The human stories that matter are those that endure
June 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
Ever read something that makes you feel naked, but not in a way that embarrasses you? Instead it tells a truth you were unable to articulate, or only disclosed to a select few because the shame or pain of that experience was still raw and required a kind of vulnerability you didn’t have the strength for, or could not afford. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah did this to me. The more I read, the more undressed I felt; large fractions of my most intimate stories, save for a few differences, splayed across pages.
It is no secret that I have an affinity for books that address the immigrant experience. More so, those that tackle the subject in a fashion that doesn’t beg for sympathy but authentically explores the struggles, triumphs, and the things we consider too taboo to disclose to the outside community so we keep them amongst ourselves. Some of my favorites are Jhumpa Lahiri’s the namesake, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brown stones, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, and now Amerincanah.
Like one of the main characters in Adichie’s novel, Ifemelu, I was a foreign student and as a result found it quite easy to identify with her. I won’t be presumptuous to assume that every foreign student or immigrant would feel this kind of kinship. However, a lot of her experiences mirrored mine. From the letters in bold print from the bursars office; “YOUR RECORDS WILL BE FROZEN UNLESS PAYMENT IS RECEIVED BY THE DATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS NOTICE,” and the voice of the love she left behind trying to buoy her via a phone line, to her inability to work because of her status. Or, more seriously, the circumstances that would eventually cause the fissure that grew between them.
I am not sure if Adichie’s life or that of someone close to her informed this book. However it is very clear that she took care in making sure that it was as authentic as possible. For example, the exchange in the hair braiding salon:
“How you get your papers? Aisha asked.
“How you get your papers?”
Ifemelu was startled into silence. A sacrilege, that question, immigrants did not ask other immigrants how they got their papers, did not burrow into those layered, private places, it was sufficient simply to admire that the papers had been got, a legal status acquired.
“Me, I try an American when I come, to marry. But he bring many problems, no job and every day he say give me money, money, money.” Aisha said, shaking her head. “How you get your own?”
…I got mine from work.” She said. “The company I worked for sponsored my green card.”
“Oh.” Aisha said, as though she had just realized that Ifemelu belonged to a group of people whose green cards simply fell from the sky. People like her could not, of course, get theirs from an employer.
Ifemelu’s observation of Aisha’s reaction reminded me of the hierarchy in some fractions of the immigrant community. Not that Ifemelu was guilty of it, but I’ve found that a lot of immigrants can be judgmental, even harsher than a group of Xenophobic Americans. With those immigrants, there are tiers of relevance and importance. At the top are naturalized citizens, followed by permanent residents, and just above the undocumented or illegal aliens but below the permanent residents are the visa categories (F-1/international students, H-1 work visas, H-1b/spouses and children under 21 of H-1 holders etc). Also, how one gains their green card may rate their importance. It is not sufficient that this type of scrutiny already exists outside of the community. We must be perpetrators too and carry it out on each other.
But Americanah does not only explore the immigrant experience. It is in essence, a love story; definitely not a cliché but one that examines other themes such as race in America. For example, the dinner party that Ifemelu attended where she belted, “When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, look how far we’ve come. Just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”
Adichie allows her characters to say things we have all thought of at one point or the other. At least I have, and seeing it on paper made me chuckle. Case in point: “He had at first been excited about Facebook, ghosts of old friends suddenly morphed to life with wives and husbands and children, and photos trailed by comments. But he began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background the things of which they were proud.”
However, it would be a severe injustice to portray Americanah as a collection of heavy themes, political commentary and satire. It is more than all of these. Chimananda Adichie wrote a story that is honest, unpretentious and very realistic. It is exquisite literary fiction that explores a lot of the things people, more so expats experience and does it with a very careful hand. It is a very well constructed novel worthy of every minute spent reading its 477 pages. Quite honestly, I am tempted to disclose more of its content; the lighter, laughter inducing stuff. But that’s a disservice to you. On the other hand, I will admit that the ending is a little unbelievable. I thought the conclusion was a little too easy and that in reality, it might not end that way. Nevertheless, Americanah will be one of my all time favorites because, as one of the characters said, “The human stories that matter are those that endure.” And this one definitely mattered.