GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 3
Book 3

58 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. Fair enough – yes, there were moments (especially with the blog) that did feel like essays or rants, rather than driving on the story. But I did like it more than you did. Not so much Ifemelu’s experience (although I thought it was interesting that no matter how privileged you are – relatively speaking – in your home country, once you move abroad you are in a very different pecking order), but her boyfriend Obinze’s experience in the UK. Yes, I think I remarked in my own review that it was in danger of slipping into a collection of anecdotes rather than a coherent whole and that the end felt too rushed.

    • I gave up not long after Obinze made it to the UK, so kinda missed that bit. I would actually have preferred it as a collection of essays, I think, although even then I would probably have found much of what she was complaining about trivial. It’s not that I think racism is trivial, obviously – just that a lot of what she was ascribing to colour, I was seeing as the quite normal desire of a host country for incomers to comform to cultural norms. But I don’t think it was helped by the fact that I slid into a huge reading slump post-Brexit – at another time, I may have appreciated it more.

  2. I have heard quite a bit about this book, but nothing that has tempted me to actually read it – needless to say your review has not changed my mind on the matter! I particularly object to her intention to return to her old boyfriend – he is now married with a child! So whatever sympathy I may have had for her challenging (or not so) life is quickly dispersed by the fact that she is clearly a selfish home-wrecker whose own needs are at the forefront of her mind. Perhaps if she adopted a nicer attitude, life would be kinder to her.

    • I wasn’t really tempted by it either till I saw her being interviewed, and she came off as a highly intelligent and articulate woman. But sadly, for me, that didn’t come over so much in the book. Haha! I know! What a strange hook for a story – almost guarantees that the reader will dislike the heroine right from the beginning… and I did! There’s a difference between accidentally meeting up with an old flame and passion reigniting despite one’s better self, and setting out to hunt down old boyfriends with a view to destroying their marriages!

  3. Thanks, as always, for your candid take on this one, FictionFan. I keep hearing about this one from people such as yourself whom I trust. I hear such differences of opinion, too, from absolute raving praise to the opposite end of the spectrum. That in itself I find interesting. Sorry to hear you didn’t care for this one.

    • I think sometimes it depends as much on when we read a book. I’m late coming to this and feel that to accuse her of being part of a current ‘trend’ of polemical novels is possibly unfair, because she may in fact have started this particular trend. And perhaps if I’d read it when it came out it would have felt fresh, and maybe some of her insights were more orginal too than I give her credit for, since perhaps she was one of the first to draw attention to things like the politics of black hair. But I fear reading it now, it felt kinda stale and whiny…

  4. I really, deeply disliked this book–I did persevere through it, but like you I felt that it was basically just political shouting without much regard for plot. Ifemelu was such a deeply unpleasant character that I couldn’t care that much for her struggles, which, as you say, are not portrayed as that much more remarkable than the fairly mild institutional sexism I encounter regularly in my own workplace, which gets on my wick but does not dictate my entire attitude towards life (or men!). I really can’t stand any story where adultery is noble, and that probably affected my attitude towards the book.

    I also found that, because she was so determined to read racism into every tiny action or nuanced behaviour of the white people she met, I became very anxious about interacting with friends and colleagues of colour in case I inadvertently stumbled into a faux pas. It’s good for me to view my own behaviour and attitudes with a critical eye and regularly reassess myself to make sure I’m *not* acting with prejudice, but at the point where I start avoiding conversations about anything substantial with colleagues (most of my colleagues are either non-white or non-British or both, which has never been a problem) because I’m so worried about offending them–I cannot view that as a positive step for anybody! The lunchtime conversations I have with my work friends are often about cultural/linguistic/religious/political differences, and I mostly just listen and contribute when they ask–and that has been a really interesting experience–so I am very willing and happy and interested in learning and amending my behaviour. I just don’t like being shouted at by a fictional adulterer, I guess!

    • (I just reread this comment and I sound kind of shouty myself, but I can’t edit it and I still agree with my actual points, so I’m leaving it there anyway).

    • Yes, I totally agree with you, especially about the hesitancy in speaking to colleagues and friends. I felt that the white people in the book could do no right in Ifemelu’s eyes – I kept wanting to ask her to explain exactly how she wanted to be treated. She didn’t like overt racism, of course – who would? But she also objected to liberal attempts to avoid racism. I guess she wanted people to be colour-blind – but actually I felt she was far more obsessed by colour than the vast majority of people she met – or of people in real life. When a minority constantly whinges about discrimination, even when it doesn’t exist, it becomes like the boy who cried wolf – when do you know when it’s something real? And yes, no more than the sexism I’ve encountered – mild stuff indeed – or the experiences I had as a Glaswegian living in London, which surely can’t be put down to race. It’s normal, I feel, for a host country to expect incomers to conform to cultural norms. One of her objections was that Americans don’t like people beating their children, which she sees as some kind of discrimination against her culture. Perhaps it is, but sometimes discrimination is OK, and I’m happy to discriminate against child-beating! I also don’t like female genital mutilation, honour killings or child sacrifice – if that makes me racist, so be it!

      And as for the whole adultery thing, that was such a mistake – how could anybody really empathise with a character who was deliberately setting out to wreck a marriage? Grrrr!

  5. I really appreciate your perspective on this. I thought about reading the book, but probably won’t. Good fiction is supposed to showcase a compelling story (like Jhumpa Lahiri does in Hell-Heaven–http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/24/hell-heaven). It’s sad when a compelling story gets weighed down by polemics.

    • Thanks for the link – I’ll read it this evening! Yes, it’s all a matter of balance – I do like when a book is making a point, but not when it’s as obvious and ranty as this. It should be something that arises naturally out of a great story. However, I’m in a tiny minority on this one…

  6. I really enjoyed this book, although the mix of essays / blog posts and fiction was a little odd if you read a lot of non-fic like we do. I enjoyed the different experiences of her and her boyfriend’s experiences in the US and the UK and the contrasts there, and I enjoyed learning about Nigerian history a little, too. I do like books about the immigrant experience and search them out, however, so that might have promoted the book in my eyes. But it takes all sorts, and what someone likes doesn’t suit everyone. I’m glad you feel able to write such honest reviews, too!

    • Most people seem to have loved it, and I’m always happy to accept that it’s me in those circumstances. I also feel it suffered by banging into my major post-Brexit reading slump – at another time I might have persevered further. I really gave up just as Obinze’s UK part of the story had begun. I must admit I’m rather tired of the immigrant experience now – I understand it, but I’d love for African and Asian writers to write more about Africa and Asia than their experiences of University in America. The bit of this book that I enjoyed most was the section before Ifemelu left Nigeria…

      • Ah, that’s interesting, I’ve read that kind of book all through my life, but I also like the odd one where people return home, too. I had a horrible post-Brexit slump but kind of having to read a couple of big bios to review in public has helped me out of that.

        • That’s the thing – it’s all so much about personal preference that reviews can only ever give a personal reaction rather than a definitive judgement. It’s odd how much we all seem to have been affected by the Brexit thing – I don’t remember any other big political event having so much impact on my ability to concentrate on other things.

  7. Oh no! I was going to start this one tonight… I had a queue jumper re-order my summer 20: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. I’m enjoying her writing though, so I won’t rush to finish it.

    I don’t mind when polemics jump into a work of fiction, but I lose patience if they take the place of the story or cripple it. If a writer wants to write on multiple levels, that’s fine by me, but I’ll only enjoy reading it if all levels are functional and well-crafted.

    • Oh, don’t let me put you off! Almost everybody seems to have loved this with only a tiny minority feeling like me about it. I felt the balance was wrong and got fed up with Ifemelu whining about things that felt kinda trivial, but I also think my attitude to it was coloured by the fact that Brexit induced a major reading slump. Otherwise I might have persevered a bit longer at least.

      I’ve been meaning to read White Teeth for years – I look forward to reading your review!

  8. Not one for me. Your review made me think of some of my generation’s feminists – they put everything bad in their lives down to misogyny, when in fact they were quite often deeply unpleasant, incompetent, bigoted (tick whichever applies!) people. I always remember the father of a Jewish friend telling his (then 14 year old) son that some people disliked him because he was a pain, not because he was a Jew! 🙂
    (My spell-checker refuses to recognise “misogyny” as a word. Does this mean it no longer exists?)

    • Yes, that’s what it reminded me of too – there’s too much of a tendency for people to be perpetually looking for all these -isms, and it means that when there’s real racism or misogyny, people are so bored by the subject they don’t pay attention. It’s why I’m very reluctant to call myself a feminist. Haha! Perhaps your spellchecker is male and is barring you from using it – tell the feminists! We’ll make placards!! 😉

  9. I’ve had this to be read for ages, and I suspect I won’t be rushing to it now! I did rather enjoy Half Of A Yellow Sun, mainly because it taught me about Biafra and the war in Nigeria, which was before my time. I think many of us in the West would have been delighted to have Ifemelu’s opportunities in education!

    • I wish I’d read Half of a Yellow Sun instead, which has been sitting on my Kindle for ages – I suspect it would be more to my taste than this one. I did feel Ifemelu was one of these people who never saw the good in anything – too busy assuming everyone is racist! Yep, a scholarship to an American University would be appreciated by lots of people, I suspect…

  10. I haven’t read this one and have no intentions of reading it, thanks to your outstanding review, FF. A part of me really loves to read your reviews when you DON’T enjoy the book — they’re so meaty!! I’m rather surprised you read as much of this one as you did — I know, you were trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, right? Well, don’t beat yourself up over it. After all, it wasn’t you who wrote the thing!

    • Haha! Thank you! I must admit it’s sometimes easier to explain why I don’t like something than why I do! I tried to stick with it because so many people have loved it, but when it gets to the stage where a book is actually putting me off reading then it’s time for it to go…

  11. Your very well explained review has also led to a most interesting discussion. I’m not sure whether I’ll assay this one or not – I still have American Pastoral, which I swear was glaring at me from its slot on one of the TBR bookcases – as far as GAN challenges go!

    I too (as so many of us!) am in a dreadful slump, post Brexit, and despair is making me short on attention span and rather crabby. I’m having no patience at all with writing I think is poor, but lack the stamina to read a thunderingly brilliant book which engages mind, heart and guts. So it is a rare book which I can immerse myself in, and escape TO, as purely reading as escape FROM isn’t what I’m after.

    Not to mention then having the stamina to write a coherent, or even incoherent, review!

    • American Pastoral is a vastly better book than this in every possible way, but you’ll either hate it (Roth has that effect on me quite often) or it will rip you into emotional shreds, so probably better to leave it till you’re properly back in the swing.

      I’m beginning to de-slump now, due to an excellent read – Don DeLillo’s Zero K. It’s about death and dying basically, but oddly not nearly as depressing as it sounds! But I’m still struggling to write any but the lightest of reviews. And every day the news brings forth some new horror… I’m beginning to understand the many people who make a point of never listening to the news…

  12. I’ve read others say the same thing about this book. I’m surprised it made the GAN list; CNA isn’t from the states, and this book is pretty new to be a great American novel already. Hurry up and get to the Wright and Ellison! 😃

    • I expanded the GAN list last time to include books that might be great American novels rather than simply The GAN, so this would never have been in the running for that title. And I allow in ‘foreign’ authors, so long as they’ve lived in the States long enough to assimilate the culture, since it’s a society so based on immigration. So Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin was on my list, despite him being Irish. But I found this one very disappointing – not great in any sense! Haha! Slow and steady – that’s me – a reading tortoise!

      • I have her novel Purple Hibiscus on my to-read shelf. I never hear anyone talk about that one, so I hope it’s good and not too much academic lecturing. You know…when CHA came to a college near me this year and I went to see her, the people who went NUTS were students…and I wonder if the concepts that you and I find very “duh” and unsurprising are absolutely new to them, and this book is how they are introduced to such concepts. For instance, I read the graphic novel Bitch Planet last winter. It’s one that people have gone insane over. Women don’t have to comply! Beauty is not one look! Bad women get punished, and that is wrong! I’m thinking, “Yeah…is this new??” Looking around the internet, I found that twenty-somethings LOVE Bitch Planet and get the letters “nc” tattooed on them. It stands for NonCompliant, women who are sent to a prison planet to be punished for pretty much anything.

        • That’s a very interesting point and I suspect you’re right. I know that often my boredom with these polemical books is because I’ve read some factual book by an expert on a similar subject so kinda feel that the author’s points are a bit simplistic and even ill-informed on occasion. But I wouldn’t have felt that in my 20s, because I’d read so much less.

            • Do you have that issue with all books, or just the historical nonfiction ones? I’ve found that I have a seriously hard time remembering most books after I’m done with them. I mean, I can’t even remember the main characters’ names. A terrible trait in a reader! I’m wondering if I’m more of an audio listener. I tend to remember audiobooks very well and can quote precisely (both words and tone) movies for days.

            • All books! I always have had, even when at school. I remember themes and what books are basically about, and with history I remember the causes of things and the basics of what happened. But dates, names, places etc., just don’t stick – not even for days. To pass exams I used to have to spend the night before doing a memorisation exercise of all the dates and so on, get through the exam and then promptly forget them all again. In one of my important school exams, I had to write about why location was important in Graham Greene’s The Comedians – no problem, except I couldn’t remember the name of the place! I knew it had five letters… 😉

  13. First off I’ll start by saying I love the review – I’ve also enjoyed reading everyone’s comments on this book. I object to being preached at in my fictional reads so this wouldn’t be for me and the lead character does sound like she’s fallen well below the moral high-ground to be quite so preachy. I’m now pondering on the line where a book transports you to another world, especially when the writer is making difficult points about its readers, as this book seems to, and it has to come back to there being a worthy story as a back-drop.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, if an author wants to preach at me, then the book has to be really excellent in some other way to disguise the preaching or I just get annoyed. I also often wonder what the point is – would any racists be likely to read this book and suddenly change their ways? I suspect it would mostly be people like us, kinda generally nice folk trying to do their best anyway, who’d be reading it, and so it’s a bit annoying to be told you’re wrong whatever you do…

      • But…..it’s a portrait of a product. This Ifemelu is not a pleasant character, she’s not even described as beautiful and indeed she does something unrealistic and selfish, flying back to her old love…..yet, I have read this book as a description of how she became just like that, and of how she tries to escape what she became by running back to what she was….which is quite obviously impossible as we know. She has turned into a caricature to some extent and she becomes aware of it, dimly. And THAT as a reader, I find interesting. I care no more than you, wether she makes it with Obinze in the end, but I care about, if she somehow solves the alienation riddle, be it to the cost of some other woman’s wedding.

        • Interesting! Yes, I can see how she could be read like that. Unfortunately I just found her whiny. She had a privileged existence both in Nigeria and, except for a very brief period, in the US, and yet she spent her whole time looking for racism – even the people who were trying to do their best not to be racist came in for her whining criticism. But that’s the joy of reading – no two people take away quite the same thing from a book!

          Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

  14. I wouldn’t say I loved ‘Americanah’ but that’s not to say that I didn’t find it powerful and challenging. While I was reading, I found myself questioning oversights in my own worldview that could be construed as prejudicial, and that made for uncomfortable reading. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a racist, so it was shocking to have mirrored back at me prejudiced assumptions that I’ve held which demonstrate a position of privilege, and I’m glad of that, because how else can I change? I also enjoyed the structural use of the blog, and the political content, and while I didn’t necessarily approve of some of Ifemelu’s choices, her flaws made her more human to me, and no less deserving of a voice. The ending was a little weak though. I do love it when books evoke such varied responses, and this one certainly seems to have done that.

    • My problem is that I think every single thing anyone says or does could be construed as prejudicial about something, if people are setting out to look for prejudice. I sometimes think we ought to get brownie points for good intentions even if we occasionally get up someone’s nose! I also felt, in truth, that Adichie/Ifemelu was at least equally prejudiced against white people (she would no doubt say with good cause) but I don’t see how reacting to prejudice with prejudice is ever going to make things better. As Michelle Obama said only last night “If they go in low, we go in high” or something like that. (Yes, I’m watching way too much American politics… 😉 ) But I do think this one suffered by getting me when I was seriously struggling with reading. I may go back to it sometime in the future and see if I have a different reaction…

  15. […] An interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, and the comments we exchanged, have got me thinking about timing. Many different sorts of things can affect what we think of a book we’re reading. There’s the obvious things such as plot, characters and so on. There’s also the matter of personal taste. We’re all different in the sorts of stories we enjoy. […]

  16. Interesting to hear your thoughts on this. I have yet to read one of her books, but would like to. I own Half of A Yellow Sun, so I’m thinking I might as well just start with that one!

    • I get the impression Half of A Yellow Sun is more novelly, and less polemical than this one. I kinda regret starting with Americanah, since it’s put me off for a while, but I will read Half of A Yellow Sun one day… I also own a copy of it.

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