This book changed my thinking about race. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Adichie says, but some of her over-arching themes strike to the bone. If I have ever been stigmatized because of my race it was a seriously weird event – NOT anything which has happened even twice in my lifetime. (I can think of one time.)
My grandparents were discriminated against when they arrived and it was because of their race and language so they stuck together. But they looked down on anyone with darker skin – as did the Irish, the Germans, Italians, the Hispanics, the Greeks and Russians and so on. Alas, from the vantage point of Black Americans, there was no “other” to look down on for reasons of race. Even Jews, who might easily be second in the “who’s had it worst” contest, have been envied their money and creativity and, since WW2 at least, the power of their ethnic bonds. Not so the Black-American – and it’s for reason of skin color.
That’s what this book is about. And although it’s mostly a wonderful story, well told – there is this very serious theme running through it which is sometimes hard to read but which is why I rated it a 9 – I would have given it a 10 but it’s really too new on the market to do that – we’ll see how it stands the test of time.
Somehow Adichie reminds me of Zadie Smith (On Beauty, NW, others) whose books I adore (mostly). It might be the immigrant woman protagonist – black (African or Caribbean) in a white society. Both women seem to have a feel for the stresses and concerns, small and large, of people in that situation and an ear for the language. (Of course this is only as far as I would know – I’m personally not an immigrant, I’m not really foreign to any situation I usually find myself in.)
The opening chapter deals with Ifemelu, a young, well-educated, professional woman who immigrated to the US 13 years prior but has now decided to break up with her long-term boyfriend and move back to Nigeria where he still lives. As an immigrant African, she’s never really felt a “part of” America although she is the author of a blog popular with a certain group – some of her entry titles are included in the narrative with great effect. There is a wonderful scene of Ifemelu at a braiding hair salon outside Princeton.
Also Part 1 but Chapter 2 concerns the present day life of Ifemelu’s old boyfriend, Obinze Mbadiwe, who is back in Nigeria, married with children, and becoming quite successful in a very corrupt business as well as in society and the political regime. We like him though, because his conscience bothers him – he’d rather be a teacher. And he’s good to his wife – so far – but Ifemelu is coming – tension there.
In Part 2 the story goes back in time to when Ifemelu was still in Nigeria. There’s a fair amount of Igbo language used here – the same was true of several immigrant novels I’ve read lately – I think I like it – it adds authenticity and the translations are always right there. A sample from Chapter 4:
“Acho afu adi ako n’akpa dibia. The medicine man’s bag has all kinds of things.”
Before immigration she and Obinze had had an “understanding” about the future but it seems that Ifemelu always felt a bit of an outsider with Obinze, outside his family and circle of friends because although they both went to the same good school, his family is much better off than hers both financially and culturally. This “outsider” idea which is inplied here will become a theme – Adichie is not hitting it hard, but all the dots are certainly there – the reader only has to make the connections to see the theme of what is later in the book called “alienation.”
These are the places Ifemelu doesn’t feel she “fits.”
1. the Princeton campus
2. the outlying hair salon
3. Blaine and his life (see below*)
4. Mom’s church(es) in Nigeria
5. school in Nigeria
6. in Obinze’s home in Nigeria
* “… her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out.”
(early on in Chapter 1.)
Chapter 5: Interesting cultural education about Nigerian pop culture:
The music of Onyeka Onwenu – “In the Morning Light” on YouTube
Garri – tapioca-like product from casava fibers- used to thicken or make fried snacks.
Indomie noodles – packaged instant noodles – a take-off of the real thing but Ifemelu is referring to the packaged variety.
One interesting character in the book is Aunty Uju, Ifemelu’s father’s sister, a village woman who moved to the city, was educated as a doctor, befriended “The General,” got a highly paid job at the hospital (which doesn’t pay her) and now moves in the top circles of her community (except The General’s wife and children live in Abuja). Aunty Ubu becomes Ifemubu’s confidant and advisor. She lives in luxury in a large home with servants and very nice things. She brings Ifemubu’s family things like new TV sets she “doesn’t need.” (But she doesn’ t have her own money – all she has is directly from The General.) Of course she loses her favored status and moves to America to become a doctor there.
Ifemelu goes to the hair salon with Aunty Ubu where the “haughty hairdressers sized up each customer, eyes swinging from head to shoes, to decide how much attention she was worth.” They faun over Aunty Ubu.
“It was here, at the Lagos salon, that the different ranks of imperial femaleness were best understood.”
And she gets her immigration papers – she is now a college graduate with a fellowship to Princeton. The plan is that Obinze will join her in a few years.
Chapter 9: But when she gets to the US, Aunty Uju is still trying (again) to pass the doctor exams – because of my personal teaching background I found this statement especially poignant:
“But they weren’t testing actual knowledge, they were testing our ability to answer tricky multiple-choice questions that have nothing to do with real medical knowledge.”
But Aunty Uju helps Ifemelu a bit (not much) with a place to stay and a fake ID so she can work. Another friend helps – Obinze has sent her money. Ifemelu’s bills, including tuition, go unpaid but somehow she manages for awhile but then somehow sinks to what she considers an incident of prostitution. Depression ensues and this results in the break from Obinze and his family. This was truly very difficult to read.
That’s about 25% –
Ifemelu finally gets a job babysitting the spoiled children of a wealthy couple for $250 a month. She and the insecure mother of these children, Kimberly, become good friends. The other sister, Laura, is decidedly unfriendly. But Ifemelu can now pay her tuition and some bills, can even move into a very small studio of her own (she is getting a small scholarship type funding).
Many of the American characters seem like “types” – probably okay if this book is seen as satire and I really think it ought to be – it’s not funny satire, Adichie goes a bit further under the masks than that, although it’s fairly subtle. There are many “types” of racism and many aspects to it. Kimberly is the do-gooder type, Laura the skeptical.
Finally in this central story, Ifemubu meets Blaine, the African-American assistant professor. She’s totally blown away.
The last section of Chapter 17 includes a blog entry which is really quiet amusing and although a bit generalized (she’s entitled, I guess, like everyone), it’s spot-on.
But Brian goes nowhere (although you know he eventually will because it’s been foreshadowed). And she meets Curt, a rich white charmer who loves her completely – I think – but again, she doesn’t fit in his world – she’s accepted in way, but not in a way that truly fits – it’s “their” world, not hers.
So now we add to our places where Ifemubu doesn’t fit:
6. America in general, her roommates,
7. with Auntie Ubu, her child (Dike) and new husband
8. at jobs – (she finally finds one)
9. with Curt and his world
Ifemelu changes her accent and her hair – but there’s still no fit – not with African-Americans and not with American-Africans. She joins different groups at school but there is no real mesh and I’m not sure why – too ideological? Ifemubu is having an identity crisis.
Part 3: There’s are several chapters here about Obinze and his years – this was boring at first and didn’t really feel authentic until after about a chapter, then his story as an illegal immigrant in England got interesting – money problems and a job and how he was trying to legalize his status by a fake marriage, he puts it all together and then it all falls apart and he finds himself on a plane back to Nigeria – a criminal for wanting a choice. (It felt a bit contrived here.)
Part 4 – Ifemelu has more hair issues, these are quite symbolic, and at this point she’ll wear a natural hair style. She starts a blog and sabotages her relationship with Curt so he breaks up with her and it’s over and then she gets horrendously upset by it. Her blog takes off into success. She quits work, writes her blog, and gets paid for speaking learning there are two communities – one of readers, the others who go to the lectures – not the same pitch at all. (It’s a feel-good pitch to the lecture-goers.)
She meets Blaine again, the African-American, and he is just a bit too “pure” now – serious, intellectual, idealistic, very health conscious. Not quite a fit, but she enjoys the relationship – it works in its own way. And his sister Shan is something else – always right in Blaine’s eyes, even when the same words are wrong coming from the mouth of Ifemelu. Shan is about power and she has ways of rattling Ifemubu, putting her down. (And Obama might not be the “Magic Negro.”)
Chapter 36 – she still doesn’t “fit”
“She had been with Blaine for more than a year, but she did not quite belong with his friends.”
Will Ifemelu find a home with a sense of belonging? Can it be with Obinze back in Nigeria? This is where she’s headed according to the frame story.
And so she goes back to Nigeria where she eventually contacts the married Obinze and they begin an illicit relationship. He doesn’t feel like he fits in his marriage but is torn – she wants him to be free.
Here she is once again the outsider, but it’s a bit different because she really is free and he’s not. It’s rather similar to their situations as immigrants – he was illegally in another country while she got her papers and did it right. He was deported and eventually did well – she stayed, never really fit and eventually wanted to go back to Nigeria.
And so they break up because he’s not free although in the end he does free himself, for himself not for her, and she lets him in again. They have done what they’ve needed to do essentially for themselves, but they found their way back to each other and to Nigeria where they both fit from the beginning. Nice ending.
belonging and identity in lots and lots of manifestations but especially in regards to race and homeland.