Monday, 24 November 2014

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Again, a book that I would probably never have read were it not for my book club:  Americanah, a present-day story about growing up without prospects, about how enchanting certain parts of the world may seem, of how race is indeed an issue among us whether we like it or not, and finally, about how blogging may keep people sane (yes...)

I was hesitant to start this book because of the horror stories I've read over time about people forced to seek (political) refuge in new, strange countries and the sacrifices and ordeals they go through for a better life.  

This book, however,  steers clear from the fleeing-immigrant-against-the-world stereotype, and sheds light into an emerging type of migration:  the "expats".  The type of people who 
"were raised well, fed and watered ... (but) were now resolved to do dangerous things illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty".

We are introduced to present-day Nigeria of Ifemelu and Obinze.  It is already several years since Ifemelu has been living in the US, going through all those pleasant phases of coming face to face with the host country, meeting the "indigenous" people, with lots of questions about her,  the "immigrant" and superficial demands.  While most may be good-natured, the ignorance she faces never ceases to amaze Ifem and, yes, the race issue is always-present, that white elephant in the room (Amazing, for me, was also the revelation of the different levels of comparison even within one ethnicity...).  She chooses to express her feelings through a blog (oh, how I understand that!), where she analyses issues that she's come across in her everyday life.

Ifem also touches upon a situation that is familiar to many people like myself:  because we are not fleeing, but rather choose to emigrate to a host country, we are not satisfied with bare necessities, a warm abode and a job to provide us with money.   While we appreciate the reception we receive we are "content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out" and we are searching for more.  Which has been easy for me, a Caucasian, "old Europe", Christian, middle-class woman.  But what about those who do not fit such a profile?

Such are the stories of both Ifem and Obinze, in the US and the UK respectively.  Both find themselves "leveled" - wherever they may have come from, whatever experience and background, they are now all the same.  It is thus that Ifem is faced with dubious jobs and Obinze with cleaning toilets.  Ifem is "saved" by her boyfriend who, making some phone calls, manages to find her a proper job that will also sponsor her green card, while Obinze almost gets married to a girl for similar papers - until he gets "removed", deported.

Obinze settles in his current reality in Nigeria and he becomes part of the new elite, while Ifem becomes disillusioned with the way she is expected to accommodate the dictates of the people around her, and she slowly starts her own revolution - from the way she wears her hair, to the accent with which she speaks.  She will eventually decide to return to Nigeria and that will mark an even greater cultural shock:  it is no longer the country she left.   She is herself an "Americanah",  and she will join the "Nigepolitan Club":
"a small cluster of people drinking champagne in paper cups, at the poolside of a home in Osborne Estate, chic people, all dripping with savoir faire, each nursing a self-style quirkiness...  Their voices burred with foreign accents:  You can't find a decent smoothie in this city! Oh my God, were you at that conference? what this country needs is an active civil society"

Yes, I know that feeling.  People like myself are between two worlds, and we do not belong to either of them.  In my mind, this is a good thing:  we retain our critical talent to see the reality for what it is:  the instructions of a few that apply to the masses.  In the case of Ifem and Obinze, however, this will simply not do.  They want put their own personal stamp in their lives and prefer to escape from the imposed instructions of society.

For the most part, Adichie manages to turn the tables and shed light to the "other" side of the coin and tell the story of how things are not always what they seem:  we should make the effort to expand our horizons and not try to "curb" differences for the sake of uniformity and status quo.  While it may make life easier, we are robbed of all the traits that makes each and every one of us unique...

(Below is Adichie's wonderful speech at TED  about the danger of one-sided stories)

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