LAST BOOK I LOVED: Americanah

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I knew I would love Americanah. I just didn’t know how much.

Granted, it’s a love that draws a lot of its sustenance from the fact that I’m a member of all the vested interest groups: blacks, Nigerians, women.

It is nice to be catered to sometimes.

Americanah spans three continents and more than twenty years. It’s a love story, although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most razor-sharp, damning writing happens when the lovers—Ifemelu and Obinze—are oceans apart, trying to forge new lives in the US and UK, respectively, under various degrees of duress. They struggle with acclimation, isolation, the vague, undefined feelings of guilt that immigrants coming from developing countries tend to struggle with once they arrive in the West.

Adichie has a fastidious eye and her observations about race are particularly astute. But what I love most about the book is how accommodating it is to me. I read it and I am the main audience, the VIP member. And it feels nice.

One consequence of being a hyphenated American (when the prefix refers to a specific country and not to a more general region of the world) is that you constantly feel like there are parts of yourself you’re unintentionally withholding. Some days I feel super black, extra Negroid. I spray conversations with “ratchets” and “struggles” and “side eyes,” I’ll do the furtive Negro nod in the office, I’ll favorite Black tweets on Black Twitter. Then there are other days, after a relative’s wedding, perhaps, when the intensity and reality of my Nigerianness hits. I am American, but not. My parents do not have American accents. I call my mother, “Mum.” When I am in my parents’ house, I eat rice and stew with fried plantain. We make meat pies. Until we discovered Rebtel, calls to Nigeria were screaming matches, as we fought to be heard over the static. Very rarely could I feel completely African-American and completely Nigerian American. One or the other would have to retreat.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Until Americanah.

Adichie’s achievement is in capturing both the angst of the Nigerian expat and the joy and privilege in it; the banality of upper middle class life in both the States and in Nigeria (and briefly in the UK, too). So many of the details, from the way Adichie describes the awkward class tensions of black American hair salons to the predilection Nigerians have for turning prepositions into verbs (“Off the light, on the light”) were like affirming manna to me. “Yes,” I would say, so many times to no one in particular, “that’s absolutely right!” Black hair—the bane, the struggle, the triumph—is center stage in Americanah. The Internet, where we release all the pent-up anger from slow-boiling micro-aggressions, is in Americanah. The draining cycle of nepotism and bureaucracy that makes Nigerian success possible—it’s all there, expertly rendered.

Americanah is the book I want to give the hippie white girl who stops to tell me how beautiful I am at a concert. It’s the book I want to give the black American cashier at Corner Bakery who thinks my name is spelled with an “N.”

There’s a certain level of embarrassment I have for even admitting that the reason why I love this book is because it is so flagrantly written to me. But there is something to be said about acknowledgment. And about catering, which is different from pandering.

It’s not a small thing.


Tomi Obaro is an assistant editor at Chicago magazine. More from this author →