If you follow me on Twitter, you recently absorbed a barrage of book quote tweets with either the hashtag #Americanah or #TheirEyes. I didn’t intend to read Americanah and Their Eyes Were Watching God back to back, but now looking over the quotes I loved and the fervor with which I attempted to devour both books, it seems like an intentional choice.
If you haven’t rad Americanah yet, get on it already. This is Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s new one about Ifemelu, a brilliant, sharp-eyed young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States rather than trying to wade through the lethargy she finds in the aristocratic circles of Lagos, and Obinze, her adolescent boyfriend who tries to make a life in the UK. The writing is just flat out phenomenal and totally on-point, especially when Adichie turns Ifemelu’s eye to describing all manner of methods that women use to navigate the world:
“How important it was to her to be a wholesomely agreeable person, to have no sharp angles sticking out”
“Basking in the attention her face drew while flattening her personality so that her beauty did not threaten”
Americanah has thus far been, deservedly, drawing the most attention for its commentary on race relations in the United States. As a Non-American black person, Ifemelu approaches the knotted web of race politics with the dual lenses of insider and outsider. From that vantage point, she writes a blog documenting her observations about the peculiar and particular ways Americans of all colors attempt to engage with our history and our present. For me, I was drawn to Ifemelu as a narrator not for her racial commentary, but rather for her embodiment of the perils and pitfall of 21st century ambitious, educated ladyhood. What to do with all those smarts? What is useful to the world, and what is self-indulgent? Is self-indulgence bad? How much do we compromise for people that we love? How much do we take from our parents and how much do we leave behind? How do you make a life for yourself, and make it one that you are proud of?
Somehow, in the course of my liberal Massachusetts education, I zipped right by Zora Neale Hurston’s epic love story about Janie and Tea Cake, the mad dog, and the muck of the Florida everglades. Coming off the high of Americanah, so explicitly about a woman finding her authentic voice, Their Eyes was an incredible way to deepen that conversation.
If I ever teach a lit class, there will most definitely be a midterm paper assignment on these two books together. If you were recommending pairings of classic work with contemporary fiction, what would be on your list?
Related Post: Mapping the books I read and where I read them
Related Post: Live blogging my reading of Lean In.