• Bijal Patel

Book Review: "We all love Beyoncé but what [does] her hair look like when it grows from her scalp?"

*disclaimer* Before Beyhive come to attack me, the title of today's post is a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, Americanah. It is a quote I found in one of the many blog posts written by Ifemelu, Adichie's main character. Before you read this blog post, read Hair by Adichie (a short story - scroll down to 1/4 of the page) or watch the animation Hair Love, an Oscar-winning short film (watch below.)

Understand why Adichie included the Beyoncé quote in Americanah, I think the point of Hair and Hair Love is that they're sources of inspiration for many people - young and old. They teach curly-haired girls to embrace their coils, they're magical and give them their identity. Adichie implements such messages within her book.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, I came across Americanah when browsing books that would educate and open up discussions amongst communities regarding race. The book doesn’t include commonly discussed race issues such as police brutality, slavery, mass incarceration, racist customers or school bullies, but magnifies micro-aggressions in America.

The protagonist, Ifemelu, is an immigrant living in America who kicks off her career through blogging. Ifemelu documents her experience as a Black woman in America – the subtle racist remarks, the cliché and stereotyped comments and interracial dating.

After several reading slumps and many attempts of picking up the book and putting it down, you would assume that I did not enjoy the book but that’s not the truth. I really liked it, in fact, I’m a huge fan of Adichie and have read her work and watched multiple interviews of her speaking on feminism before.

It is the realism for me that hit the nail right on its head. Adichie knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the Black immigrant experience, a student who is exploring different love interests, mental health, body image, settings in America and England… just everything. Her main message is that the Western life is glamourised, it’s not as pretty as people think it is and we all put on a façade and pretend we’re happy. I’m saying this as someone whose been locked up in her house for months now, longing for life to go back to normal but also reflecting on the London life. What is there to it besides a busy and hectic life? I have rediscovered nature, peace, bonding time, productivity, improved communication, love, food and rest.

Reading Americanah from two points of views was refreshing. Ifemelu’s childhood love flies from Nigeria to London whilst she migrates to America. They don’t stay in touch and so they imagine what is happening in each other’s lives. Obinze thinks “she must be so happy with her American accent and popular blog,” whilst Ifemelu assumes Obinze is living a happy life without her. I don’t want to spoil it for you but neither of them are happy and it’s not because they’re separated from each other, it’s their immigrant experience.

If you don’t want to read a non-fiction about race, then you need to pick up this book. I have read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and in the middle of reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and although they are very educating with many “aha” moments, the endless highlighting moments can be a lot to digest at times. Americanah was similar but with a storyline to follow and characters to attach myself to. Adichie is raw and real in her writing and she clearly expresses her views and opinions through her fictional character. Ifemelu’s blog is about race and it exposes you to information that you didn’t know you needed to know until now. Americanah reminds me of a quote:

“I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” – Franz Kafka in a 1904 letter to Oskar Pollak

I want to tell you all about the character journeys because we follow two young students who struggle with their identity. Yes, Ifemelu was irritating at times, I wanted to shake her by her shoulders and tell her to get a grip and wake up, but she made some good points in her blog posts. A part of the importance of her blog was that it was her outlet of frustrations. I began to understand Ifemelu’s anger and pain, sometimes I could relate and at other times, I would sympathise. Adichie opens up our minds and makes us think about our subconscious thoughts that we don’t realise are in the back of our minds:

“… she was struck by how mostly slim white people got off at the stops in Manhattan and, as the train went further into Brooklyn, the people left were mostly black and fat.” – page 5

“People were saying, Oh, why did he slap her when she’s a widow, and that annoyed her even more. She said she should not have been slapped because she is a full human being, not because she doesn’t have a husband to speak for her.” – page 59

“She avoided the sun and used creams in elegant bottles, so that her complexion, already naturally light, became lighter, brighter, and took on a sheen.” – page 74

“I. Need. You. To. Fill. Out. A. Couple. Of. Forms. Do. You. Understand. How. To. Fill. These. Out?” and she realized that Christina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling.”

“I speak English.” I said.

“I bet you do,” Christina Tomas said. “I just don’t know how well.” – page 133

“Depression was what happened to Americans, with their self-sabotaging need to turn everything into an illness. She was not suffering from depression; she was merely a little tired and a little slow.” – page 157

As you can see, Adichie discusses controversial and sensitive topics within her novel but the subtle hints of domestic violence, racism, patriarchy, poverty, and other real-life problems are all incorporated within Ifemelu’s life. Ifemelu is observant and picks up on such issues and discusses them on her online blog, it is inspiring to think that a fictional character can be confident and speak her opinion to strangers on the internet. I feel as though we all have similar thoughts to Ifemelu but the moment we open our mouths to correct or educate people, we are being aggressive and intimidating. So, I leave you with a final quote:

“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard.”

This book is not a mystery or adventure, it is real, and this is how many feel and live. Don’t dive into it thinking otherwise.

Let me know what your thoughts are if you decide to read Americanah, you won’t be let down – I promise.

Happy reading!

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