America Seen Through a Nigerian Lens

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Last week I had the pleasure of facilitating a discussion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah at the Physicians’ Literature and Medicine discussion group at the University of Utah Hospital. I knew Adichie’s novel might seem a provocative or odd choice for this group since less than two percent of Utah’s population is black and the “medical” character, Aunty Uju, is not the protagonist, but an interesting secondary character, a Nigerian doctor who struggles in the U.S. and acts as a foil to the main character, Ifemulu. But the relative lack of diversity in our community seemed to me a strong argument for reading Adichie’s excellent novel.

I admit I was hoping to see at least few African or African-American faces around the conference table. Alas, no such luck. We did, though, have participants of Chinese, Cuban, and Arab ethnicity, and others who work primarily with immigrant and non-white populations on the diverse west side of Salt Lake City, so it was a more diverse group than might have been expected.  We had a thoughtful conversation about the struggle of the main character, Ifemelu, as an African in America (as opposed to an African-American) and the value of her outsider perspective on American race relations.

What I most admire about Adichie’s book is its unflinching dissection of America’s racial neuroses paired with a surprisingly generous vision of humanity and optimism for the future. Adichie writes, “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

The conventional American immigrant story ends with the immigrant’s abandonment of her culture of origin and assimilation into the “superior” American culture. Adichie tosses out that ethnocentric formula. In Americanah, the home country, Nigeria, is itself undergoing a radical transformation and the “happy ending” has Ifemelu choosing to give up her hard won success in the U.S. and returning to Nigeria to build a new future in this changing place.  Food for thought, indeed.