I’m going to do something I try very hard to never do, and I think it’s best if we just get the comparison out of the way so that we can move on. I have a friend who looks exactly–I mean exactly–like Maya Rudolph, which means that roughly four times a day someone she’s just met gets the same vague, dreamy look on their face, leans in like they have a secret, and tells her, “Did you know who you look like? Maya Rudolph.” And she’s found various coping methods for dealing with it, depending on the day and the person and how much she feels like saying “Oh, wow, thanks,” at the time. But it’s pretty much something she’s resigned herself to at this point, and now she looks for ways to get it over with as quickly as possible.
(Before we finish this aside, a word on comparing people you have recently met to celebrities: You Do You and “but it’s a compliment!” and all that, most for sure real definitely, but stop and think for a second that maybe if this thought occurred to you within ten seconds of seeing this person, the same thought has also perhaps crossed their mind? And even been brought to their attention once or twice?)
So: Americanah reminds me of Pride & Prejudice and Ifemelu reminds me of Elizabeth Bennett. There. It’s done, and I can’t take it back, and I feel better now. I’m sorry, I’m sorry; no one should ever have to be compared to Jane Austen, it is one of the laziest comparisons a person can make about a female author (probably), BUT IT’S TRUE. No one out there is writing dinner-party scenes like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is writing dinner-party scenes.
Blogs were new, unfamiliar to her. But telling Wambui what happened was not satisfying enough; she longed for other listeners, and she longed to hear the stories of others. How many other people chose silence? How many other people had become black in America? How many had felt as though their world was wrapped in gauze? She broke up with Curt a few weeks after that, and she signed on to WordPress, and her blog was born. She would later change the name, but at first she called it Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America. Her first post was a better-punctuated version of the e-mail she had sent to Wambui. She referred to Curt as “The Hot White Ex.” A few hours later, she checked her blog stats. Nine people had read it. Panicked, she took down the post. The next day, she put it up again, modified and edited, ending with words she still so easily remembered. She recited those words now, at the dinner table of the French and American couple, while the Haitian poet stared, arms folded.
“The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.”
“Oh! What a wonderful story!” the French host said, her palm placed dramatically on her chest, looking around the table, as though to seek a response. But everyone else remained silent, their eyes averted and unsure.
MMMF. So, yes, the comparison is apt! This is a book with one Elizabeth and a thousand Charlottes. Ifemelu is that rare female protagonist, the woman who observes the world as coolly as it observes her (Side note: how much would you read Raceteenth? I would read it so damn hard). And there’s so much for her to observe: her parents’ marriage, her own relationships, the way immigrants from Nigeria and Haiti and Trinidad and Kenya all become Black in America, social status and social climbing in Lagos, academia, interracial relationships, the political implications of her hairstyle, and depression and suicide, to name just a few. She is faintly amused most of the time, even when she realizes she should be angry, but she’s also capable of tremendous sensitivity and deep longing. More than anything else, she is constantly surprised by the fact that other people feel and see things differently than she does.
Ifemelu goes to college in Nsukka with her high school sweetheart Obinze (OH, WE’LL GET TO OBINZE IN A MINUTE), where she surprises him (and herself) at almost every turn as she starts to grow into herself.
Ifemelu imagined kissing [Odein], in a way that she imagined doing something she knew she never would[…]
“What is going on with this Odein?” Obinze asked her.
“Kayode said he took you home after Osahon’s party. You didn’t tell me.”
“I told you he picked me up the other day, didn’t I?”
“Ifem, what is going on?”
She sighed. “Ceiling, it’s nothing. I’m just curious about him. Nothing is ever going to happen. But I am curious. You get curious about other girls, don’t you?”
He was looking at her, his eyes fearful. “No,” he said coldly. “I don’t.”
“I am being honest. The problem is you think everyone is like you. You think you’re the norm but you’re not.”
Obinze. Obinze. Obinze is the Mr. Darcy for a new generation, a Mr. Darcy with a rich inner life and who has experienced more suffering than “my sister almost had a boyfriend once.” Oh God, does he love Ifemelu. He loves her for her honesty, for the way she sees the world, for her body, for her rich spirit, and it puts me on the damn floor. He’s benefited enormously from social climbing but never feels comfortable among the strivers and boot-lickers in his immediate circle. More than anything, he loves Ifemelu exactly as she is.
Imagine that the first person you ever loved, the first person who ever peeled your shirt off in your childhood bedroom, the first person whose mother you ever met, was also the person who loved and knew you best. That’s Obinze and Ifemelu. It’s shattering, and it’s brilliant, and it’s painful, the way they love each other.
Bim Adewunmi, who runs the delightful blog Yoruba Girl Dancing, sums it up beautifully:
It is a beast of a book: by turns achingly subtle and then sledgehammer obtuse, funny and warm and witty and devastating in small and large ways. I loved it, utterly and completely[…]
[B]eyond the joy of literature for literature’s sake, I connected with Americanah as I have rarely done with any other book. Contemporary black women – and men, come to think of it – are not often the beating heart and soul of a critical darling. In Americanah, we are looking at the rich interior life of Ifemelu – and boy, is it rich – and the man she once loved, Obinze. Their stories are laid bare: the things they did together or apart, that they did quietly, privately and loudly. We are shown the essence of their characters – the pride, the honesty, the pain, the joy and so on – and we are not given any special instructions on how to do so. Here are two people, Chimamanda tells us, and these are their stories. It’s exactly what every other white author tells us in a good book, so you may ask why I think it is so noteworthy here. Well, Ifemelu and Obinze are black and overwhelmingly, obviously Nigerian, and so it makes all the difference in the world.
God, there’s so much we didn’t get to. Her Princeton boyfriend Blaine (say it with me: “Blaine? Blaine? That’s not a name, that’s a major appliance!”), Aunty Uju’s slow decline in America, Dike (DIKE!), the strikes, Obinze’s family, Ifemelu’s friendships with women in America and Nigeria…but that’s what the comment section is for. As always, you are welcome to share your fan art there.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.