The book opens, and all of a sudden I felt a sense of ostracized belonging — I’m a biracial 25-year-old woman, so of course I can relate to Ifemelu's struggle with living on the outskirts of acceptance. Immediately, each scene is loaded with a deep meditation on race and power. Which country is better: Nigeria or America? Who is the more powerful sex: men or women? Which black people are better: African-Americans, Africans, or Non-African-American Blacks?
By page eight, Ifemelu is already breaking up with Blaine and trying to move back to Nigeria, and suddenly, I feel how she must in America — a deep hunger to understand what's going on beneath the surface. Adichie's astute observations of America come alive through the confidently curious Ifemelu, the Nigerian native who thinks Princeton smells like nothing, who politely performs an American persona ever so slightly to get by.
In her interview at the Tenement Museum, Adichie said she likes and admires the character, but that it's not supposed to be her. She said, "It was important to me that she challenge many ideas of what gender is supposed to be… You know, she's the person who's in a good relationship, but she cheats, and she cheats because she's curious." It’s comforting and about time we see a morally conflicted woman protagonist, but Adichie’s encountered some serious opposition to Ifemelu. Women have said things like, "She had a good man! Why wasn't she grateful!" To which the author says, "My thing is, I want a world where women are not grateful!"
Throughout the first few chapters, interspersed between the vignettes featuring (mainly) Ifemelu's mother and father, Aunty Uju, Obinze, Dike, and The Chief, we almost learn more about culture and the politics of race in America than the characters themselves. Watching Ifemelu analyze the meaning of phrases like "I’m not sure," instead of "I don’t know," I found a smidgen of my former self reawakening — the critical and angsty teen who objected to society’s labels and idioms. One of my favorite nuances crops up in the first few pages, where she writes, "Before, she would have said, 'I know,' that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge, and then she would have started a conversation with him, to see if he would say something she could use in her blog." In that succinct phrasing, she holds a mirror to our need for power — to prove we're in cahoots with whomever might be speaking, because we know. It's a behavior rooted in insecurity and results in a sort of involuntary code switching — presenting a version of yourself to assimilate with others.
At the hair shop in Trenton, Ifemelu plays the part of "bougie Nigerian," sitting stoically in the salon chair with her health bar, complaining about the broken AC, and occasionally pretending not to understand her fellow African women when they speak broken English to her. When we see Ifemelu performing her present self it’s hard to imagine her years before, and only a few chapters later, studying by candle light and disposing of her used feminine products by burning them. We now imagine her as a person who would “measure in ounces and square feet, order a ‘muffin’ without thinking that it really was a cake, and say ‘I scored a deal’ without feeling silly.”
In the interview, Adichie confronts her own personal code-switching habits, saying, “I'm speaking in the voice that my secondary school teacher [taught me], but I think it's that idea of performing yourself that interests me very much, and I wanted to try and explore that in Americanah.”
Speaking of code-switching, Adichie also talked about how the performance of the blog was incredibly freeing for both her and Ifemelu. She was able “to say what needed to be said, to say what [I] thought was important, but to say what [I also think] is absurd, because there’s so much about race in America that’s just really ridiculous. You know, the way that we're supposed to pretend you're ‘color-blind.’”
Adichie calls race in America “insidious.” She says, “You know, you can’t just pretend a problem away,” a sentiment that's deeply felt throughout the book.
One very telling anecdote Adichie shared happened when she first came to America and went shopping. She said, “We're in a store, and there's a black woman and a white woman and they're both dressed in the same way. They both have long hair, and really, the major thing to tell them apart is that one is black and one is white, but then this woman who was asking about them kept saying everything else but race,” she breaks character to imitate the eager-to-be-politically-correct American sales attendant, saying, “Do you mean the one with the long haaaiiir? Um, you mean the one wearing black?' Then, she shifts back to being herself, comfortably laughing, saying, “And, I just remember thinking, "Uh, the white one!"
For me, I’m not quite white and not exactly black. People are always so quick to quiz me, saying, “But, what are you?” as if I must be something more exotic than the two combined. Although they mean to be sincere, I wish they would just straight-up ask me. Speaking of being “half-caste,” when Ifemelu is in shock that Obinze, a new wealthy popular kid would fall for her instead of her biracial friend, we learn that Obinze’s lust goes beyond looks. When he said, “You looked like the kind of person who will do something because you want to, and not because everyone else is doing it,” my heart exploded for this idealized, immediate love. It felt so right and so misleading all at once. Yes, it's possible, but I felt like Ifemelu: frightened by the sudden and “yet so complete” intimacy.
For someone whose actions seem so deliberate and affected at first, Ifemelu may be oblivious to the power she holds. In her relationships with Blaine and Obinze, she takes full advantage of being unhappy, sometimes at the expense of others. Though most people would put effort into making a relationship work, in a way, Ifemelu exemplifies the partner you want to be, but not be with — a person whose heart just wants what it wants, at all costs.
For instance, after the creepy Craigslist encounter when Ifemelu's strapped for cash and fatigued by college life, she just turns off communication with Obinze. I couldn't believe how easily she stacked the books over his letters to keep him out of sight and out of mind. I wonder how she'll mature as the book goes along — I'm thirsty to find out what becomes of her and Obinze, in the end.
From Aunty Uju to Ifemelu’s parents, from Brooklyn to Philly, from the summer with Dike to the Craigslist situation, there’s plenty more to discuss, so let’s talk!
Things I felt strongly about that I couldn’t fit into this post, but want to discuss:
* On page 166, when Obinze sends her the first email she'll get in America, he suggests she read one of my personal favorites — The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, which includes two intense essays on race and faith. (Read it, if you get a chance!)
* Obinze’s mom telling Ifemelu to tell her when they had sex — whoa! Would that ever happen in America?
* What about Aunty Uju and the sudden and mysterious death of The General? I wonder, will we ever see her as happy as she was leading that closeted life? Now that she’s with Bartholomew and Dike in Massachusetts, it’s like she’s merely existing, and it's sad to see someone making a living to live, as we saw her so comfortably complacent in Nigeria just chapters before. I wonder if she'll go back soon, too.
* I’m sure some people have been at the point that Ifemelu was at when she decided to go back to the tennis instructors’ house, but after the whole experience, I can’t imagine NOT wanting to talk to the one person that grounded her happiness at home. After all, Obinze's mother instilled in her to make sure they have a plan. What do you think their plan would be?
* Also, I feel VE-RY weird about Kimberly and Laura, like something tragic will happen with their family soon and all of the blame will fall on Ifemelu. I’m scared for her — all of Laura's words seem testy and skeptical and Kimberly is so overly “kind,” and everything is just a little too Nanny Diaries for me to think this part of the story will have a happy ending.
So, now what? Fill up the comments with your thoughts on the first 11 chapters, with your predictions for the future, with your worries and your kind words of encouragement for/about the characters we’ve met so far. And, don’t forget to come back next week when we discuss chapters 12-24!