Americanah Has Levels of Relatability

I did say, in Reflections After My First Semester, that I would re-read this book. And I’ve ky33, but I finally have.

Americanah is probably one of the heaviest, most condensed books I have ever read. And I am not, in my opinion, hero-worshipping Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, though I certainly have a stupendous amount of admiration for her. I am simply stating my opinion, based on my second, more enlightened reading of the novel.

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I first read Americanah near when it came out in 2013, borrowed from a friend’s parent. I was in my second year of high school at the time and had still never lived anywhere outside Ghana. I had visited England, the US, and Canada, but hardly stayed more than two weeks. I liked Chimamanda because I had already read Half of a Yellow Sun, and thought it was interesting, though I don’t think I have a natural affinity for books with events surrounding war. After my first read of Americanah, I was amused and entertained by all the complicated relationships the book held. The thing was, though, it was still all just fiction to me, and after reading it, I didn’t particularly know what to do with it.

Fast forward to the end of college freshman year, when I restart Americanah, get only a little way through, then watch all existing episodes of the Netflix series, Dear White People, after which I return to Americanah and complete it. Interesting (and probably irrelevant) observations: I went through the series much quicker than I intended to; the binge disease caught me – and I took a much longer time than I expected to complete the novel; it is way longer than I remembered.

These two things have at least one theme in common: the experience of being black in American college. I thought Dear White People was an excellent show, which, despite its apparent brevity, managed to condense a lot of key elements into ten episodes. I haven’t watched the movie yet, though I intend to soon. I enjoyed it immensely. There’s just one glaring flaw: Rashid, the Kenyan, the show’s token African. I first began watching DWP with a group of African girls, and legit, aside from that one time Rashid clapped back when some American insulted his English, we were all rather unimpressed by him. HashtagGetAfricansToWriteOnscreenAfricansAndStopYourNonsensePlease. Don’t get me started on his West-African-East-African-Generic-Hollywood-African hybrid of an accent. Anyway, I’m being tangential. Oya, back to the matter (open and close, touch your toes…).

So, that one thing they failed, Chimamanda nailed. I kept thinking how crazy lit the series would have been if Rashid had been replaced with Americanah’s Mwombeki, who, though a minor character, gave every newcomer African student his classic intro speech.

Voici, an excerpt:

“Very soon, you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you, ‘What? What?’ You will start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents, like our brother here, Kofi. Kofi’s parents came from Ghana when he was two years old, but do not be fooled by the way he sounds. If you go to their house, they eat kenkey every day. His father slapped him when he got a C in class. There’s no American nonsense in that house. He goes back to Ghana every year. We call people like Kofi American-African, not African-American, which is what we call our brothers and sisters whose ancestors were slaves.” -Mwombeki

Anyway, the question of who the story is for is important: Dear White People, though we (Africans) are able to relate a lot to the content of the series, was not intended for us. Americanah, on the other hand, I believe, was. I am also not postulating the idea that it is every African-in-America’s experience. It’s a fictional story, mostly based on one-and-a-half main characters from Nigeria. (And I’m proud of it for that; attempting to be general and all-encompassing can make a story rather useless.) I have no doubt that a man from Nigeria’s experience would be different, a Tanzanian’s different etc.

So, with all this context – the combination of my experience and the media I had consumed – Americanah took on a whole new level of relatability for me. It’s the second level.

The first level was just the classic West African upbringing: seeing fiercely religious adults who will blindly but willfully attribute society’s kuluulu to God’s blessings, the adults that are too ashamed of their (lack of) education to use anything “inferior” to unnecessarily long words, the secondary school romance, the squad boys of the class etc. etc.

Then I reached the second level: the transition from West Africa to America. The liberal nature of college classes. The race politics, inside the classroom and out. the burden of being frugal when everyone around you seems to be splashing money around. The stress of searching for a job. The onset of depression in college etc. etc.

There was a lot of stuff that was more generally relatable – by which I mean not restricted to the college experience – like Ifemelu’s encounter with the too-known white woman in the hair salon.

But then, after level two, for the most part, a lot of the story starts calmly feeling like a fiction novel again, to me; a relevant fiction novel, but still just a novel. There is a knowledge you can only acquire with experience.

For example, if I were to start and end a relationship with a half-woke, half-baffling, doting, rich white boy and I read the book again, I’d have unlocked another level. If I were to start and end a relationship with a high-principled, academic, African-American man and I read the book again, yet another level unlocked. If I were to witness any of my African-but-raised-in-American cousins go through severe, mental-health-affecting identity crises, another level, and so on.

This is why I intend to keep rereading Americanah as my college career and life progress, to see what potential levels I can unlock. It’s a ridiculously heavy book, I swear.

-Akotowaa

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