“Americanah’s” Exploration of Race and Immigration Astounds

In a world filled with constant distractions, with beeping and buzzing gadgets begging us for attention at every turn, and webpages upon webpages rife with content and opinions, why would anyone bother to read contemporary fiction? The answer, at least for me, is that well-written fiction can both entertain and educate. It can teach me something about the world around me, about the experiences of others, and most importantly, that despite our differences, we’re actually not all in this alone.

A recent study showed that reading literature (versus popular fiction) can strengthen your ability to empathize with your fellow human beings, and it’s important to realize that “literature” doesn’t just mean something published years and years ago. A book like Americanah, which was published last year and subsequently named to multiple “best of” lists by publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post absolutely qualifies.

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Written by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians struggling to escape their country for the greater opportunities available in America. We learn what it’s like to grow up poor in Nigeria, under military rule, and the various ways people there deal with this tough situation. Some seek solace in a bottle, for instance, while others believe salvation lies with the church (usually led by a preacher who curiously is much wealthier than his parishioners). For the youth, Nigeria’s limited opportunities means many of them have to look elsewhere if they hope to have a career at all.

The book is about so much more than the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, however. It’s also a classic immigrants’ tale, of the difficulty in adapting to life in a new and strange country.

Specifically, too, the book explores the complicated feelings of Africans who choose to come to America, where they must face a complex racial landscape very different than that in their home countries. One of the themes throughout the book is that for many of them, it’s when they reach America that they “feel black” for the first time in their lives, because back home, nearly everyone was. It was a new perspective I appreciated reading about.

The characters of Ifemelu and Obinze are so lifelike and so compelling that I was sad to leave them at the book’s end. I learned so much from them, and I rooted for them. And, as great fiction should do, the book left me feeling both challenged and enlightened. For that, I am grateful.

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