Hell Is Not Listening to Other People

And now, dear reader, for something a little different.

Winter break has given me time to revive my oldest and most beloved hobby: reading. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to get through a few gloriously unassigned books. And I figure, why leave that enjoyment to myself? Today I’ll share with you my thoughts on one of the books I’ve read for fun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah.

When I carried this book around with me during my last week on campus (delusionally hopeful that I’d find time between finals to start it), several people told me it was an amazing book. And they were right.

At its heart, Americanah is a sort of love story, circling around past lovers Ifemelu and Obinze who reconnect over email and across countries. The story, which spans from Nigeria to London to the United States, is wrapped in beautiful prose and woven through with observations about race.

While the story and language are lovely and powerful at times, what really stood out to me were those observations. Ifemelu grows up in Nigeria and moves to America, where she starts a blog documenting her view of America as a “Non-American black”. And, as you may imagine, her view is very different from mine, and from many people who grew up in the United States. I found it startling how surprised Ifemelu was that Americans constantly say they are “excited” about things and often use mental illnesses to explain people’s actions. Were those really things that other people don’t do? More than that, as you may be expecting, Ifemelu’s observations about race were enlightening. In Nigeria, she didn’t have an awareness of her race the way she did in America. Her curiosity, surprise, and discomfort with American ideas about race that she encounters in her interactions abroad made it clear to me that the way we treat race in America is not the way it has to be. I mean, I knew that in theory, but reading about it from an outside perspective really emphasized just how ridiculous this country’s mindset can be.

In her blog, Ifemelu offers advice to the “American Non-Black”. After listing many “don’ts,” (such as “Don’t say ‘Oh, racism is over, slavery was so long ago.'”) she offers what to do:

Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not all about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to the possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding. (406)

This advice, as well as the experience of reading a book told from a perspective very different from mine, reminded me of Adichie’s Ted Talk that I watched for a sociology class last year. Titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” the talk focuses on the perils of viewing life from one lens. It’s important to remember there are people in different situations than you. It is important to listen to them. It is important to foster “friendship and connection and understanding” rather than conformation to a single ideal.

That idea, along with the compelling characterization and language of the novel, is what I take away from Americanah. And of course, I by no means have created a full summary of the story or distilled all of Ifemelu’s advice here. I encourage you to read the book for yourself, and carry its words with you. Like Ifemelu encourages, ask questions in real life, and listen to the answers.

I’ll still my own voice for now to do just that. In the meantime, I encourage you to talk and listen among yourselves, and here’s Adichie’s Ted Talk for those who are interested:

 

And here’s a citation (do people cite things in blog posts?):

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah. N.p.: Anchor, 2013. Print.

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