Book review: Amerikanah

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Recently, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 book, ‘Amerikanah’. My conclusion: highly recommended! Here, I’ll explain why.

I guess most readers know who Adichie is: a talented female Igbo (Nigerian) author. She was 35 when she wrote this, her third novel. She is best known for her 2006 novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun“, a gripping (and also recommended) account of life in Biafra around the time of the Biafran war of independence (1967 – 1970). That book has been turned into a 2013 movie, with the same name (banned, by the way, in Nigeria).

In ‘Amerikanah’, we get to know the reality of modern Nigeria and part of the Nigerian diaspora through the eyes of two bright and beautiful Igbo youngsters, Ifemelu, the girl, and Obinze, the boy. They grow up in the Nigeria of the late 1990s, in a situation so desperate that the country’s best and brightest see no other option but to look abroad for education and career opportunities.

Obinze ends up in the UK, where he tries to survive as an illegal immigrant. Ifemelu makes it to the US. There, after a difficult start, she manages to build up a good existence, partly because of the income she generates through a blog on racial relationships in the US, as seen through the eyes of a non-US black woman. (Has that fiction ever been turned into fact, I wonder?).

The book is full of rich and often hilarious anecdotes of Ifemelu’s experiences and interactions, both with others in the diaspora and with Americans, black and white. This is set against the background of Obama‘s first election campaign in 2008/2009.

In the end, both Obinze and Ifemelu manage to reunite and build an existence in Nigeria, a country just as corrupt as before they left.

So, why read this book?

If you are an African in the diaspora, read this book: I am sure there will be many things you will recognize and enjoy reading about, both in the descriptions of life in Africa and in the challenges of building a life in Europe or the US.

If you are an African, but not in the diaspora, read this book: it may give you some impression of what it is like to move to Europe or the US – and that it’s not all that easy.

If you are an American (black or white) read this book: it teaches things about race relations in your country that probably only an African can show you. I’ve written about this before, in 2012, but in a much more abstract and general way. To really get the point – read the book.

If you are a woman struggling with what to do about her hair – read this book! Ifemelu, in trying to adapt, tortures her scalp with weaves, extensions, relaxers, straighteners and braids and even tries natural. Her vivid account of this and of the reactions of those around here are not only funny, but tell a lot. I am sure she is not alone in this.

If you are, like me, a human being who is neither of the above, read this book: it illustrates many things about the nature of culture and what it means to move to another culture that have universal value and resonance and as such, the book is enjoyable and instructive for anybody.

One last remark: even though I am fluent in English, I read this book in my mother tongue, Dutch. Adichie’s works have been translated into many different languages, including such small or exotic ones as Bosnian or Malayalam. Yet if you wanted to read her works in, say, Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa, the three major languages of Nigeria – you can’t.

Post by Bert

 Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for  four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.

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