Considering I am one of the whitest people you could ever meet (if it is anything more than bright outside I tend to reach for the factor 30…..) I have been enjoying a lot of fiction written from a black perspective recently ( We Need New Names, Ghana Must Go and The Invention of Wings are ones which spring to mind). Along with all the Nordic stuff I suspect this reflects an interest in reading about people who have a hugely different experience of life from my own – and, oddly, the main thing I get from this is how similar people are in the end. While I may never have had to flee my home, experience slavery or adopt a baby moose* the feelings and emotions I read about seem familiar.
Americanah, on the face of things, is another novel far from my own life. There is an interrupted love story, two characters who have to learn to live in unfamiliar countries and an underlying sense of danger. It is easy to take Ifemelu’s account of a middle-class childhood in Nigeria at face value – there is a certain amount of privilege, although some families are obviously poorer than others, and politics seems to happen to other people – but the bigger problems are there. Things we take for granted, running water and power, are unreliable; the army seems to have powers which go beyond anything justifiable; in the later parts of the novel corruption and the oil industry are ever-present. Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love, is deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant – and because our current reading is always informed by books we have read in the past – I was instantly reminded of the experiences of Little Bee in the wonderful The Other Hand.
The best thing about this book for me is the fact that I hope I now understand more about what it is like to have to consider my race as a factor in my day-to-day life. I am, all things considered, hardly likely to become black so it may seem that this is not useful information for me. However, Ifemelu’s blog posts are very instructive for everyone – white people, American black people and non-American ones – and often seem to be full of common sense. The most important thing I think I have learned is that I will not fully understand the experience of someone of a different race but that it is not wrong to ask them about that experience. I cannot tell them how they should feel or be – but they can explain it to me….
I did have some problems with this book. One of the aspects shared by the other novels I have read with African protagonists is the way that the rich variety of accents and voices are made audible through the writing. I could hear the rhythms of speech in all these other books – in this one, although much is made of Ifemelu’s conscious decision not to lose her Nigerian accent and adopt an American one, I just can’t hear it. It is a minor point but it bothered me. However, Ifemelu’s words, as written in her blog as well as in her speech, are very realistic. She isn’t perfect but she is not afraid to give her opinion. I think I would like her very much….
*The moose was in a Nordic novel. Not an African one.