Americanah: A Cultural Lens
Updated: Jul 9
“Why did people ask, “what is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
-Chimamanda Adiche, Americanah
I am changed.
I pick up my pen and begin to jot down the list of titles that flutter through my mind. What, I ask myself, can I choose that has not been done before? I thirst for new perspective. When selecting text sets for my class, I not only select titles for my students but for myself as well. What can we discover together that will challenge us? What can we discuss, debate, question, and grow from?
Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah has been on my shelf for over a year. I remember when I bought it and I distinctly remember thinking that this Nigerian author was fresh and honest. Yes, this book will make my list.
It is easy to succumb to temptations to reduce a book to one idea; I have seen it done many times before. Students, I find, are actually professional reducers. They want to know the right answer (because of course only one correct answer exists), and they want to write in tweets or captions, and speak in acronyms (I’m sorry but I don’t find HBD an acceptable acknowledgement of one’s birthday). Nevertheless, when presented with the properly curated list of books, my students can and will dive deeply into the heart of what matters. Americanah provides the perfect platform through which we can look critically at contemporary America.
Adiche fearlessly addresses the view of America from the perspective of a non-American. She is unapologetic in her prose and does not shy away from the “sensitive” topics: beauty, race, feminism, immigration, language, love, inequality, to name a few.
On the surface, it is a discovery of the American construction of race. Ifemelu is a woman from Nigeria living in America. She keeps a blog, which has become popular because of its blunt commentary about what it means to be black in America. Ifemelu’s honesty slices at the core of the American construction of race because, as she points out, she did not become black until she came to America.
Though Ifemelu feels empowered through her blog, it is not at the heart of the book. Struggle and perseverance prevail as Ifemelu critiques herself, her relationships, and her work. She questions societal barriers like interracial relationships, patriarchal cultures, sex out of wedlock, and she challenges these norms with fierce grit. Because she tries so intently in the beginning to be as American as she possibly can, she finds that she does not actually want to surrender herself, who she is, as currency towards “belonging.” This lesson, however, comes at a great sacrifice.
In its soul Americanah is a love story, a complicated love story, as relatable as any for anyone who has been in love. Humans are complex beings and our relationships are rarely simple, rarely one dimensional. Insecurities can derail us, intentions can be misunderstood, love can morph and one day look like something completely different from when it began. Adiche explores love as a facet of the human condition and proves that our complexities transcend ethnicity, race, or origin. Our human complexities unify us; reveal to us our same-ness in a world that focuses disproportionally on other-ness.
” I don’t want to explain, I want to observe,” she said…”That’s a real responsibility.”
As I said, I am changed. I believe I have just begun the process of appreciating the many layers. Adiche has provided an observation of the world and placed it in our hands. She compels us to drink it straight, undiluted; to feel the sting and then decide where we stand amongst it all. I appreciate this challenge. Americanah will no doubt be a shining star in my classroom this year.
Staying Beautifully Well,