I feel as if Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 offering, “Americanah,” fell into my lap at the perfect time. As a recent immigrant to Brooklyn, I was looking to diversify my reading list and maybe find out something of the place I had landed in through the eyes of others who have found themselves swallowed up by this noisy, raucous city. I had read Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” some years ago and whilst I couldn’t remember much specific about it, vaguely thought it had been enjoyable at the time. This seemed like a safe bet book – especially with the lovely gold New York Times Book Review 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR medal tacked on the front cover.
What I wasn’t expecting was to find a book that spoke to me so clearly that I couldn’t sleep the night I finished it. Here was a woman who had perfectly captured my own feelings on being dropped into the Brooklyn maelstrom. There are moments where she describes the simple experience of being in an American grocery store, the enormous, flavourless fruit, the overwhelming array of toxic multicoloured cereals, of accents heard but not understood and I was able to recognise myself the week before. A sense of things being familiar in some ways and inexplicably alien in others. I will never make the mistake of asking the concierge for a ‘parcel’ as supposed to ‘package’ again…
There is much in this book that is thought provoking. Whilst I do not share the heroine, Ifemelu’s, Nigerian roots and therefore experiences of race and race relations in the USA, her sense of separateness, otherness and struggle to find an identity that was both true to where she came from and open to embracing her new home was something that I could viscerally identify with. It is testament to Adichie’s skilful prose that this book is able to transcend, for me, the very obvious social commentary regarding race and culture.
That this novel has also made an appearance in my life the week of Trump’s new travel ban seems also, searingly prescient. The talk of immigrants is everywhere in New York at the moment. The collective horror and urgent conversations around dinner tables making the issues surrounding immigration and race central to more people’s lives than ever before. It has been eye opening and disconcerting to find myself even tiptoeing on the other side of the fence, to think of myself as an immigrant and what that means in terms of personal identity – how much loyalty to have to home and how much to embrace a new culture. Adichie’s bold and sharply observed portraits have driven home how complex and ever present the issue of race, of otherness is, not only in the USA, but also Britain. Something that last year, whilst comfortably ensconced in my teaching job, living in my cottage, I would have academically appreciated but not dwelled upon, has been thrown starkly into the light for me.
And so my small sense of otherness in the vast sprawl of New York continues. The realisation that whilst “Americans are so friendly!” “New York is different,” everyone is in their own bubble. Separate. Which this new immigrant finds oddly reassuring.