After reading two of Adichie’s nonfiction pieces over the past few years, Dear Ijeawele and We Should All Be Feminists, and loving them, I knew that I was going to have to get around to reading some of her fiction sooner rather than later. I asked on bookstagram to see where I should start and it basically seemed like any of her books would be great. Like, seriously, it seems like everything she writes is gold. However, this one got mentioned more frequently than most of them (maybe just because it’s more widely read; for example, I know that it was the required reading book at UNC-Chapel Hill freshman a few years ago…). In any case, here’s where I chose to start my Adichie fiction journey!
This is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who meet in elementary school in Nigeria. They become close friends, and later more. When Ifemelu gets a chance to study in America for college, Obinze urges her to go, even though he won’t be able to join (though he plans to follow behind). Despite their plans, they drift apart. As the story follows them over the years, Ifemelu’s struggles with and adjusts to life in America, while Obinze spends years as an undocumented immigrant in London. When they both end up, much later, back in Lagos, they reconnect…and it’s impossible to deny the connection that still exists between them.
Well, first things first, I just have to say that I absolutely, completely and totally get the hype, both around Adichie’s fiction and for this book in particular. Her ability to succinctly and precisely put her finger on so many complex issues related to race, internationally and especially in the United States, is beyond anything I have ever read before. This goes not only for her descriptive writing, but in her dialogue as well – there is a meticulousness and exactness to her word choices that makes it clear that each sentence was crafted with purpose. It’s incredibly impressive, stylistically.
As a non-American black person, she has a unique perspective on the way race exists in America, a perspective that really forces the reader to think about (if you are not/haven’t already) what and how value is assigned and exacted in America. The distances between the non-American black person, the American black person and white people in America are explored voluminously and powerfully here. Adichie does not shy away from any topic or population, which provides the reader with an insightful depiction of a variety of types of Americans. And she is able to speak deeply to the entrenched racial tension and inequality, in a way that provides true education along with observations that sometimes border on the humorous. It’s a fine line walked with delicacy. In particular, I loved the blog posts sprinkled throughout the novel. Ifemelu’s sharp, quick thoughts/observations/questions are incredibly perceptive, and the use of the blog post as a writing device allows for a comprehensive look the important, difficult, questions related to race, without having to artificially force them all into the plot itself. In general, it’s a very natural way to make widespread genuine commentary in a fictional setting. In addition, Adichie is able to do very much the same for class/status in Nigeria. I, of course, do not have the personal/firsthand knowledge of Nigeria that I do of the United States (or, to be fair, even of London), but I feel like I can trust her portrayal of life there as an honest one, an even-keeled one, based on the rest of the novel, and so I feel as if I learned a lot about how those socioeconomic issues play out in a country where race is not as much of a factor as it is in the US. And it is clear that, no matter what, a people will find a way to create hierarchy…only the “how” of it is different. It’s a fascinating cross-cultural comparative study.
As for the plot itself, while it was very solid, I felt like it was secondary to the greater concerns it represented. Ifemelu and Obinze were, themselves, very thoroughly written. They felt so real. As, truly, did many of the rest of the main characters that play roles throughout the years covered in the novel. Although they all represent a type of person larger than themselves, they still, mostly, felt true, not caricatured. And while I enjoyed the structural story, that of Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship, and, again, felt that it was written authentically, I still came away from reading this with loftier thoughts/reflections than just where the two of them left off. Basically, the plot and characters are all great, but they were not, for me, the highlight of this reading experience.
I cannot recommend this novel enough. It’s so finely nuanced and expansively told. It’s both a poignant story of a romance across time and continents, as well as a profound exploration of racial and economic inequality. It’s about what it means to be Nigerian, what it means to be American, and what it means to be somewhere in the middle. And it’s about surviving the expectations and circumstances life throws at you, whether as an immigrant or in your hometown, whether you’re struggling with the day-to-day minutiae of living or dealing in the theory of widespread structural issues. Just gorgeous.
Here’s a small selections of passages that particularly struck me or stood out to me. However, this is not even close to a comprehensive list and you should really read the book and see all of it for yourself:
“America had subdued her.”
“In America, racism exists, but all racists are gone. […] Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. […] Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word ‘racist.’ Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.”
“Race is not biological; race is sociology. Race is not a genotype; race is a phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black. […] In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you.”
“What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White by Try Being Poor and Non-White: …privilege is always relative to something else. […] Can’t we all just be human beings? …that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that. Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier.”
“She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself.”
“…Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.”
“This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.”
“I know we could accept the things we can’t be for each other, and even turn it into the poetic tragedy of our lives. Or we could act. I want to act.”