Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The skinny white fat Nigerian in my head

Note: I usually do a book review post when I finish a book.  But I decided to do something different with Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and instead share thoughts and comments in a pseudo-real time.

The protagonist is a fat Nigerian.  We know this within the first page or two of the novel.  But the image in my head is a faceless slender white woman.  The same image I’d have for Elizabeth Bennet.  I realize this.  I try to change it.  I try to think of one of my larger Nigerian friends, a well-off woman who I can’t call fat because she’s lived abroad enough to consider it an insult coming from an American.  It doesn’t work.

I keep reading; the image changes.  As Ifemelu grows, the image in my head flushes itself out.  It begins with Ifemelu’s flashback to her school days in Lagos.  The image begins to take the form of a slender African teenager, drawing on any number of the girls in my Zam-fam, my village, or around the neighborhood in Abuja.

When Ifemelu immigrates to America, when she’s new and lost and navigating the strange straddling world of her aunt who has already been in America for some time, the image grows.  It becomes easy to fit each new bit of her into the image in my head.  Her clothes change.  Her attitude changes.  Her hair changes.  She relaxes her hair; she practically shaves her head; she grows and afro.  These changes manage to stick -  although for some reason she has a blonde afro – not white girl blonde, dyed honey blonde.  This protruding of my subconscious strikes me as odd again.

As the scenes pop back to the present, the Ifemelu in the hairdresser’s chair becomes a large, Nigerian woman with black hair being put into braids, puffs of unbraided hair sticking up in front.  An Americanized Nigerian woman who’s become bitter and condescending in ways that would probably surprise her young self (but fit perfectly into the developing image in my head). 

It takes at least half the book before this Ifemelu, the one described on page two, can finally take shape in my mind.

It bothers me a bit, that I cannot take a written description and make an image of it; that my defaults are so ingrained that it takes 200 pages, 200 pages of slow growth and character shaping, to get to something close to the written description.


… For some reason, I did not have the same trouble with the male lead character, Obinze.  Perhaps because my first introduction to him was as a school boy.  By the time he showed up as an adult, he’d morphed into a melding of Kevin Hart and Idris Elba.  I’m guessing the combo is because Obinze is described as not tall.


Apparently Lupita Nyong’o is going to play Ifemelu in the film.  I’m having a really hard time picturing that.  She’s so tiny and doesn’t look at all Nigerian.  At least the actor they have for Obinze, David Oyelowo,  is Nigerian, even if not Igbo like the characters.  Of course, they’re both such stellar actors, they’ll probably pull if off splendidly.

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