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Saturday, March 12

Americanah or the lesson of self-invention

Two years ago, I spent 4 months in USA on a fellowship, alongside other foreigners from around the world. The people in my organization were working with Native Americans from the Paiute and Shosone Reservation. My boss thought it would be good to join a book reading club to read Sherman Alexie, a very Native American writer, to get some inside perspective on how to better communicate and work with the Reservation folks. I never say no to books so I accompanied her gladly. At the first meeting, the host asked us to introduce ourselves and our people which sounded a bit strange to me. I was the last to talk so this gave me a chance to wonder at the thorough family tree presentations of all other guests. Since I am addicted to reading and secretly foster writing ambitions;), I concocted a lovely story on my half Italian, half gypsy heritage. They were fascinated with my skill to depict how I break plates when angry -courtesy of my Italian hot temper- and how I cannot contain my nomadic, traveling urges of my Gypsy ancestry. Everybody laughed in delight and I felt both ashamed and amazed. My fabricated identity had been forged. 

In USA, you either have the right to reinvent yourself or you feel the pressure of doing so. It almost stands a requirement. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's book Americanah is living proof of how a foreigner arriving in USA to study and live, slowly and surely, comes to develop a double self on the path to adulthood. The novel does not tell it is a bad thing but rather describes in flashbacks Ifemelu's journey from being a Nigerian young woman into becoming an Americanah. In doing so, she leaves her heart at home to Obinze, the love of her life and goes to Philadelphia for postgraduate studies. She starts a blog, begins to relax her hair, dates a rich white man, loves a smart Black man, buys her own condo, gets tangled in the issue of race, makes friends, aches for people and survives.




The book is wolf in sheep's clothing or a satire dressed as romance. Her love for Obinze from whom she gets separated, is but an excuse to present the bad, the good and the ugly of the two nations: the American and the Nigerian. In doing so, she forges her new adult version of herself and becomes the woman and writer she desires to be. She makes mistakes and learns lessons, but all the time she never loses her ability to filter and digest reality and emotions and to take responsibility for everything she does. The book swings between past and present, from one narrator to the other -Ifemelu and Obinze- adding color and collecting all her dissatisfactions in a silk purse like her Aunty Uju who turns from elder sister, confident and role model into a woman that Ifemelu loves, yet knows she never wants to become. 

The novel is about the sweet nothings you render in an essential manner and although it is, for instance, hard to relate to issues that define Black people and racism, it is interesting to see how the whole concept of race and blackness strictly depends on perspective. Similarly to other writers such as Junot Diaz, this female author creates the female version of the 21st century immigrant character. There is requited an unrequited love that defines not only people but places and national realities as well. One major theme of the book is longing and how we not only miss people but places, memories, stances, versions of ourselves. Throughout all these, we stand fascinated by the little curiosities people foster and cherish. Such details speak of commonalities across geography and gender, race and boundaries because they are proof of our humanity. To me, this is the best asset of the book- the lode of humanity that permeates its layers and its global attire. 

The greatest challenge of an American experience is carrying the weight you feel when you return. It is so intense and confiscating that it splits you in halves that need not to sew back, but sprout into other valid versions of yourself. You come back hating or loving it. You come back an Americanah because you are aware that human identity takes migrating and shifts in and out of yourself because identity is not about nationality but about experience. 
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