Ms. Malcolm Hughes: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Being an American is such an interesting concept. With such a vastly diverse population, what does it actually mean, to be American? For instance, my roommate is from Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Over the years we have become extremely close, but it definitely didn’t start out this way. We met during graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, which was a time of evolution for both of us. One of the things that I find to be beautiful about academia is that it brings together many individuals from various backgrounds. Initially, my roommate and I got along well enough, but as we got to know each other better and explore deeper levels of conversations, with brutal honesty, we clashed quite a bit. We both identify as Black, but our experiences and cultural backgrounds are very different in many ways.
Similarly, that is one of the things that I love most about the book; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie doesn’t hesitate to dive into an analysis of cultural, educational and societal differences. Adichie expresses these concepts eloquently by highlighting differences between America and Nigeria in a manner that forces the reader to ponder what it means to accept or defy identity.
Ifemelu, the main character, is a woman of unapologetic strength and comfort in being herself fully. In fact, there are multiple scenarios throughout the book where this knowledge of self has made her a nuisance to others, especially older women. This example of a “strong” woman protagonist is refreshing because it isn’t only Ifemelu, but other women she encounters on her personal journey through life.
The intricacy and complexity of their strength is also what makes it so bold and alluring, but also the most difficult for them to hold onto. How does one not lose who they are in the face of adversity and bleakness? Just because we can see ourselves slipping away doesn’t mean we can always stop the drift from occurring. Depressing? Not exactly. The beauty throughout all of the stories is Adichie’s ability to show strength where there seemingly is none.
She unpacks nearly every stereotype of a woman one could imagine. For instance, Ifemelu’s aunt is a woman who is undoubtedly intelligent, but due to many limited job opportunities in Lagos she eventually relies on her “feminine wilds” to gain career success, in the form of a powerful sugar daddy. Others are women who both rule religious institutions and those who are victims of religion.
It is Adichie’s ability to delve into the complexity of each of these women that helps to create a wholistic picture of what is means to be woman. Whether you defy or accept it. However, this book is not only about women–she also includes significant male characters. These characters are intriguing in correlation to the women in their lives, but also independently–especially Ifemelu’s true love, Obinze.
Obinze unsettles Ifemelu. In America there were other men, great men, but not that flawed, yet somehow perfect, man. Obinze is similar to Ifemelu, but their traits are expressed in different ways, so much so that she views him as someone who both challenges and compliments her. As the novel progresses it causes one to wonder is it really that he challenges her, as much as it is that he presents something that she is incapable of controlling? Yet his return each time means that she does have a great degree of control. Maybe more control of the situation, than she realizes. This tug of war is a critical crux of the novel.
One excerpt reads, “the pain of his absence did not decrease with time; it seemed instead to sink in deeper each day, to rouse in her even clearer memories. Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.” These feelings are so true, but the statement causes me to feel conflicted. To argue that you find peace in the absence but never complete happiness, feels like giving someone else too much control over what your happiness will look like. To accept that you are never wholly complete without another is a concept that I’m not certain I’m willing to embrace. But I think it depends on how you view love and relationships. This may not even be what Adichie is arguing, as Ifemelu had full lives without Obinze, but he added more. As I think it should be.
Ifemelu’s entire life was built around her choices, but when it came to Obinze she never really had a choice. Is he her strength, her weakness, or somehow both?
The final lines of the novel read,
He paused, shifted. “Ifem, I’m chasing you. I’m going to chase you until you give this a chance.”
For a long time she stared at him. He was saying what she wanted to hear and yet she stared at him.
“Ceiling,” she said, finally. “Come in.”
So often we expect complication but it really can be that simple. Both individuals confronted themselves and again found each other. The degree of self-realization it takes to say I’m chasing until you give this a chance. The amount of self-redemption it takes to have what you’ve desired standing in front of you and not rush to choose. To give yourself time to not respond, then to acknowledge that there is no choice. The answer is and has always been yes. How beautiful? When I first read the book I hated the ending. But the second time it becomes obvious that it is the only possible ending. It isn’t rushed, it is realistic. So often in life, we prefer things to be on our own time, but when events actually happen it is in spite of us and we have no choice but to give in to them. That is the imperfect happy ending.
-Ms. Malcolm Hughes