I heart Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie (aside from the fact that she’s my age and clearly more talented and accomplished than I am, and so I’m also jealous, but because I love her so much, I’ll get over it). (Also, she’s the reason I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin a couple of years ago.)
I love that when I see Africa through her eyes, I don’t see a country with wide-eyed, starving children and Maasai jewelry and giraffes but a country with people who love and work and hurt and envy and learn and strive and struggle and triumph. I see people who have dignity and who fail.
I love that when I read her stories I don’t see people who are exactly like me. Most of the time, I can’t relate to the people. I haven’t lived in their situations. I don’t know what it’s like.
I love the textures of her writing–the images, the smells, the humor. So many of the places she writes about are foreign to me, and they are at once foreign, unrecognizable and intimate. And when she writes of a place I know, reading her words is like opening a family photo album.
I love that her stories stick to me like ice cream to my hips. I love that they make me think and see things in a new way.
Which brings me to Americanah, a story about Ifemelu, a Nigerian who moves to America for seventeen years before returning home. Her divergent experiences in Nigeria, first as a teenager then as a working woman, and in America, as a student and writer (blogger, actually) gives her a sense of acute observations but keeps her removed from a sense of truly belonging anywhere. And because of this, she is in some sense unknowable, mostly to herself. We could talk about Ifemula as a blogger (leans toward “self-righteous”, as Obinze says or “judgmental” as other friends criticize her of, but she says, “She felt subsumed by her blog. She had become her blog”) as a girlfriend (perhaps here also, she felt subsumed, she felt as if she became the person she was supposed to be with the man she was with, except for Obinze, of course; she says of Blaine, “Sometimes she felt like his apprentice”), as an African, as an American citizen (a non-American black living in America), as a woman, as a human. As Obinze said, “She was not easy to predict.” She is not familiar but familiar, complex but aren’t her desires to be loved and known common to us all? (“She had never had this before, to be listened to, to be truly heard, and so he became newly precious.”)
This story is about ideas, but just when I start to get exasperated about all the ideas (and is this just a way for Adichie to talk about her thoughts on the subject?), Ifemelu eats a non-fair trade chocolate bar as a form of rebellion when she and a boyfriend fight and draws me back to her as a character.
(And then there are those observations that make me laugh at myself: “I read a piece about this new movement among the American privileged classes. Where people want to drink milk straight from the cow,” because, yes, I drink raw milk.)
The story revolves around complexities in race and racism and belonging.
And so now I want to talk about these things. I want to talk about race and racism and belonging.
Two Saturdays ago, Chris and I went to Jeff Dunham’s show. It was fantastically funny and horribly offensive. As we left, I told Chris that comedians have a role in society of making papier-mâché piñatas of our rule books so that we can get past what we’re supposed to say and not supposed to say and talk about things in real ways.
I want to talk about things in real ways, meaning, I want to know how we can talk about these things in ways that cut through political correctness and in ways that help me understand the experience of those who know racism. I don’t have any delusions of fixing any problems. I just want a taste of understanding people who have had an entirely different experience of America (and the world) than I’ve had.
Obinze says of his wife, “He had never tried, because he knew that the questions he asked of life were entirely different from hers.” I don’t want this to be how I see people and relationships. I don’t want to settle for stereotypes. I want to know individuals.
Because though the story revolves around race and racism and belonging, it’s really about relationships and love (in all its forms).
Ifemelu distances herself from her world(s) in her blogs. She’s an observer. Maybe this is how she makes sense of not belonging. This is the nature–and danger–of blogging. We become observers who make witty (catty) comments, safely and distantly offering our expertise and experience and often offending fellow humans. We often write for unknown readers more than the people in our families and churches and neighborhoods whom we see every day.
I don’t want to be safe anymore.
I don’t yet know what this means, but over the next several blog posts, I’ll be talking about things inspired by Americanah, and I’m desperately hoping that friends, family, neighbors near and far will guide me through this experience.