Book Reviewlets: Americanah

The recent decreased frequency of TfH blogging has decreased my life satisfaction.

And yours too, I’m sure.

Onwards.

I haven’t read a single poor review of Americanah, which is curious. Usually there’s some kind of ick or wiggity for a critic to say to distinguish herself from other critics. What’s the point of criticism if you can’t indulge in a small sling of mud? To feel superior, if only for a second, to the slingee?

Who speaks for Americans? It depends at least in part on who counts as American in the first place.

An “Americanah,” a gentle jibe to Nigerians who return home after years in the US, is as American as anyone else. Except for how she looks, how she speaks, how easily she can pursue job opportunities, how likely she is to starve while trying to complete her college degree.

Which is to say: She is American.

The novel is about two Nigerian kids who fall in love and split up when their Nigerian university collapses. Ifemelu wins a US visa and seeks to complete her degree in Philadelphia, where she has a friend. Obinze is barred from the US after 9/11 and lives in the shadows of London as an illegal immigrant.

The novel is about different kinds of blackness. Caribbean-American, Caribbean-British, African-American, and American-African all show up to the dinner party. The janitorial firm. The address in the Craigslist ad.

The novel is about different kinds of connections. Family, employment, online, inheritance, education.

The novel is about me: Academics. White liberal elites. Woman bloggers. People who think that a postcolonial novel about Nigerian experience is also about growing up white and bookish in California. People who get mad when the postcolonial subject, so to speak, points out that’s exactly what white privilege is.

“Identity politics” is overused, but how else do we describe the politics of expressing oppositional or marginalized identities? The view from the side, the bottom, or the other side of the suburban house.

The nanny’s view, the hair braider’s view, the blogger’s view? And the difficulties persuading the people in power that these perspectives are just as American as theirs? 

One of Achibie’s greatest accomplishments is that Americanah tosses all these characters and stories together without fragmenting the reading experience. Or seeming overly polemical. She is genuinely terrific about all of it.

For example, most of the time when an author throws in a book-within-a-book, letters-within-a-book, or even you know, a shopping list, I start checking my Twitter. And then I think, “Why am I checking my Twitter instead of reading this book.” Like I’m taking pictures of babies instead of smiling at them with my actual face.

But Ifemelu’s blog posts were as interesting as the story. They were exactly the kinds of blogcutions I enjoy reading. “Raceteenth” is Ifemelu’s discussion of race from the perspective of a “Non American Black.” This blog was born into a time when fantastic bloggers could get paid to blog–even when their words deflate all kinds of liberal pretensions about multiculti society.

But a character suggests to her that her blog would never be as popular or well-respected if she were an “AB,” an American Black person. This character is correct.

Identity politics.

Who gets to speak for whom? And who gets to be heard?

The book felt a tad formulaic at times. Ifemelu’s dating life seemed more like allegory than like a series of emotional connections: first the white richie, then the hip American black academic, then an African. But perhaps they were narrated this way because the character lacked emotional connection to so much of her life in the US.

And a few plot twists, especially an attempted suicide, seemed a bit underexplained.

But I’m saying these things because I have to say something. So you know I’m paying attention.
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