The Quest for Cultural Intimacy

“She was standing at the periphery of her own life, sharing a fridge and a toilet, a shallow intimacy, with people she did not know at all.”

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Americanah

Not all that long ago, I hadn’t even heard of Adichi. I found her book on a list of books “all women should read.” I’d go further–this is a book that all human beings should read, if for no other reason than Adichi writes beautifully. Her words are masterpieces, phrases strung together with a wry, raw beauty. This is a book about black people in America, both American- and ¬†African-born. This is a story about immigrants and emigrants. It’s a story about being out of place. It’s about racism and our perception of the Other. It’s about leaving home and realizing too late that you can never truly go back. It’s about growing up away from home. But even more than all those things, this is a book about intimacy.

Ifemelu, the novel’s protagonist, has moved from Nigeria to America. She’s left behind more than she ever intended to so she could pursue her education in the US. And when she arrives, she discovers that life is much harder than expected.

The above quote finds Ifemelu sharing an apartment with American girls. They don’t have to worry about getting jobs or paying rent. They have privileges which Ifemelu’s student visa bar her from enjoying. Though she was fairly well off in Nigeria, life in America proves to be less kind.

Her roommates don’t know her past. They can’t know that she grew up not unlike they did. They don’t realize that she is a native (British) English speaker. All they see is Africa. All they hear is her accent. All they know is she can’t make rent. The great irony is that the reader knows Ifemelu far more intimately than the people who had to work out a shower schedule with her.

Ifemelu is virtually alone. She lives with several other girls around her own age, but they don’t know her at all. This is the life of those who leave their own country, their own people. I, and Ifemelu, and the thousands like us who live in a country different from their homeland find ourselves quite distinct from the people with whom we now live.

Months pass, and the strange looks still come. For Ifemelu, years go by, and her opinions are still considered novelties. She picks up an American accent, but she doesn’t have the American mentality. She cannot conform to that which is not her own. She will never be truly American, nor does she exactly want to be.

The twist comes when her parents visit. Suddenly, Ifemelu gets a glimpse of her future. While she is not American, neither is she fully Nigerian. Her parents do not share the same intimacy with her that they once had. They see things differently, and she can no longer reconcile her ways with theirs. She loves them, and they love her. But the way things were is forever lost.

This loss of intimacy drives the novel to its conclusion, which I promise not to spoil because I want you to read it for yourself. Adichi tells it so much better than I could, at any rate. All I will say is this: losing the ability to connect, to identify with your own people, drives us on a quest for intimacy. You’ll have to read for yourself to see if Ifemelu finds what she’s looking for. I promise the book is worth every minute you spend reading.

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