For many years, I’ve been to eager to read as many coming-to-America stories as possible, spanning different generations with protagonists coming from many different countries. With a title like Americanah, I expected another story in that genre.
But to my surprise and delight, I realized that this novel is subversive: it’s a story about leaving America and returning to one’s country of origin. It’s the first I’ve seen of that kind, and the first exploring at length a non-American black’s perspective of race in America.
I’ve been trying to get this audiobook for the last couple of years — both in Houston and Oregon library systems, it was always out of reach on a long wait list, until just this past month. Naturally, my expectations were high.
But the scope and depth met my expectations, especially with the frankness of the race essays scattered throughout. I don’t know how much of Ifemelu’s story is autobiographical for the author, but all the conflict in America felt realistic — none more so than Ifemelu’s dire struggle to find her first job in Philadelphia, her increasing desperation and despair. The ultimate outcome, with its consequences on her and Obinze’s relationship, was so heartwrenching and yet believable. My heart was in my throat throughout that part, I felt so much for her.
One of the biggest issues I had with the story concerned a closely related practical issue: the ease with which Ifemelu was able to support herself (even to become a first-time homeowner!) with her blog, when she didn’t even have another job lined up after quitting the communications job, and apparently didn’t even know the potential of advertising revenue with a blog. I understand there was a period in the 2000s when blogs had high potential to really take off like that, but given how realistic and painful Ifemelu’s first struggle for employment had been, it was galling to have this portrayed as so effortless, with no explanation for how she supported herself before the advertising revenue was accidentally discovered.
A word about the audiobook narrator, the talented Adjoa Andoh. She did a fantastic job with all of the wide variety of accents and broken English, but I regretted that her American accent was always so nasally. On the pro side, for the duration of the audiobook, my own internal narrator acquired a West African accent that was a nice change of pace.
Spoiler section ahead! (until the paragraph before the block quote)
I had liked and empathized with Ifemelu’s character all the way through the book, right until she and Obinze began their affair. That was not exactly romantic. I don’t hate affairs in all cases, but I couldn’t approve of the way she pushed him sexually, then got furious with him at the slightest reference to his wife. But people in affairs don’t behave rationally, I know.
I wasn’t much of a fan either of the obsessive, consuming way their love was described, how jealous they were of each other’s pasts and how they spent their time when they were apart. Not my ideal relationship.
So it was a bit of a letdown that the affair was the sole subject of the final section of the book, all a question of whether or not they’d get together. I wasn’t emotionally invested in them by that point — all I wanted was an outcome, whichever way it went, and I felt a final wave of relief once the answer came. But those were the last words of the book. So I was just relieved to be done with the angst, and that is not the best feeling with which to finish a book.
And, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the outcome of “love conquers all” is really the right one for this book, especially after that is specifically identified as “what white people do,” an American behavior of divorcing for someone else you believe you’re in love with. I tend to prefer stories where other priorities win out, just because they’re less predictable and also often feel truer.
But here’s a passage with a quote that struck me hardest, though there are many profound moments and revelations skillfully captured in the most ordinary interactions. This one takes place while Obinze is living as an undocumented immigrant in London, every day feeling the threat of deportation hanging over him. It does the best job, in my opinion, of capturing one of the key messages of the book.
Alexa, flush with red wine, her eyes red below her scarlet hair, changed the subject. “Blunkett must be sensible and make sure this country remains a refuge. People who have survived frightful wars must absolutely be allowed in!” She turned to Obinze. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” he said, and felt alienation run through him like a shiver.
Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered by mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, 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.