Judgy. Preachy. Self Righteous. Borderline. But readable.
I’m not a big fan of isms or anti isms. It makes people big bores. Like when I open Twitter at 6 am and I see a flood of 1/n feminist tweets going on and on about patriarchy- misogyny -blah. Or a conversation about communalism vs ‘sickularism’ with 234 replies that has been going on since 9 pm the previous night. Not denying that these are serious isms that need to be addressed, but as I said, it just makes people big bores. I digress. This is about Americanah and the ism that made this book a small bore: Racism.
It starts off on a interesting note. Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after fifteen long years in the USA. The story unfolds as she sits in a hair salon, getting her hair braided, a six hour long process where she is forced to make conversation with the girl doing her hair. An immigrant from Senegal, the hair girl wants to marry any one of her boyfriends, both Igbos who refuse to marry her since she’s not an Igbo. (It is not just the Indian immigrants who stick to culture-caste-clan rules) Hair plays a very important role in the book. It is a symbol of individuality, conformity, rebellion, acceptance, submissiveness. Hair was what started off her Race blog, the one with a long name : ‘ Observations of an African Black on racism and African American blacks formerly known as negroes’ . Or something like that. That’s where the book got boring. She judges Americans, judges them for everything right from not scrubbing while showering to eating bread for lunch. It always angers me when racism and stereotyping is Racism and Stereotyping only when done to Them. It is perfectly fine when it is the other way round. ( Again, not denying the seriousness of anything, it all exists, but still. And Them here can mean anyone who suffers any -ism. Ok. I’m not making sense )
Having read and watched a lot about Indian immigrants in the US; most of them ,barring the heavy Jumpa Lahri, being self deprecating comedies , this book gave a different and interesting perspective of immigrant life through the eyes of an African who enters the land of Whites, Hispanics, Asians and African Americans and suddenly discovers her blackness. A unique kind of identity crisis that she isn’t able to come to terms with till the very end. She develops and undevelops her American accent, relaxes and unrelaxes her hair. She gets into a serious relationship with a pale white man and later, with a serious intellectual African American. But there is something always missing in her life: Her life.
And on the other side, her America crazy boyfriend who is denied an American visa and lives through a more tangible kind of torturous life in London, cleaning toilets, working illegally and watching his friends slip into fake English lives until he gets deported minutes before his sham marriage takes place. He returns to Nigeria, gets rich and hires a white man as his general manager. But that’s not some kind of sweet victory. The white man is hired just to add ‘value’ to his business. Vicious circle.
Back to Nigeria, as an Americanah, Ifemelu again does a whole lot of judging the New Nigeria. Their wannabeness, their shift from fresh potatoes to frozen ones, their shallowness, their corruption, their morality. Two minutes towards the end of the book , when you’re waiting to know if they Did or Didn’t, there is a painfully long conversation between freshly introduced characters just to plug in thoughts about the current economic trends.
I would have liked more about Dike, the African Born America Bred Confused Black American Teenager. His story wasn’t given closure. Similarly, Ifemelu’s relationship with her white employers started off on a promising note , there was scope to explore a different kind of friendship. But Kimberly and her family disappeared abruptly, again, no closure. Blaine, his sister and his friends were plain boring.
Another thing that stood out for me was the casual attitude towards infidelity. Now I’m not judging here, but there was something not quite right in the way she took it for granted about how she could pick up from where she left off with her now married ex. Or when she cheats on Curt with no solid ‘excuse’ or ‘reason’. Yes, it was the fictional character doing it, but her lack of guilt and the confidence was mildly disturbing. And the trend of being an unapologetic mistress for material gains, right from Aunty Uju and The General to Rainyundo and the Banker or Obinze’s offer to Ifemelu . Again, if it is a reflection of reality, it is disturbing.
If I could give this book stars in parts, the first half would get four stars. And the second half , with the series of long conversations and blog posts, essays on racism masquerading as fiction, gets two stars.
Still a fan of Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche, but Purple Hibiscus will remain my favourite book.