R29 Book Club: "The Verve Was Gone. She Did Not Recognize Herself."

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Welcome to the second part of our chat about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, Americanah. In the first part of our book-club discussion, we reviewed the unsettling, yet informative layering of race and power laced throughout the first 11 chapters. Though these themes still linger, Adichie has tested each character’s willingness to change, from Ifemelu's wavering commitment to becoming American to Aunty Uju regaining her strength as an independent woman and mother. The people we've grown to know and love are now steadily drifting away from their former selves, and though change can be good, it's not always for the best.

As chapter 12 opens, Ifemelu is greeted by the familiar, yet thinned face of Ginika, her loyal Nigerian friend. Ginika’s westernized appearance makes Ifemelu feel insecure. She’s now an impressionable college student, unfamiliar with her surroundings as she tries to navigate this new world of American men, classrooms, and roommates.

The next few chapters were uncomfortable for me to read, as our once confident and carefree protagonist becomes a cowering foreigner. Even in her African oblivion, I respected the distance Ifemelu kept in her observations — not because they were offensive in the least, but because she seemed to stay loyal and rooted to her home. She wasn't always so easily swayed by the absence of common sense that American culture tends to breed, but her desperation to be on the inside of our societal jokes becomes increasingly more obvious.

Her roommate Elena’s racist micro-aggressions set my skin ablaze — who asks if someone doesn’t like dogs because it’s a “cultural thing?” A fool, that’s who. These girls — who deserve nothing, yet expect the world — are so insensitive. As the daughter of a hard-working single mother who worked four jobs to put me through private school, I understood her weariness of their lives lived eagerly and without worry. I understand why Ifemelu feels both jealousy and pity for the privileged attitude of wealthy Americans. She captures it perfectly when she described her thoughts on Curt: "There was an infantile quality to this that she found admirable and repulsive."

As the story continues, the observations of American behavior become scarily honest. Partying in America is essentially equated to drunken aimlessness. In Nigeria, parties involve dancing and laughter, while we Americans stew in sticky basements, chugging drinks, and turning to each other for reassurance that, indeed, this clinking of glasses is what fun looks like. Another thing of note is language — the way we say phrases like “I’m not sure,” instead of “I don’t know,” eliciting a vague haze of illusory knowledge. Would we ever dare let ourselves appear inferior? I'm starting to really see how clearly we wear our insecurity. It’s painful to read, but critical in truly understanding who we are.

Ifemelu continues to worry, but with more intensity and frequency. And, when she worries, I worry. In Nigeria, she had other people to concern herself with, but in America, she's only taking care of herself. Instead of trying to find happiness in school, her relationships back home, or in newly formed friendships, the burden of joblessness and her overwhelming naiveté sends her on a desperate chase for understanding. This partially results in Obinze helping her find literature to further her cultural understanding, but, most importantly, she joins the African Students Association at school and finally finds camaraderie in fellow African and international students. As she takes a partial sigh of relief, so do I — she’s found a place where she doesn’t feel like she needs to explain herself.

Although Ifemelu’s unrelenting unknowing eases with each day and with each interaction, I say it was only a partial sigh of relief because with the promising sheen of new knowledge comes the shadows of her past. Ifemelu begins to forget about her life in Nigeria, “to be here, living abroad, not knowing when she could go home again, was to watch love become anxiety.”

Left without a job offer, not enough money in her bank account for rent, and with the looming shame of asking friends for help, Ifemelu reluctantly, but willingly, consents to a Craigslist encounter. Obviously, this was tough to read, but agreeing with every decision the author makes isn’t what makes a good character. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the once powerful and present Ifemelu. It felt as though she was a skeleton of what I once knew, and I had to discard everything I once thought of her. In the days following the encounter, when she slips into a crippling depression, I found myself begging the novel to provide a solution. I even threatened to put it down. Then, finally, Ginika, Kimberly, Don, Laura, Taylor, Morgan and Curt arrive.

Almost immediately after the Craigslist encounter with the tennis coach (although time seems amorphous in this book), Ifemelu and Obinze stop talking. Ifemelu buries their love like an ancient relic, and — just like their relationship — her memories of life in Nigeria also fade. When her mother tells her they've been without electricity for two weeks, she finds it hard to relate as she's begun to take for granted these American luxuries. Ifemelu starts to sugar coat her stories and cut calls short — her father finally found a job too, so she could rest a bit easier now.

As we see Ifemelu become an integral part of this family's life, we start to see her regain pieces of her self. I liked seeing Ifemelu assert her intelligence over Laura, a woman who clearly is afraid to be challenged. It felt good to see her purposefully make this woman feel ignorant. But, this only feels like a small victory in comparison to how she downplays the importance of her cultural background to Kimberly. In order to keep Kimberly's barrage of meaningless apologies at bay, Ifemelu ignores the cultural assumptions Kimberly, Laura, and Don assert over her, which is weird. Obinze wouldn't have dated a girl so quick to conform. After being paraded around a dinner party like some sort of foreign art piece, we see Ifemelu's paradox come to a head: “Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received…to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.”

Though Ifemelu wishes to blend in, we see her poking holes in the falsely luxurious hope of sounding, looking, and becoming perfectly American. She's offended when a telemarketer congratulates her on sounding ‘totally American,’ and she feels ashamed after relaxing her hair and burning her scalp to a crisp only to have her loving, white, wealthy boyfriend Curt say, “It’s so fucking wrong that you have to do this.” I relaxed my hair for 9 years and it's awful — it burns and I realized I was trying to assimilate to a standard I no longer agree with.

As Ifemelu regains pieces of herself, Aunty Uju's strength also unfurls, and the promising news of her father's job gives Ifemelu the courage to finally email Obinze, to wear her natural hair, and to speak in her native accent once again. Morgan warms up to Ifemelu now that she was finally dating her favorite cousin. And, Aunty Uju finds inspiration in Curt and Ifemelu's relationship and decides to to seek the happy life she knew she should be leading — and with that, she up and leaves the brackish, yellow-teethed Bartholomew.

Like last week, there are definitely some things we've yet to cover — there’s the adorable story of meeting Blaine on a train or the whole Curt being a cheater thing. But, I'm honestly just waiting for Obinze to come back. I'm sure he will come, but I can't bear to see Ifemelu locked in the false, easy life that Curt provides. She knows this isn't her world, but she can't help but be enamored by it. That's what kills me, her willingness to forget her heritage for living in the moment with a man she has nothing in common with.

Stay tuned for next week's book-club discussion where we'll be wrapping up the last few chapters. As always, fill up the comments with your thoughts on chapters 12-22, with your predictions for the future, and any thoughts and questions you may have about what we've read so far.