Robert Gottlieb on his career as an editor and publisher, and a life spent among many of America's greatest writers.
Ifemelu and Obinze are young college students in love when they leave military-ruled Nigeria. She heads to America on a scholarship, while he plunges into an undocumented life in London. For the first time in their lives they grapple with what it means to be black. They are the lead characters in the award-winning novel “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book is many things: a romance, a story about immigration and a series of observations about race and what it means to be American. A readers’ review discussion of “Americanah.”
- Dana Williams professor of African American literature and chair of the English department, Howard University.
- Dan Kois editor of the Slate Book Review and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine
- Dayo Olopade journalist who writes for the Atlantic, the New Republic and the New York Times. She is a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale Law School, and author of "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa."
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright © 2013 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A beautiful and smart Nigerian woman leaves military ruled Nigeria and heads for America. For the first time in her life, she wrestles with racism and what it means to be black. She's the lead character in the award-winning novel "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Joining me for this month's "Readers' Review," Dana Williams of Howard University, Dan Kois of the Slate Book Review and Dayo Olopade, journalist and author of "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa."
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join our conversation. I know many of you have read this wonderful book. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. DAN KOISThank you.
MS. DANA WILLIAMSThanks for having us.
MS. DAYO OLOPADEThank you.
REHMGood to have you here. Dana, I wonder if you would start and talk a little about Ifemelu. She is such a vivid character in this book and yet she yearns, at some point, to leave her native country and explore the world.
WILLIAMSYes, I think that she's kind of quintessential immigrant character in the 21st century, if you will. And it's a wonderful way to narrate the story, because we get to talk about the story in so many different ways, because we see it through her eyes. In most of the story, not all of it, I was thinking about the narrator today and thinking that most of it was focalized and then I realized no, there are different points where we see different characters. So, we see her talk about immigration, we see her talk about a love story, really, both requited love and unrequited love.
WILLIAMSThis kind of flippant personality, which I really loved. The fact that…
REHMYou loved that?
WILLIAMSI did. I did. In part -- we were talking about this earlier, it may be a bit autobiographical in the like kind of category for me, because she's very clear and emotional, but then also just curious. And would do things that aren't necessarily okay for everyone else, because she is willing to be curious and to act on those curiosities. We see her talk about Nigerian politics, its economy, its challenges. The blogging thing, we'll talk about I'm sure. It's an academic element to the story and then there's the class story and the race story and then there's questions of blackness, as you eluded to earlier.
REHMAnd did you like the book?
WILLIAMSI did. And I actually liked it better the second time that I read it. The first time, I thought, so much is happening in this book. I wanted it to come together neatly, and it wouldn't for me. But the second time, I knew what was happening, so I think that I liked it a lot better. And I then had read all the other texts and had a better feel for her style, and I really enjoyed it.
REHMDan Kois, how did you feel about this novel?
KOISI really loved the people in the novel, while sometimes being frustrated with the novel itself.
KOISJust saying I really love Ifmelu. I really love Obinze. I loved their relationship. I love that love story that, for me at least, was often at the center of the book. I love that the book and that the author was pretty fearless in going after a lot of issues in the United States, of immigration in the United States, of race in the United States, that she had opinions and that she was fully free to put them in the mouths of these characters. And to deal with stuff that a lot of novels don't bother or don't have the guts to deal with.
KOISAt the same time, I often found myself, at times in the novel, thinking, oh man, I wish we could get back to these characters and give me more of the characters and the story that I want as opposed to getting sidelined, from time to time, with a sort of dialectic element, which often made the book strong, but often at times I felt waylaid it as well.
REHMDayo, how did you feel about Ifemelu?
OLOPADEI mean, I think this book is highly autobiographical. I think Chimamanda Adichie sort of radiates through all of the prose in the book. For me, as a first generation American, from Nigeria, I think the book felt deeply autobiographical for me, as well.
OLOPADEYou know, we were classmates at Yale. There's an element of, sort of, her journey from the US to Nigeria and back that very much tracks my own. And so, the elements that were set in Lagos and in the UK. You know, the book is very ambitious and very geographically diverse. And it different kinds of settings, right? From, you know a university town in Nigeria to a very fancy university on the east coast. This person is present, and this person sort of negotiates these things in these different contexts in a way that is required of the sort of 21 century, sort of Diaspora figure.
OLOPADEAnd I think, to that extent, I really enjoyed the book for being something that felt very, very familiar. I also think that's an unusual perspective, obviously. This book is an extremely popular one that many different kinds of people are reading, but to the extent that it illuminated an experience that I felt to be very real, one that I could recognize, I found it to be really compelling as a read. And obviously, it's a very complicated book with lots and lots of different aspects that we'll get into.
REHMIfemelu is so in love with Obinze, and yet she needs to leave him. Why? Why does she need to leave Nigeria?
OLOPADEWell, I think, you know, there's different waves of migration from Nigeria to its Diaspora. I think some of them were driven, as with my parents, by seeking better educational opportunities. Some were driven by the collapse of the economy and the rise of the military dictatorship. Ifemelu falls somewhat in between, and some of the modern migration is just simply about, you know, the globalization and pursuing different opportunities around the world. Ifemelu leaves to come to school. This is a story that represents Adichie's, as well.
OLOPADEAnd I don't think that it's about leaving Obinze as so much as making sure that she is taking care of her own aspirations, so as not to feel regret or resentment. I think that's one of the sort of key -- and we could call it a feminist choice, we could call it all sorts of things, but it certainly represents a prioritization of her own ambitions over the shared ambitions of their relationship. And I think to the extent that it's an unusual choice for Nigerian women, it is an American sort of thing to do, which is ironic enough.
REHMBefore Ifemelu leaves for her partial scholarship, her friends call her Americanah. What does that mean to you, Dana?
WILLIAMSWell, I think the book gives us this really interesting perspective of someone who's been in the US for some time, but also someone who sees herself as an immigrant. And it gives us this look at America as an idealized kind of place that then becomes something of a disappointment. But then also provides all of these opportunities that we see the character's completely invested in. I think it's crucial too that she decides, ultimately, in the end, to go home so that she's not romanticizing this American space. But to call it Americanah is this kind of -- I mean, they're poking fun, of course, at one of the young ladies who thinks that everything American is all good and great and wonderful.
WILLIAMSAnd she's ultra-proper. So they poke fun at this kind of proper notion of America as well.
REHMAnd in the beginning, she tries to hide her Nigerian accent. And why does she do that, Dan?
KOISWell, she has this sense that she already feels so foreign in this place and that she has a sense of wanting to assimilate in a very specific way. But there's -- I mean, one of the more powerful moments in the book, I think, is that moment when she realizes the pointlessness of that exercise and how much she needs to find her own voice in America, right? A lot of this book is consumed with this character finding her voice and she does it first by literally re-finding her own accent and the way she talks. And then she does it by becoming a writer and becoming a thinker and becoming an academic and contributing in that way.
WILLIAMSI think too, it's interesting that her concern with the accent has to do with the way that other people perceive her.
WILLIAMSAnd so that coming into her own voice is so informed by the fact that she's less worried about the way that the world views her and she begins to self-identify in ways that she's been clear about all along, but she also had this kind of care about what other people thought about her. Because they would talk to her as though she were slow or something or that somehow she was unable to understand, when she's saying her English is, in some ways, more perfect than theirs.
OLOPADEIt's also very indicative of this sort of context based migration story. And I think one of the things, and I'm sure we'll get into it, about her discourse on race in America, is the extent to which it felt novel, right? Everyone in Nigeria has a Nigerian accent. Right? And so, to feel othered and marked by her diction, by her appearance as a minority, as an outsider, is new. And I think that's what's so interesting about, and informs a lot of the discussion about race in America is that it's -- she was raceless until she came to the United States.
OLOPADEShe was -- she was a majority. She was part of the majority culture until she came to the United States. And so, that is the thing that many different kinds of migrants are battling with and grappling with. Suddenly being thrust into a position of exposure, where you are the only person who looks like you and talks like you. And maybe it's your family and your close associates, but it's a really, you know, it's a complicated, disruptive experience.
KOISThere's that great section in...
REHMYou can call us on 800-433-8850 if you've read the book and want to share your thoughts. You can leave a comment on our website at drshow.org or chime in on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag drreads. I'll be looking forward to reading all that. You wanted to say something about her blogs.
KOISOh yes. Well so, I think -- I would love to hear what everyone else here thought about this, because for me, one of the real weaknesses of the novel, as a reading experience, was this sense where I felt that frequently I would experience a great scene. Like, there would be a great scene in which we really see if Ifemelu -- experiencing a real, recognizable thing, having a great interaction or a great moment with another character that helps her learn something or helps her advance her story.
KOISBut then that moment would be cut by sort of a blogg-y summing up that must tell us something about America.
REHMDan Kois. He is Editor of the Slate Book Review. Short break here. Right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined me, here in the studio Dana Williams. She's professor of African American literature, chair of the English department at Howard University. Dan Kois is editor of the Slate Book Review, contributing writer to the New York Times magazine. Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian American journalist. She writes for the Atlantic, the New Republic, the New York Times. She is a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale Law School and author of "The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa."
REHMAnd of course we are talking about the book that I must say I loved. It's "Americanah" and it is the book written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now here's an email from Liz in Baltimore who says, "This was a treat of a novel. I think it's a lot more than discovering how to be black in America. I'm a light-skinned Jamaican. I found this novel hilarious as an account of being an immigrant of any color to the U.S. And yes, an interesting and often sad account of how people of color are regarded by certain sections of American society." How does this young woman encounter race and how does she begin to realize she's different?
OLOPADEWell, as I said earlier, I mean, it's a revelation to her. Race is a revelation in America. As someone coming from Nigeria where it's not -- you're not marked as other. And so for her, the realization that she is different and she is going to be treated differently provokes a response to sort of analyze and deconstruct. And so much of the book is the plot of her adventures in the United States, her dating adventures with different men.
OLOPADEAnd the substance of the racial critiques for the most part take place in a series of log posts that are -- hold no punches, that are sort of relentless and has this wonderful effect of being like, who me, I'm just an immigrant. I'm just writing what I see. So there's this wonderful sort of arms length distance that allows her to sort of be -- to offer what I can only describe as real talk about how race works in the United States.
OLOPADEThere's also a moment in the United Kingdom, which I think is something further fuelled for many American readers, where race has a similar impact on the life of the character. And it's a combination of being a migrant and being a person of color. There's a moment when Obinze, who has migrated to the United Kingdom and having a tough time finding work...
REHMVery, very tough.
OLOPADEYes. We can talk more about that.
OLOPADEAnd he -- I'm reading from the book now on 320. He's on a train to Essex and he noticed that all the people around him were Nigerians. "Loud conversations and (unintelligible) and pigeons filled the carriage. And for a moment, he saw the unfettered nonwhite foreignness of the scene through the suspicious eyes of the white woman on the tube." And so throughout the book I think there are moments where Adichie, either through another character or in these blog posts, allows us to deconstruct those sort of racial interactions of everyday life, both in the UK and in the U.S. And I think it's provocative and important and allows us to talk more about things that we might otherwise leave unaddressed.
WILLIAMSI thought it was important that her perspective of race or the representation of race was really three dimensional and not this kind of flat portrayal of what race looks like. And although at some points in the blog posts she makes the attempt to say that it's flat. So I think at the end of one of the chapters she says something like, is race biological or not? Black people are more apt to get sickle-cell anemia well, where as white people are more prone to osteoporosis. Would someone just tell me what it is?
WILLIAMSAnd then there's the post with Obama of course, is he anything but black, where she makes it clear that at the end of the day were he not president and visibly recognizable then he would be stopped and profiled in the same way that anyone else would. We see that kind of complicated incident with Blaine and the librarian where two black men are interacting with each other. And the assumption is that a drug deal is going on because he lets the man have his keys -- or the man gives the keys back.
WILLIAMSSo we see race represented in terms of color, in terms of affect where you have those conversations in the salons or with Blaine and his friends in the academic setting where they're very clear that race is complicated. But at the end of the day, it is the kind of discrimination element that we have to fight against. But there's also the kind of ideological conversation. The diversity of the representation I think is what's important and the way that it's couched as both this foreign but also this very intimate experience.
WILLIAMSEspecially, I'm thinking about the use of narratives or the use of stories as a kind of meta diegesis that happens in the story or this kind of meta-nary of happening in the story where she talks about Balwin (sp?) or she talks in the fire next time or she talks about Cain. The way that she engages these texts to begin to think about American mythologies is really interesting. Because at the core of that American mythology is this insistence on race as something that must be reckoned with.
REHMAnd for you, Dan Kois.
KOISI love that the listener just noted how hilarious she found this story as someone who has shared some measure of that in her own experience. Because, you know, Adichie has said in interviews that she cracked herself up over and over again writing this novel, that she really viewed it as a comedy through and through. And I've been really fascinated by sort of the different response that different people have for this book.
KOISI think that for a lot of white middle class readers like me that we understand in concept how these things are communicated, but we're so busy being righteously appalled at the way other white people are that we just can't see the humor in it. But settling into the book and seeing the jokes is one great way to enjoy this book a lot more.
REHMAll right. I'm going to -- excuse me -- I'm going to open the phones because I want to get listeners involved here. And let's go first to Jennifer in Baltimore, Md. Hi there, you're on the air.
JENNIFERHi. I wanted to talk a little bit about (word?) talk a little bit about her aunt. And I thought her aunt was very interesting in terms of her character transformation. I think she went from the one who was, you know, put in the position of I, I guess, a little bit of a vulnerable position as someone who came about in America to be so strong.
REHMExactly. I loved Aunty Uju and she is in the beginning of the book, Dayo, she's the mistress of a very powerful general, and what happens?
OLOPADEShe comes to the United States and is raising her son there as a single mother. And again, the context was quite different. In Nigeria if you're a kept mistress, perfectly understandable, perfectly constant and with a lifestyle without judgment. Or maybe if there was judgment there are no consequences.
OLOPADEIn the United States being a single mother kept by no one is a quite different circumstance. And so Aunty Uju ends up being independent, keeping the same sort of headstrong willfulness that makes her and Ifemelu sort of more like sisters. And they have an incredibly intimate and close relationship. And ultimately, you know, casts about for different men to be with. And I remember a particular moment where she says, I can't believe I'm with this guy. He's, you know, sort of a boring accountant from Massachusetts. You know, this is someone I would never even look at in Nigeria.
OLOPADEAnd again, you know, underscores the ways in which, you know, life is different and context matters and things that are acceptable, things that would be unremarkable in Nigeria or in America, you know, really displace her and make her sort of struggle with her own identity as a mother and as a migrant.
REHMHow did Aunty Uju affect you, Dan?
KOISI liked her a lot too. And I missed the sort of -- you know, Aunty Uju, as the caller said, is in a somewhat precarious position often in Nigeria simply because, you know, as is revealed when everything goes to hell for her she's in big trouble.
REHM...falls apart. Yeah.
KOISBut she also was sort of a player. Like she was really -- she had her fingers on a lot of buttons and she was really in control of her circumstances in a way that made her a really interesting and powerful character in that world. And then seeing her sort of, for a while at least, in America brought low was frustrating for me. As for -- not in an unpleasant way as a reader but as a way where I really felt for her character and wanted to see her sort of seize control of her life again. And then seeing that boring accountant from Boston or those guys that she ended up with made me feel like, this character's -- this person's wasted on America.
REHMHuh, interesting. Let's go to Sue in Lynchburg, Va. Hi there.
SUEHi. I enjoyed all of the comments on America and her struggles as an immigrant, but what I found particularly instructive as an American, following news as best I can, was her portrayal of Nigeria. Because I think the sort of news we get on Africa, including Nigeria, is one could think that there's the wealthy ruling class. And everyone else is out there impoverished, blowing themselves up, stealing gas. Whereas this portrays a healthy educated middle class. And I found that instructive on considering what immigrants from Nigeria and elsewhere face and assumptions.
OLOPADEI think you're quite right to acknowledge that tension between perception and reality. And I think it's magnificent that you have not just Adichie but a whole crop of writers who are illuminating all of the nuances of the African middle class, however you wish to define it. Certainly, you know, in my book I explored, as someone who's from the United States who grew up here but spent time in Nigeria, this perception and reality sort of gap.
OLOPADEI think what's really interesting about this, and Dana mentioned this earlier, is that she goes back to Nigeria. This also reflect Adichie's personal life as well where it is not the sort of the migrant comes to America, makes good, moves into a mansion and it's sort of the American dream. This has components of a Nigerian dream or African dream where you want to feel at home.
OLOPADEAnd this is a live trend where Nigerian Americans, Nigerians all across the Diaspora are moving home. My family is part of that story. And the sometimes uncomfortable realities of that are really interesting where there's a group of people who are at a party or something and they're like, oh we can't find salad, which is a very class -- I mean, I laughed and laughed because it's so true, right. Where it's not that there's no greens available. It just might be in something like efariro (sp?) soup. But you're not going to find kale. You know, that's not what's going on in Nigeria. And so it's about making these refinements and adjustments across the Diaspora. It's funny.
REHMAt the same time she is certainly somewhat disappointed when she goes back to Nigeria. Things are not quite as they were.
WILLIAMSYeah, and I think she's trying to make peace with that. I think she's grown up so she's matured. So she certainly has a different perspective. They can't be the way that she anticipated them being or the way that she remembered them being from, you know, leaving at 19. And we see her make a similar choice, Aunty Uju, in the sense of being a kept woman of sorts. But they're also similar in the sense that the thing that attracted the general to Aunty Uju for instance was that she asked for one bottle of cologne and books.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a caller in Baltimore, Md. Hi, Julia. You're on the air.
JULIAHi there. I really loved the book and I'm from a multiracial family. I'm a white Jewish woman married to a Puerto Rican raising an African American daughter. And I thought the book was really insightful and powerful read from race dynamic perspective. But I kind of -- I wondered what the panel thought about kind of the lack of discussion by the main character about her own sexuality. Like there's this awful moment that is the precursor to her breakdown where she uses her sexuality to survive. And then it kind of destroys her.
JULIABut maybe it's because she speaks then directly to the reader about the race dynamics but there's not this direct discussion or conversation about gender in America, sexuality in America. She doesn't have a good, you know, friend in America. It's all mediated to these relationships with men. So I wonder what the panel thought about that.
REHMAll right. Dan Kois.
KOISI did wish that there was a little more given to that but at the same time, you know, that moment that you referred to with that awful moment with the tennis coach in his basement, that is really the low ebb of her experience right before she finally gets a job in the United States. For me that even was not really a moment about gender. I mean, easy for me to say but it seemed to me to be specifically about clinical depression, about the depression that can accompany this traumatic experience of immigration. And I mean, that's what is described that she is suffering afterwards, that specifically describes her as feeling like a thick screen between herself and her own feelings.
REHMAnd of course it comes after her breakup with this very wealthy individual who kind of gave her everything. But she said, I don't want it anymore.
WILLIAMSYes. I think it's kind of like the race conversation in the sense that gender's very different. And I can't speak from personal experience as a Nigerian but I think the way that we see gender represented by Nigerian women in a Nigerian culture in a general sense is very different. There isn't this kind of strict dynamic or this dichotomy between male and female.
WILLIAMSThis is about ability in some instances. This is about intellect. This is about so many different things other than just, you know, she has a female body part and a man has a male body part. It is complicated for her in terms of her mental wellbeing but we also see her act in many ways not very feminine, if you will, in the sense that she's not expecting to be kept. So Blaine is rich but it seems almost coincidental. Her attraction to him is a kind of purse attraction as opposed to I'm attracted to his whiteness or attracted to his money.
WILLIAMSSo we being to think about even gender in different ways. And I think that gets complicated interestingly in the Adichie conversation about Beyonce and feminism, you know, the TED Talk that she gave. And so we see her grappling with that tension even in this text, that gender isn't for her or for these characters the same as we want to think about it.
OLOPADEI mean, I think this is a book about shame. I think shame is the thing that tears Obinze and Ifemelu apart. Shame is the thing that motivates people not to talk about race in America. Shame is what you're supposed to feel about your hair, about your accent, about all of the different context in which shame drives people. And I think part of why Ifemelu finds such an important and accessible voice is about on some level -- and I think this is what connects the sort of -- the sexuality component to the migration story and all of the other themes of the book -- she decides that she's not going to be ashamed about certain things. She's going to talk about them and you can deal with them as you please.
OLOPADEAnd I think the journey from this very low moment where she is depressed, as Dana points out, where she's done something truly shameful in the context of, you know, Nigerian culture, it's even worse. I mean, I think it's hard for people to perhaps put into context like the extent to which this was a really devastating thing that she would be ashamed of. To her sort of triumphant return to Nigeria as someone who's, you know, made -- has succeeded in the United States, has found, you know, rewards for speaking her own mind. And throughout the book is very frank about sexuality, is about being -- is about pride as opposed to shame.
REHMDayo Olopade. She's a Nigerian American journalist and author. Short break here and when we come back, more of your calls. You can send us a tweet, you can post on Facebook. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking, in this hour, about the novel "Americanah." We chose it for our July "Readers' Review." It is the award-winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It's the story of love, of immigration, of shame, of romance, of all kinds of things that really get explored in different ways by the characters themselves. But also by the blogs that the central character Ifemelu writes. What did you think of those blogs, Dan Kois?
KOISI enjoyed many of those blog posts and I enjoyed their -- I enjoyed this sense of a person finding her mode, right? Of, you know, of finding this role she wants to take on of a commentator on the things that she's seeing. Dayo, I loved your description of her, positioning herself as, oh, I'm just an immigrant. I just see these things. And even the title of the blog, which is like really the most closed tab title I've ever seen for a blog. It's called "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks, open parentheses, Those Formerly Known as Negroes, closed parentheses, By a Non-American Black.
KOISLike, that's a mouthful.
KOISBut I did like those blogs. But then, what frustrated me about the book, and I would be interested to see if you guys felt this, as well, was the way the blogginess of those posts seemed to infect a lot of other moments of the book. And so I take, for example, this scene in the book, it's right around page 360, when she and her white boyfriend, her rich white boyfriend Kurt, Ifemelu and her boyfriend Kurt get into this debate about Essence Magazine. And she is telling him why Essence is an important magazine to exist, and he's like, well, what does it matter?
KOISWhy do we need a whole magazine just for black people? And so then she takes like -- we're expected to believe that real human beings then went to a Barnes and Noble and he sat patiently for half an hour while she shows him literally every single fashion magazine in the shop. And then he says, okay, you got me. And like, that was the kind of scene that felt to me -- that was a blog post that someone wrote that was then transformed into a scene that would never happen between human individuals. You know what I mean? Like, no one would actually have that conversation. It's a great argument and an important argument that needs to be made about America and representations of beauty, but it's not a scene between characters that I believe.
WILLIAMSI think there are many self-reflective moments in the text and one of them that begins to get at the thing that you're talking about with why the blog becomes somewhat significant is we see Ifemelu in conversation with Shan and some of her friends. And Shan is upset because her book hasn't done well, and so someone says, well, you have these great stories. Won't you turn them into a novel? And she says, are you kidding me? You can't write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it'll be too obvious.
WILLIAMSBlack writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the 10,000 who write those ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices. They can do "precious" or they can do "pretentious." When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with it. And it follows -- or, what follows is a black -- a blog post about Obama, but then it's also one that comes right after the blog post about why black women, or black people, love Michelle Obama. Or, they actually love Obama, she says, because he married Michelle.
WILLIAMSSo there's the hair conversation in there. There is the race conversation. There is the inter-racial marriage all happening. And I think only the blog posts allow her to do that.
REHMThere's a lot of talk about hair. You remind me.
WILLIAMSYes, there is. Quite a bit. Of course, it opens with her in the studio getting her braids done, or shortly thereafter, she gets on the train where she wants to -- she has to leave Princeton, as wonderful a place as it is, to go to New York to get her braids done, because she can't get it done anywhere in New York. So, there is a lot of conversation about hair in the novel, because it becomes kind of this metaphor for grappling with race and identity, I think.
REHMDo you agree, Dayo?
OLOPADEYeah, I mean, I think the reception in Nigeria, from my anecdata, is sort of frustrated around that particular issue. We can talk more about how it's been, how the book has traveled...
KOISAbout the hair issue?
OLOPADEYeah, I mean, I think people, you know, and Lagos is like the weave capital of the hemisphere. So, people felt a little attacked by -- this is a very Americanah perspective, to come and say, oh, natural hair is better. But it's a real conversation. And to agree, in part, and disagree in part with Dan's assessment of the blogs. I think there's a lot of realism, certainly like -- you know, I found myself giving like the long monologues that you read in the book myself. And so I do feel like there is an element of realism, perhaps not also present in the blog posts, which are a vehicle, as Dana points out, for making lots of complicated points.
OLOPADEAnd I think reflect a different kind of realism, which is that is a sort of vernacular of the internet, right? I mean, she mentions post Booshie, a blog that is a real one, that often has this sort of, you know, cross cutting sort of collage like discourse on ongoing issues of the day, whether political, whether cultural, whether hair based, and I think it is a different voice, one that maybe, at times, is not as accurate or real as the book. There's another moment when she's flipping -- this is in reality, not in the blogs.
OLOPADEShe's flipping through magazines with her friend Katherine, who is a white woman, and she says, isn't that model so beautiful? And the model has very dark skin. And Ifemelu, in the book, replies, you know, you don't have to say that she's beautiful. Not all black people are beautiful. And I think those moments that land in sort of more naturalist way makes the same point as like the weird skimming through all the magazines point. So, I mean, Idichie is such a skilled satirist. She has an incredible wit.
OLOPADEShe's got a great voice. The blog posts are more experimental and a different voice, clearly, than Ifemelu's. But throughout the book, there are just these incredibly brilliant moments of insight that I think everyone can enjoy.
REHMHere is an email from Sima. She says my only complaint about the book by the time Ifemelue comes back to Nigeria, I was beginning to tire of her self-discoveries, which seemed to be becoming self-indulgent. I wanted a conclusion to the relationship with Obinze. I also found her relationship with Kurt, the white liberal, a little hard to believe.
WILLIAMSWell, isn't it ironic that we have such difficulty with having a female character be at the center of a book and have her figure things out about herself over and over and over again. I mean, that's the life we live, right? So, we don't want to read it in a book, though. We don't want to read it in a sustained way. I guess we don't want it for 588 pages. And I can say that with a certain amount of guilt as well, because I kind of felt that way the first time I read the book. The second time I read it, I completely got why those self-discoveries were so important.
WILLIAMSAnd those satirical moments that we were just talking about with the blog post, with the different conversations that she has with her kind of affect and her movement back and forth between spaces. I could then find those with the second read, whereas in the first read, I think I was thinking more -- how many more times is she going to re-quote-discover herself? So, I can see the point, but I think it's -- I beat myself up a little bit for not wanting to stay with a story of self-discovery by a woman at the center who was unabashedly focused on thinking about herself.
KOISDo you feel like then -- I mean, I agree with you to some extent that that's an unfamiliar story for many readers, and that it's one that ought to be told. Do you feel like then the romance with Obinze was necessary to this book? I mean, do you feel like that cheapens that message or lessens that message if, in the end, the book closes on this long section about them and their relationship and the plot that ends up driving it is not her own self-discovery. But will they or won't they, basically?
WILLIAMSNope. It didn’t cheapen it at all for me, because I think that's so much a crucial part of the human experience. I mean, in the sense that you discover yourself so that you can see yourself in relation to others, right? So there's that Duboisian notion of broad sympathy, knowledge of the self and of the world as it was and as it is and your relation to it. So, seeing yourself in your own eyes and for yourself is one thing, but the point of doing that, to some degree, is to understand yourself in relation to others.
REHMHow realistic do you find the ending, mainly that if Ifemelu does go back to Nigeria, at first she does not contact her boyfriend. He is already married with a child, he has made a ton of money. He lives a very wealthy life. We never quite learn how he has made all this money. How did you find that ending, Dayo?
OLOPADEI just -- I mean, I thought it was wildly unbelievable, but still incredibly enjoyable. Given, as I think I mentioned earlier, that shame is this thing that more than anything I think animates conservative Nigerian culture, the idea that they would pursue an act of such shamelessness...
OLOPADE...just rain falls. I think that there is an enormous amount of like, sort of self and externalized policing of behavior in those sorts of environments, of the upper middle class in Nigeria. So to that extent, I think it was incredibly unbelievable. But if, you know, we zoom out a little bit and think about this journey of self-exploration and I think the sort of procession of boyfriends. You know, the white boyfriend, the black American boyfriend, like the Nigerian boyfriend. Like, this was a process of self-discovery and to sort of, at the very end, decide screw it. Like, we're just gonna go for it.
OLOPADEWe're gonna live without shame. We're gonna have this very, I think complicated and sort of sexually charged relationship. And we're just gonna go for it, you know, everyone else be damned...
OLOPADE...I think represented this sort of, the apex of this journey that we've been following all along, However unrealistic it may be.
REHMHow did you feel about it, Dan?
KOISI love that this notion that that is the real, the true measure of her Americanah-ness, is that she is willing to be as shameless in her sexual relationship as any old American would, in like a deeply shame filled culture. I love them as a couple, and was so grateful when they got back together.
KOISYeah. I mean, because I had spent like hundreds of pages...
KOIS...just send the guy an email. The poor guy. Just send him an email for goodness sake.
REHMAnd back that up, because he had sent her many.
REHMAnd she had not responded.
KOISThen she gets to Nigeria and even then she's like, oh, I'm gonna, I want to lose some weight. But so, when they actually got together, I was just like so relieved and happy to see them together that I was willing to overlook...
REHMBut what about his wife? What about his child?
WILLIAMSI think, for me, I guess there's this like kind of hopeless romantic notion there. I thought that Obinze, from the beginning, was just so different from all of his friends. And his friends recognized that too. So it wasn't so unrealistic or so surprising that he would actually be one of the ones to leave. Because remember that conversation that he has with his friend, when he says, I'm in love with her. Because everyone's asking him, what is wrong with you? Why are you so tired? Why are you so down?
WILLIAMSAnd he'd say listen, you don't leave your wife. You just keep her as mistress. I mean, like, that's a given. And he says no, I don't want that for myself. So, it wasn't terribly unusual for, in my estimation, I thought that it was another kind of Obinze moment, but I did have certain feelings for his wife and his child. Of course, needless to say. But she, I think, the way that it's narrated, I think that she brings it on herself. Oh gosh, I can't believe I'm saying this.
WILLIAMSThis is hilarious to me, right? When she knows that he's having the affair, and he thinks that he's keeping the secret, it's the fact that she knows and she took it that I think is the deal breaker for him.
OLOPADEThat's Nigeria. That's how it goes.
REHMThat's what I hear about, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What would that wife have done had it actually happened?
OLOPADEI think she would have -- I think it was spot on. I think she would have been like, see no evil, hear no evil. I think that that is -- I mean, you know, when you think about Auntie Uju's relationship as a mistress, I mean, it is a, an extremely common arrangement and I think, you know, you can judge it. You cannot judge it. But it's real, and I think people, you know, turn a blind eye to this kind of arrangement all of the time.
REHMWhat about the money factor? How do we assume he made his money?
OLOPADEI mean, I think there's some -- there's a sketch of how he has managed to amass such an incredible amount of wealth. A lot of it is relational. I know a guy, you know a guy, your relationship and your reputation accelerate. There's a classically funny moment about needing to have like a white benefactor or someone who can go to the meetings with the bank. And then there's a moment Obinze is coming back to the US, because again, he was deported from the United Kingdom, he was at a very low moment.
OLOPADEHe had always dreamed of coming to the US, was thwarted in that goal, finally arrives on his own steam as a wealthy man with a visa. And at the airport, they're like, how much cash do you want to declare? And he's like, I had become the kind of Nigerian that was expected to declare mounds of cash at the airport. And that is a very different kind of Nigerian than the one who arrives, you know, with a couple of battered suitcases and, you know, a phone number of a friend of a friend to stay with. And that entire spectrum is like the Nigerian Diaspora experience. And so, to illuminate it is, you know, I think really an incredible achievement.
KOISThere's that great moment when he -- it's very early in the book when he's complaining about how everyone keeps calling him humble and what he's coming to realize -- the line is he wished his friend would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal. But they're saying is that your humble because you're not a jerk like every other rich person in Nigeria. And like, and that you treat other people like human beings. And so this sense of class in Nigeria is very, very well drawn. And really brought that world to life in an interesting way.
REHMDana, there's a blog post I know you wanted to read on page 403. Let's see if we have time to read at least some of it.
WILLIAMSAll right. I think this one is -- it's one of the ones without a title, but we see this conversation again about friendly tips for the American non-black, how to react to an American black talking about blackness. Dear non-American black, if an American black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please don't eagerly bring up examples of your own life. Don't say, it's just like when I -- you have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered, but you have not suffered precisely because you are an American black.
WILLIAMSDon't be quick to find alternative explanations for what happened. Don't say, oh, it's not really race. It's class. Oh, it's not race. It's gender. Oh, it's not race. It's the Cookie Monster. You see, American blacks actually don't want it to be race. They would rather not have races happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it's maybe because it actually is. Don't say I'm colorblind, because if you are colorblind, then you need to see a doctor. It means that when a black man is shown on TV as a crime suspect in your neighborhood, all you see is blurry, purplish, gray-ish, cream-ish figure.
WILLIAMSDon't say, we're tired of talking about race. Or the only race is the human race. American blacks, too, are tired of talking about race. They wish they didn't have to. But things keep happening. Don't preface your response with one of my best friends is black, because it makes no difference and nobody cares. And you can have a black best friend and still do racist things and it's probably not true, anyway. The best part, not the friend part. Don't say your grandfather was Mexican, so you can't be racist. Don't bring up your Irish great grandparents suffering.
WILLIAMSOf course, they had a lot of things going on established...
REHMAnd I'm gonna have to stop you there. Our listeners are going to have to read the book on their own. Dana Williams, Dan Kois, Dayo Olopade, thank you all so much for being here for this discussion of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And for our next "Readers' Review," "Someone" by National Book Award winning author, Alice McDermott. I hope you'll join us for that, and that will be toward the end of August. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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