Amazing. As always Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is amazing.
This book really has three parts – Nigeria, Away, Nigeria. By far the largest part is Away, where Ifemelu negotiates her way through the bizarrisms of race in America. If, like me, you are white, you will read something every 10 pages or so that’ll make you flinch. Sometimes even suck through your teeth and go, “Shit, I do that.”
For example, when Ifemelu enrolls in university in America, the nice woman at the registration desk speaks SLOW AND CLEAR to her. When Ifemelu reassures her that she speaks English, the woman replies amiably “I know dear, I just don’t know how well.” And it completely destroys Ifemelu’s confidence, that she’s being talked to like a child, that she’s not even viewed as competently speaking the language she’s spoken all her life. Because in a racist culture, you can still be trying to be nice and being racist.
I flinched when I read this scene, and thought, “Shit, I do that.” I work in a university with international students and generally when someone comes up and asks a question, I will make a judgement about them, and accordingly SPEAK AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE. Reading this made me ask myself what that judgement is. It made me ask myself, two students come to the desk. One is white and has grown up their whole life speaking Irish and English, and speaks English with an accent. One is black and has grown up their whole life speaking Igbo and English, and speaks English with an accent. Which do you think you speak SLOW AND CLEAR to?
And there’s something like that, that either you do or you’ve been around someone who does it, pretty much every couple of pages. So pinchingly uncomfortable because it is such an honest and real account of what gets said, what happens, and what so many sympathetic white folk don’t see and don’t hear. In many ways, the largest part of the criticism in this book is for all the white people who congratulate themselves for not being racist.
That said, while the examination of racism is crucial in the book, I don’t want to make out like that is the only aspect to it. This is a love story. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love at first sight in their teens, stay together through college and are only separated when Ifemelu leaves for university in America a few months earlier than Obinze. Then 9/11 happens and his chances of getting a visa to the U.S. evaporates. The book follows both of their attempts to form relationships with other people over the following years as they resign themselves to the loss of their childhood idea of what their lives would be. In each relationship they find themselves missing something, even when largely happy, even when mostly fulfilled, they are always missing something, some part of understanding. Only with each other are they truly understood, only with each other is no translation needed. The main emotional heart of the book is the tension and anxiety you feel as you watch them grow up and grow apart, go through so much on their own, some which they can’t even articulate to themselves, and wonder how they will ever find their way back to one another. A lot like Remains of the Day, the central tension, drama and climax is in the character development, not the actual events, as Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and meets Obinze again, if they will be their own problem, if their love, so precious and rare, will be lost because they have both become people unable to communicate with one another across their differences.
Honestly, just an amazing book. Please read it.