above judgment.

I picked up the book because it looked good; seeing a Nigerian experience of America seemed interesting. And I had read Half a Yellow Sun (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) by the same author. That too was lyrical and sensual and romantic and provocative and informing, but it didn't prepare me for the jolt I had while immersed in so many pages of Americanah. The book deals with the immigration experience of Obinze, the male protagonist, in exquisitely painful and painfully elaborated ways, and again makes the reader care, identify, and not want to ever again think of all immigrants anywhere in the same way.

This is a book I just finished, and which I miss. But it's not like missing the series "Downton Abbey" whose characters I was semi-addicted to and very attached. In Americanah, I feel I came to know these people, but most the author, though this may be my own invention. The longing is not only for the book to not end, but also for the chance to continue to know the author and her insights, and observations.

I did speak to a few people about the book, and they nodded, with a "Yeah, it was really good. It was a really good read". This is, I guess, where I draw the line, perhaps because my sensitivity makes the book so relevant to everything, that my alertness is on fire. It makes me long also for people who think and observe, not only the insanity--let's just say--of our political atmosphere at the moment--but at the process of observation and discourse in general.

We believe without observing, and we insist we are into individualism when most of us are burdened by a censorship internalized from our peers, from our religious authorities, by social media and more. It is hard to observe critically that which we are habituated to, and harder to get there if we invite no criticism for fear of a crippling shame or humiliation.

It may seem silly to put all this importance into one book, perhaps because it isn't the Bible Shakespeare. But I dare say who cares? Americanah has the plot lines and the audacity to talk and think out loud--all within the context of skilled and gorgeous prose--which we need as we need oxygen.

A worldwide book club option? One for Oprah who no doubt loves the book already? Hmm. Let me just say that although I am not a book critic, this book is a gem, something lasting, very much so for me.