selections from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

PART 1

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here. (3)

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“Why?” he asked. He taught ideas of nuance and complexity in his classes and yet he was asking her for a single reason, the cause. (8)

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espadrille (n.)
a light canvas shoe with a plaited fiber sole.
Not that Dike would ever wear those shoes that looked like espadrilles. (9)

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histrionics (n.)
exaggerated dramatic behavior designed to attract attention.
Ifemelu thought little of Nollywood films, with their exaggerated histrionics and their improbable plots, but she nodded in agreement because to hear “Nigeria” and “good” in the same sentence was a luxury, even coming from this strange Senegalese woman, and she chose to see in this an augury of her return home. (16)

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“Don’t worry,” she said, and touched his shoulder. “God will bring Shell. We will be okay, darling.” (27)

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“But you know these men, the one woman that says no to them is the one that they don’t forget.” (29)

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Big Men and Big Women, Obinze would later learn, did not talk to people, they instead talked at people, and that evening Chief had talked and talked, pontificating about politics, while his guests crowed, “Exactly! You are correct, Chief! Thank you!” (30)

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To have money, it seemed, was to be consumed by money. (31)

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There was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself. (34)

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For Yemi, a book did not quality as literature unless it had polysyllabic words and incomprehensible passages.

“The problem is that the novel is too simple, the man does not even use any big words,” Yemi said. (38)

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PART 2

catarrh (n.)
excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane.
“I had catarrh this morning,” she would start. (53)

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She had always got along with Ifemelu’s mother, the easy relationship between two people who carefully avoided conversations of any depth. (64)

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“I bet I speak Igbo better than you.”

“Impossible,” he said, and switched to Igbo. “Ama m atu inu. I even know proverbs.”

“Yes. The basic one everybody knows. A frog does not run in the afternoon for nothing.”

“No. I know serious proverbs. Akota ife ka ubi, e lee oba. If something bigger than the farm is dug up, the barn is sold.”

“Ah, you want to try me?” she asked, laughing. “Acho afu adi ako n’akpa dibia. The medicine man’s bag has all kinds of things.”

“Not bad,” he said. “E gbuo dike n’ogu uno, e luo na ogu agu, e lote ya. If you kill a warrior in a local fight, you’ll remember him when fighting enemies.” (74)

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“She’ll come back and be a serious Americanah like Bisi,” Ranyinudo said.

They roared with laughter, at that word “Americanah,” wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke. (78)

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“Just be yourself,” Aunty Uju told her and Ifemelu replied, “How can I just be myself? What does that even mean?” (82)

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“If anything happens between you and Obinze, you are both responsible. But Nature is unfair to women. An act is done by two people, but if there are any consequences, one person carries it alone. Do you understand me?” (87)

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Obinze wanted to go to the University of Ibadan because of a poem.

He read the poem to her, J. P. Clark’s “Ibadan,” and he lingered on the words “running splash of rust and gold.”

“Are you serious?” she asked him. “Because of this poem.?”

“It’s so beautiful.” (107)

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harmattan (n.)
a dry, dusty easterly or northeasterly wind on the West African coast, occurring from December to February.
It surprised Ifemelu, how much she had missed Nsukka itself, the routines of unhurried pace, friends gathered in her room until past midnight, the inconsequential gossip told and retold, the stairs climbed slowly up and down as though in a gradual awakening, and each morning whitened by the harmattan. In Lagos, the harmattan was a mere veil of haze, but in Nsukka, it was a raging, mercurial presence; the mornings were crisp, the afternoons ashen with heat, and the nights unknown. Dust whirls would start in the far distance, very pretty to look at as long as they were far away, and swirl until they coated everything brown. Even eyelashes. Everywhere, moisture would be greedily sucked up; the wood laminate on tables would peel off and curl, pages of exercise books would crackle, clothes would dry minutes after being hung out, lips would crack and bleed, and Robb and Mentholatum kept within reach, in pockets and handbags. Skin would be shined with Vaseline, while the forgotten bits—between the fingers or at the elbows—turned a dull ash. The tree branches would be stark and, with their leaves fallen, wear a kind of proud desolation. The church bazaars would leave the air redolent, smoky from mass cooking. Some nights, the heat lay thick like a towel. Other nights, a sharp cold wind would descend, and Ifemelu would abandon her hostel room and, snuggled next to Obinze on his mattress, listen to the whistling pines howling outside, in a world suddenly fragile and breakable. (112-113)

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“You should never ever let the boy be in charge of your own protection. If he does not want to use it, then he does not care enough about you and you should not be there.” (118)

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Aunty Uju’s cell phone rang. “Yes, this is Uju.” She pronounced it you-joo instead of oo-joo.

“Is that how you pronounce your name now?” Ifemelu asked afterwards.

“It’s what they call me.”

Ifemelu swallowed the words “Well, that isn’t your name.” (128)

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If Ifemelu had met Alma in Lagos, she would have thought of her as white, but she would learn that Alma was Hispanic, an American category that was, confusingly, both an ethnicity and a race, and she would remember Alma when years later, she wrote a blog post titled “Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Hispanic Means.”

Hispanic means the frequent companions of American blacks in poverty rankings, Hispanic means a slight step above American blacks in the American race ladder, Hispanic means the chocolate-skinned woman from Peru, Hispanic means the indigenous people of Mexico. Hispanic means the biracial-looking folks from the Dominican Republic. Hispanic means the paler folks from Puerto Rico. Hispanic also means the blond, blue-eyed guy from Argentina. All you need to be is Spanish-speaking but not from Spain and voilà, you’re a race called Hispanic. (128-129)

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“They are not sausages, they are hot dogs.”

“It’s like saying that a bikini is not the same thing as underwear. Would a visitor from space know the difference?” (132)

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At the grocery store, Aunty Uju never bought what she needed; instead she bought what was on sale and made herself need it. (133)

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Once, she asked Dike what he had done in school before summer, and he said, “Circles.” They would sit on the floor in a circle and share their favorite things.

She was appalled. “Can you do division?”

He looked at her strangely. “I’m only in first grade, Coz.”

“When I was your age I could do simple division.” (138)

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Years later, a blog post would read: When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded this courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue. “We are too superior/busy/cool/not-uptight to bother about how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall.” (157-158)

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School in America was easy, assignments sent in by e-mail, classrooms air-conditioned, professors willing to give makeup tests. But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called “participation,” and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily on their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in the classes. They never said “I don’t know.” They said, instead, “I’m not sure,” which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge. And they ambled, these Americans, they walked without rhythm. They avoided giving direct instructions: they did not say “Ask somebody upstairs”; they said “You might want to ask somebody upstairs.” When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say “Sorry.” They said “Are you okay?” when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said “Sorry” to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, “Oh, it’s not your fault.” And they overused the word “excited,” a professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement. Some of the expressions she heard every day astonished her, jarred her, and she wondered what Obinze’s mother would make of them. You shouldn’t of done that. There is three things. I had a apple. A couple days. I want to lay down. “These Americans cannot speak English o,” she told Obinze. On her first day at school, she had visited the health center, and had stared a little too long at the bin filled with free condoms in the corner. After her physical, the receptionist told her, “You’re all set!” and she, blank, wondered what “You’re all set” meant until she assumed it had to mean that she had done all she needed to. (164-165)

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She hungered to understand everything about America, to wear a new, knowing skin right away: to support a team at the Super Bowl, understand what a Twinkie was and what sports “lockouts” meant, measure in ounces and square feet, order a “muffin” without thinking that it really was a cake, and say “I ‘scored’ a deal” without feeling silly. (166)

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“Please do not go to Kmart and buy twenty pairs of jeans because each costs five dollars. The jeans are not running away. They will be there tomorrow at an even more reduced price. You are now in America: do not expect to have hot food for lunch. That African taste must be abolished. When you visit the home of an American with some money, they will offer to show you their house. Forget that in your house back home, your father would throw a fit if anyone came close to his bedroom. We all know that the living room was where it stopped and, if absolutely necessary, then the toilet. But please smile and follow the American and see the house and make sure you say you like everything. And do not be shocked by the indiscriminate touching of American couples. Standing in line at the cafeteria, the girl will touch the boy’s arm and the boy will put his arm around her shoulder and they will rub shoulders and back and rub rub rub, but please do not imitate this behavior.” (171-172)

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He looked people in the eye not because he was interested in them but because he knew it made them feel that he was interested in them. (184)

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She walked to the train, feeling heavy and slow, her mind choked with mud, and, seated by the window, she began to cry. She felt like a small ball, adrift and alone. The world was a big, big place and she was so tiny, so insignificant, rattling around emptily. Back in her apartment, she washed her hands with water so hot that it scalded her fingers, and a small soft welt flowered on her thumb. She took off all her clothes, and squashed them into a rumpled ball that she threw at a corner, staring at it for a while. She would never again wear those clothes, never even touch them. She sat naked on her bed and looked at her life, in this tiny room with the moldy carpet, the hundred-dollar bill on the table, her body rising with loathing. She should never have gone there. She should have walked away. She wanted to shower, to scrub herself, but she could not bear the thought of touching her own body, and so she put on her nightdress, gingerly, to touch as little of herself as possible. She imagined packing her things, somehow buying a ticket, and going back to Lagos. She curled on her bed and cried, wishing she could reach into herself and yank out the memory of what had just happened. (190)

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Did things begin to exist only when they were named? (195)

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In the den, Athena began to cry. Laura went to her and, soon enough, a string of negotiations followed: “Do you want this one, sweetheart? The yellow or the blue or the red? Which do you want?”

Just give her one, Ifemelu thought. To overwhelm a child of four with choices, to lay on her the burden of making a decision, was to deprive her of the bliss of childhood. Adulthood, after all, already loomed, where she would have to make grimmer and grimmer decisions. (206)

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One morning, Aunty Uju woke up and went to the bathroom. Bartholemew had just brushed his teeth. Aunty Uju reached for her toothbrush and saw, inside the sink, a thick blob of toothpaste. Thick enough for a full mouth-cleaning. It sat there, far from the drain, soft and melting. It disgusted her. How exactly did a person clean their teeth and end up leaving so much toothpaste in the sink? Had he not seen it? Had he, when it fell into the sink, pressed more onto his toothbrush? Or did he just go ahead and brush anyway with an almost-dry brush? Which meant his teeth were not clean. But his teeth did not concern Aunty Uju. The blob of toothpaste left in the sink did. On so many other mornings, she had cleaned off toothpaste, rinsed out the sink. But not this morning. This morning, she was done. She shouted his name, again and again. He asked her what was wrong. She told him the toothpaste in the sink was wrong. He looked at her and mumbled that he had been in a hurry, he was already late for work, and she told him that she, too, had work to go to, and she earned more than he did, in case he had forgotten. She was paying for his car, after all. He stormed off and went downstairs. (272)

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PART 4

“There was a feeling I wanted to feel that I did not feel.” (355)

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The most unforgettable dinner parties happened when guests said unexpected, and potentially offensive, things. (360)

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They tell us race is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a black person and a white person. Then they tell us black people have a worse kind of breast cancer and get more fibroids. And white folk get cystic fibrosis and osteoporosis. So what’s the deal, doctors in the house? Is race an invention or not? (374)

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epicene (adj.)
having characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex; of indeterminate sex.
There was something fluid, almost epicene, about his lean body, and it made her remember that he had told her he did yoga. (382)

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“Ifemelu, can I just say how happy I am that you’re not an academic? Have you heard his friends talk? Nothing is just what it is. Everything has to mean something else. It’s ridiculous. The other day Marcia was talking about how black women are fat because their bodies are sites of anti-slavery resistance. Yes, that’s true, if burgers and sodas are anti-slavery resistance.” (385)

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In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. (390)

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“We humans are not supposed to eat with utensils,” she said. (402)

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So after this listing of don’ts, what’s the do? I’m not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not 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 possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding. (406)

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cowrie (n.)
a marine mollusk that has a smooth, glossy, domed shell with a long narrow opening, typically brightly patterned and popular with collectors.
She was a vision in cowries, they rattled from her wrists, were strung through her curled dreadlocks, and looped around her neck. (415)

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What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White (429)

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“Although if he wins, he will no longer be black, just as Oprah is no longer black, she’s Oprah,” Grace said. “So she can go where black people are loathed and be fine. He’ll no longer be black, he’ll just be Obama.” (442)

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PART 5

He had discovered that grief did not dim with time, it was instead a volatile state of being. (458)

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PART 7

Her parents liked to talk about their visit to Baltimore, her mother about the sales, her father about how he could not understand the news because Americans now used expressions like “divvy up” and “nuke” in serious news.

“It is the final infantilization and informalization of America! It portends the end of the American empire, and they are killing themselves from within!” he pronounced. (489)

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“That girl never understood the first rule of life in this Lagos. You do not marry the man you love. You marry the man who can best maintain you.” (492)

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The Nigerpolitan Club meeting: a small cluster of people drinking champagne in paper cups, at the poolside of a home in Osborne Estate, chic people, all dripping with savoir faire, each nursing a self-styled quirkiness—a ginger-colored Afro, a T-shirt with a graphic of Thomas Sankara, oversize handmade earrings that hung like pieces of modern art. Their voices burred with foreign accents. You can’t find a decent smoothie in this city! Oh my God, were you at that conference? What this country needs is an active civil society.

[…]

Other people joined them, all encircled by a familiarity, because they could reach so easily for the same references. Soon they were laughing and listing the things they missed about America.

“Low-fat soy milk, NPR, fast Internet,” Ifemelu said.

“Good customer service, good customer service, good customer service,” Bisola said. “Folks here behave as if they are doing you a favor by serving you. The high-end places are okay, not great, but the regular restaurants? Forget it. The other day I asked a waiter if I could get boiled yam with a different sauce than was on the menu and he just looked at me and said no. Hilarious.” (501-502)

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Later, Ranyinudo told her, “I don’t understand how a fine boy like Dike would want to kill himself. A boy living in America with everything. How can? That is very foreign behavior.”

“Foreign behavior? What the fuck are you talking about? Foreign behavior? Have you read Things Fall Apart?” Ifemelu asked, wishing she had not told Ranyinudo about Dike. (524)

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“When I was babysitting in undergrad, one day I heard myself telling the kid I was babysitting, ‘You’re such a trouper!’ Is there another word more American than ‘trouper’?” (534)

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“The best thing about America is that it gives you space. I like that. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” (536)

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“When I started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn’t make sense. Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.” (538-539)

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She remembered how she had always wanted to beat him, even though he was the school champion, and how he would tell her, teasingly, “Try more strategy and less force. Passion never wins any game, never mind what they say.” He said something similar now: “Excuses don’t win a game. You should try strategy.” (544)

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“How very American, complaining about smoke,” Obinze said, and she could not tell whether he meant it as a rebuke or not. (548)

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This was love, to be eager for tomorrow. (553)

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They were talking about American politics once when she said, “I like America. It’s really the only place else where I could live apart from here. But one day a bunch of Blaine’s friends and I were talking about kids and I realized that if I ever have children, I don’t want them to have American childhoods. I don’t want them to say ‘Hi’ to adults, I want them to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon.’ I don’t want them to mumble ‘Good’ when somebody says ‘How are you?’ to them. Or to raise five fingers when asked how old they are. I want them to say ‘I’m fine, thank you’ and ‘I’m five years old.’ I don’t want a child who feeds on praise and expects a star for effort and talks back to adults in the name of self-expression. Is that terribly conservative? Blaine’s friends said it was and for them, ‘conservative’ is the worst insult you can get.” (563-564)

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And it struck Obinze that, a few years ago, they were attending weddings, now it was christenings and soon it would be funerals. (574)

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Okwudiba took a deep breath and exhaled, as though to brush aside the alcohol. “Look, The Zed, many of us didn’t marry the woman we truly loved. We married the woman that was around when we were ready to marry. So forget this thing. You can keep seeing her, but no need for this kind of white-people behavior. If your wife has a child for somebody else or if you beat her, that is a reason for divorce. But to get up and say you have no problem with your wife but you are leaving for another woman? Haba. We don’t behave like that, please.”

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