Every year, the Robbins Library selects a novel for all interested in Arlington to read and discuss. This year’s selection is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and is the story of a young woman growing up in Nigeria, coming to America, struggling, succeeding, and returning to Nigeria. Along the way she encounters the discovery that she’s black, and what that means in America, examines self-transformations required to “fit-in” or succeed, in both the black and white communities, confronts economic disparity in both places and speaks frankly through her blog posts of what she finds on her journey.
It is a compelling tale, told more as a narrative than a novel. It has been criticized as having poor character development, for the main character Ifemelu being “not very likable”. Some like the way it ends, some don’t. Some like the characterizations of her boyfriends, relatives, and associates, some find them shallow representations, some say they are reasonable symbols for the narrative. It is a book that creates a lot of conversations in the groups that have formed to discuss it.
Personally, I found the voice of the narrator strong, but unfriendly, and even considered putting the book down about a quarter of the way through it.I’m glad I didn’t.
Personally, I found the voice of the narrator strong, but unfriendly, and even considered putting the book down about a quarter of the way through it. I’m glad I didn’t. Once I became comfortable with the style, I became engrossed and couldn’t put it down. I attribute my initial discomfort to my personal biases. That alone was revealing.
Pervasive through the narrative is personal contrast between Ifemelu and her surroundings, and between the secondary characters and the choices they make in their situations. There is an abiding question of identity throughout – who am I in relation to [this person, this group, this community]? Who do I want to be? These questions have sparked similar questions in readers about culture, race, gender, class, and personal will.
A deep dive into unfamiliar territory for most of the readers
Discussions in the groups have generally included gratitude for the information – the deep dive into unfamiliar territory for most of the readers, and how that deep dive contrasted with their previous perceptions, or reinforced concepts that they had heard mentioned but never really appreciated their impact. The scenes in the hair salon have been the subject of many discussions, with expressions of wonder and concern at the effort (and pain) involved.
The ending of the book has also produced contrasting discussions, ranging from appreciation, to confusion, to disappointment. Proof, I think, of the depth of involvement with the characters.
The library, together with the Vision2020 Diversity Task Group, is holding a discussion on “Identity”, based on passages in the book, with an interesting panel willing to talk about their personal experiences. Information on this panel discussion can be found here: https://www.robbinslibrary.org/events/details/3460
Brooks Harrelson is a member of the Arlington Vision2020 Diversity Task Group, and was a member of the selection committee for Arlington Reads Together 2016.