Image taken from https://www.chimamanda.com/book/americanah/
We watched the opening salvo of The Great American Read on PBS. It caught me, snagged my imagination, demanded a response.
The next day, my son James and I stopped at our local library, and there, in a display right by the entranceway, was a stack of lists of the 100 Great American Read books. I picked one up and took it home. With a pink highlighter, I marked off all the books I’d read.
My total came to just a little over half. And there were books on the list I knew I’d never read: I am not called at all by 50 Shades of Grey, for instance, nor do I have a desire to read the Left Behind series. But I love the idea of a reading list made up by readers voting. Talk about your canon! These are books the dialogue is wrapping itself around. These are books real people are buying and borrowing, enjoying and critiquing, discussing and dissing.
I have a reading groove: I like stories of friendship and fellowship, of challenges met. I like it when people use ingenuity to tackle a problem. I like an ending where the knotty problem gets untangled, where things get figured out, especially when wit and courage come into play. I like it when the severed bonds are re-forged, and when the protagonist ends the struggle satisfied and enriched.
I find that same kind of story in many genres—from Outlander to The Help to Lord of the Rings. But reading the same kind of story, even with wildly different settings and characters shaped and framed in varied personas, just can’t be good for me. Bloggers like John Lauck (here’s a good example: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/68849234/posts/17662) challenge me to leave my comfort zone and to engage with books that demand my attention while they stretch my boundaries.
Sometimes, I should read books that make me work a little.
I think The Great American Read is a great opportunity to make that kind of stretch in the community of others.
So, Let’s start with an ‘A’ book, I thought. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was the first book I chose.
Americanah quickly drew me into to its protagonist’s, Ifemula’s, world.
Ifemula was a Nigerian girl, child of a working-class family, bright enough to go to the best school with the children of wealthy parents. The beginning of the novel links Ifemula and Obinze—Zed. (Ifemula, for intimate reasons, calls Obinze “Ceiling.”) Zed is the son of a university professor, and a lover of all things American.
Ironically, it is Ifemula who winds up studying in the States. Obinze goes to England and stays illegally, searching for a means to gain a visa. He is ejected; back in Nigeria, he creates a different life and becomes wealthy.
Ifemula earns a bachelor’s degree at an exclusive US school, suffers an assault, lets go the cord that connects her to Obinze.
She becomes a successful blogger. She loves a white American man; she loves a Black American man. She decides, finally, to go home to Nigeria.
The middle of the novel chronicles her separation from Obinze.
And then she goes home, and the connection is tenuously reforged. I waited, cautious and worried, to see if this connection would work or not.
I will not share other details of the story, which is wonderfully worth reading. I will say that it was different, plot-wise, than my usual read. It challenged me in many ways, and one big way was my perception of race. For Ifemula, race is not a construct until she comes to the United States. In Nigeria, she does not think of herself as ‘Black.’
I had to wrestle with that a bit.
And there are questions of loyalty, of integrity, of choice and its dangers—conflicts, really, that the book invites me to engage with.
Americanah challenged me to challenge my assumptions.
I read up a little on the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian native whose works have been translated into thirty or more languages and who has spoken all over the world. I started with her website (https://www.chimamanda.com/about-chimamanda/), and I traveled from there to her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-1100576).
In that talk, I found the hazy thoughts I’d been trying to articulate melded into clarity. There’s a danger in only reading a certain story; it’s the danger of a limited horizon, of a distorted understanding.
And that’s the value, I think, of The Great American Read: it dares us to lunge out of our comfortable grooves and to read a different story. It even gives us a place to discuss the daring reads we encounter.
I am alternating my reading this summer—a Great American Read book with one of the books waiting gamely on my shelves. I am excited at the different worlds I will encounter. I am glad to be part of the conversation. And I look forward to hearing from you, if you are talking part in that conversation, too.