“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.”
What it’s about: A Nigerian woman emigrates to the United States and discovers race.
Why I liked it: Reading this book, I realized I am in no position to understand what people go through just because of their race. The closest I can come is what I sometimes experience as a woman, but even that is not that close. For me, it’s a frustrating feeling because I logically know that judging people on race is intrinsically stupid, because the very literal definition of race is simply skin color, which should have no meaning. But the question of race is so embedded in our culture–by that, I mean American culture–that it’s literally impossible to not partake in it. As a white American, I have been enculturated from birth to think differently about people with darker skin, and that kind of indoctrination is hard to overcome.
I appreciated a lot of things about this book, aside from its frank take on a subject that we are practically forbidden to talk about in America. My favorite parts were the opening and ending, which took place in Nigeria, and the part where Ifemelu first comes to America. I think it bogs down in the middle, once she starts her race blog, and starts to feel somewhat didactic. The book picks up again when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria. She doesn’t spare her fellow Nigerians her critical eye. It’s smart, insightful writing, even if Ifemelu is a bit too hard on all her boyfriends (who all seem somewhat too in love with her, especially given the way she treats them).
Who might like it: Anyone interested in reading more diversely; readers who enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri or Zadie Smith.