So let’s talk the controversy. I was excited about reading this book because I thought it sounded interesting and was curious how Veronica Roth would follow up her Divergent series. That was until reviews started to come in and people began talking about the racism surrounding the plot. Now, I don’t necessarily think it is intentionally racist but it is definitely problematic. So the plot revolves around two different races of people who share the same planet. The fair-skinned, peaceful Thuve people and the dark-skinned warrior race Shotet. Right there raised flags for me. That the more violent people are described as being dark in skin, eyes and curly hair versus the more light skinned, blue eyed, straight hair peaceful neighbors. Everything about the Shotet’s is described violently from their language to their tradition of marking their arms with every kill. It brings up images in our society about we are programmed to think that those with darker skinned are more dangerous then those of us who have lighter skin tones. That the lighter skinned people are somehow inherently just better people. And that is why at first I felt a little uncomfortable reading it. However, it didn’t turn me off either. As the story continued, I became more invested in the characters Akos and Cyra. I don’t think ever really got past the uncomfortableness of it but I did want Cyra to best her abusive brother and Akos to rescue his. They compliment each other really well. Cyra has a gift for pain. Pain that she inflicts on others but also lives in her while Akos gift is that he nullifies the current. In this world, everyone has a gift granted by the current. Each gift is different depending on the person. Cyra brother is the ruler of the Shotet people and has been using her as his own personal torturer. She has gained the reputation of being cruel when she is only doing what she is told to do but deep down she knows that she deserves the pain she feels thanks to her painful history. Akos is kidnapped by the Shotet with his brother when their fates clash with the Shotet ruler. Both Cyra and Akos really grow throughout the novel. They both see in each other that they don’t have to be what they raised to be. That they can choose their own paths. The ending was a little meh but it did pose one interesting question that makes me at least interested in the sequel. It might be too late for Veronica to fix the unfortunate world building choices in the sequel but I do hope that in the future she takes more time to ask herself, why she is making these choices in her writing. Is it because this is who the character really is or something that has been internalized in herself coming out on the page.
I started this audio book on a road trip. At first I thought it was going to be too heavy for the drive. (You have to be careful with the books you pick. If the text is especially dense or the story doesn’t move along at a decent clip you can find yourself frustrated with the story in a way that you wouldn’t be frustrated if you weren’t also in the middle of a really long drive). But, by the beginning of chapter two, I was hooked. The book centers on Ifemelu, a woman from Nigeria who at the opening of the story has been living in the US for a while and is now preparing to move home to Lagos. The narrative switches between her current life and her preparations for (and arrival in) Lagos, posts from her blog on being a Non-American Black in America, and the story of her past. And, the whole thing was so beautifully written. I cared so much for the cast of characters in this book. Ifemelu was so likable. She broke my heart and made me laugh and I cheered for her. She met a lot of white people who made me cringe. Sometimes I cringed because I saw myself in their behavior. Other times I cringed because their behavior was just so surprising because it violated Ifemelu’s person or autonomy and it is surprising to me (although it probably shouldn’t be) that it’s 2016 and we don’t treat everyone with respect for their person and their autonomy. Let me give you an example: WHY WOULD YOU TOUCH A STRANGER’S HAIR???? EVER???? WHY???? Or, even a friend/lover/family member’s hair outside of them saying, “Oh my god my hair is so soft today! Feel it!” or otherwise inviting you to do so???? Or, why would you speak really slowly and loudly to someone who is not from here after they’ve told you that they’re from a former British colony where English is currently an official language? I get it, Americans aren’t good at geography and Africa is a huge freaking continent but… Nigeria, while being a place with incredible linguistic density and diversity, is also full of English speakers. And, most American universities require that you demonstrate English proficiency before you enroll. (For potentially obvious reasons, that kind of stuck in my craw and annoyed me long after the story had moved on.) Ifemelu’s observations on American race relations, on Americans and charitable organizations and on Obama’s 2008 campaign alone made this book worth the read.
I’ve seen Adichie’s TED talk and I’ve read articles that she’s written for various publications but this is the first book by her that I’ve read. It won’t be the last. She has a singular voice. Her characters are real and vivid and this story tackled big topics without feeling like it was preachy and also without making them the center of the story. Racism and anti-racism were woven into the narrative and it gave me so much cause to think (See: the cringe worthy white people) without shouting at me that I should be thinking. That right there is a hallmark of an awesome book. I was still thinking about issues it eluded to long after I finished the book.
So, if you’re interested in reading a contemporary African author but, for some reason, you’re worried that an African author will have nothing to say to you that will be relevant to you or that you’ll understand, well, you should probably examine why you think that. But, while you’re examining your thinking, you can read Americanah. It’s a book written by an African author that is largely set here in the States. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.