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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda web
Susan Zhu

I’m only seven pages into “Americanah,” the poignant and incisive novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when Adichie delivers the first of many lines that strike me at my core:

“It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

These words describe Ifemelu, the main female protagonist, and her longing to return to her home country of Nigeria after a 15-year stay in the United States. Adichie writes in vivid, poetic prose that reads as naturally as breathing. In this instance, as well as in all of “Americanah,” she displays a power to capture uniquely nuanced emotions, demonstrating a keen sensitivity to the complexity of the human experience.

Adichie will give a lecture on her life and writings at the O'Laughlin Auditorium at Saint Mary’s this evening at 7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored in conjunction with the Saint Mary Alumnae Club’s “One Book, One Saint Mary’s” initiative, which selected “Americanah” as its book for the 2015-2016 school year.

Adichie’s lecture, like her writing, promises to stand out. Since its publication in 2013, “Americanah” has garnered overwhelmingly positive critical praise. It won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, NPR named it a “Great Reads Book,” and the New York Times included it in its 2013 Ten Best Books of the Year. Previous lectures of hers — including the TED Talks “We should all be feminists” and “The danger of a single story” — have reached nearly 10 and 3 million views online, respectively — not to mention that Beyoncé sampled “We should all be feminists” in her 2013 song “***Flawless,” released later that year.)

What gives Adichie’s words much of their power is her fearless ability to dole out empathy and searing criticism in equal measure. Born in Nigeria but educated in the United States, Adichie writes with authority and acute sensitivity to issues of identity, especially racial and gender identity. In “Americanah,” she focuses on the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, a Nigerian woman and man who are long-lost lovers — Ifemelu traveled to America for school and post-doctoral education at Princeton, and Obinze moved to England as an undocumented worker before returning to Nigeria. Their romance drives the arc of the plot forward; yet it’s the navigation of muddied racial and social waters in America, England and Nigeria that forms the bulk of the narrative for both characters.

In each setting, across various continents, Ifemelu and Obinze remain outsiders. In England, Obinze faces trials as an illegal worker and ultimately fails to succeed “in the harsh glare of life abroad.” In America, Ifemelu struggles to find her place, highlighting the not-so-subtle distinctions between African Americans and Africans — distinctions many white Americans disregard entirely. When she returns to Nigeria, her friends write her off as an “Americanah:” a pretentious pseudo-Nigerian, with a Nigerian heritage now distorted by “American eyes.”

The love between Obinze and Ifemelu is inspired, in part, by the realization that both Ifemelu and Obinze feel most at home when they are together. When Ifemelu rests her head against Obinze’s shoulder, she registers a new phenomenon: “ ... A self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.”

Social criticism in “Americanah” appears in varied forms. Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from Ifemulu’s blog — “Racenteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” — that deal with her experiences head-on. “In America, tribalism is alive and well.” Formidable images, such as Ifemulu’s changing hairstyles, also speak volumes about her journey toward self-realization — when Ifemelu decides to “relax” her natural texture, she laments “the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died.” When she desires to keep her braids, her aunt warns her, “If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional. … You are in a country that is not your own.”

Although Adichie writes in specifics, the stories she shares don’t work to alienate her readers. This quality, not endemic to “Americanah,” informs her whole body of work — her public writing and speeches consistently underline a shared humanity. In her 2009 TED Talk, “The danger of a single story,” she said. “Stories matter. Many stories matter … when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

The event this Thursday is scheduled to last from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Holy Cross students.