One of the key pleasures of reading (and, as it turns out, the one that makes you a better person) is the way you can be completely dissolved in the experience of a person which you will never know yourself. As a white woman living in London, there’s absolutely no way I can truly understand the myriad feelings experienced by a Nigerian moving to the USA. Being able to read about a fictional character’s experience in Americanah, through the eyes of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, I can get much closer than if I read a book of statistics or research papers on immigration.
The reason being, fiction is immersive. Through the creation of characters, a reader follows the emotional journey of a person, which creates empathy and understanding. The devising of plot and narrative exacerbates this, as I then become caught up in the challenges and problems this character faces. I learn to care about them, the things that are important to them, and, at least for those few hundred pages, appreciate what it must feel like to look out of eyes that are not my own when I see the world. If for no other reason, this is why reading must be placed as a high priority for everyone. Sure, I could watch a film, but I’m still a passive observer, it doesn’t give me the same sense of appreciation of how that person must feel, because I am watching it from the outside.
In fact, for so many people who insist on spreading their hate and ignorance of others, I would prescribe a book. Try telling me everyone on benefits is a scrounger after reading Tony Hudson Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole My Ma, or that immigrants should all go home after reading Boy Overboard. The list is endless. Anger and hatred largely springs from fear of the unknown, or a lack of understanding. Call me idealistic, but if we all sat down and read a decent narrative about the people we don’t understand, the world would be a far more pleasant place.
Americanah is primarily a love story, a tale of the complexities and problems that still make themselves felt in what appears to be the perfect relationship. Echoing this is the convoluted and problematic love story between the people of Nigera and the idealised Western cultures of the UK and, primarily, the US.
Firstly, it’s just a great story. The characters are compelling and interesting, the language and description evocative. It also sidesteps the often problematic idealisation of the ‘homeland,’ where it is described as verdant, lush, fertile, exotic, in contrast to the cold and hard Western world. Although this is more of a trope of the old fashioned ‘colonial’ novels, in those as recent as Mr. Pip it’s all too recognisable. Of course, it may well be because it wasn’t written by a white person idealising a native culture.
Which is one of the well-crafted elements of the novel. It captures the struggles and concerns of non-white people in Western culture, as well as looking at the equally problematic Nigerian culture. It does it in a way that, through the voice of the main protagonist, is blunt and unapologetic.
The literary techniques employed by Adichie are also impressive. By making the central character a blogger, she is able to boldly comment on the nuances and hypocrisies of modern US culture. This allows (what one assumes is the author’s) personal experiences and grievances to be aired. The novel can make overt political statements without needing to awkwardly place them in the mouths of the characters (although this does occur in places. The sense of shared hope in the lead up to Obama’s election is beautiful).
She also directs her two central characters to different locations (US andUK) in order to illustrate two very different immigrant experiences. Even so, it doesn’t feel like a plot device, mostly because of the characters.
Above all, characters are Adichie’s forte. The language to show their expressions, appearance and mannerisms are what truly makes this book a delight to read. Ultimately, it’s through the desires and actions of the characters that subtle political messages emerge, highlighting the myriad issues and problems in both Western and Nigerian culture, and clearly showing that there aren’t any simple solutions.
After all, this is surely the gateway to greater understanding. As Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s hard to understand someone until “you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” If we are able to empathise and relate to an individual’s experiences, it is far harder to lump them int a homogenous racial or gendered group that judgements can be made about. We are firstly, people. We would do well to remember that.