"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 smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly."
Every once in a while, you stumble on a book that just gets you. Do you know what I mean? A book in which you have to stop and read passages again and again because they perfectly expressed your own feelings in a way that you've never been able express yourself. One of those books where on every other page, you think "I agree" or "I've had that exact same thought" or "I have also endured 8 hours in an uncomfortable chair just to get my hair braided." Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, “Americanah” was one of those books for me.
On the surface, this book is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, are a young couple living in Lagos, Nigeria. Both have dreams of leaving Nigeria, traveling West and being together forever. Ifemelu heads for America first, where even though she's doing well in school, she struggles to understand American culture. It's the first time she's ever been seen as black and on top of the culture shock, she is struggling financially to pay for school, rent and everything else. Stubborn as she is, she refuses to go back to Nigeria as a failure, and after making a difficult decision in order to solve her financial issues, Ifemelu undergoes an especially traumatizing experience, becomes depressed and cuts off communication with Obinze with no explanation.
All of that is backstory.
When the book opens, it is 15 years later and Ifemelu has finally figured America out. She has been dating, working as a successful blogger, and generally living her life, when she makes the somewhat rash and surprising decision to email Obinze out of the blue and head back to Nigeria. The book fills us in on the details of Obinze and Ifemelu's past 15 years, bouncing back and forth between point of view while showing us how they prepare to see each other again, to live in the same place again and to re-fit into each other's lives. We see how Obinze has continued to live his life. After an unsuccessful and illegal attempt to marry a stranger in order to stay in London, Obinze went back to Nigeria and made a name for himself. He is married to a fellow Nigerian, he has a baby daughter and he is surprised (but pleased) to hear from Ifemelu. This book reminds me a lot of Jane Austen's "Persuasion,"--the timing aspects at least, how two lovers get another chance at a relationship years later.
And like "Persuasion," there's a lot going on around this central love story. The book delves into issues of race, politics, and culture in American and Nigeria. In America, the name of Ifemelu's blog is "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black" and we get to read whole entries about her experience being from Nigeria and living in America. We see the election of President Obama through the eyes of Ifemelu as well as her American-born friends--black and white. We see Ifemelu struggle with her identity during her natural hair journey and watch as her nephew explores America through the eyes of someone who doesn't remember Nigeria. We learn about Nigerian culture, too--Obinze watches as his friends enter marriages for convenience instead of love and we witness Nigerian prejudices based on money, tribes, and who has been abroad.
NPR's Jennifer Reese wrote that the book "is so smart about so many subjects that to call it a novel about being black in the 21st century doesn't even begin to convey its luxurious heft and scope" and I agree. These extra threads are what really made the book for me, taking it from being just about high school sweethearts reconnecting and turning the novel into a multi-dimensional work of art about the role your environment plays in who you become.
"Ifemelu said, 'Let's stop and buy fried plantain!'...Back in the car, she opened the oily plastic bag of plantains, slid a small, perfectly fried yellow slice into her mouth."
Because the book's main characters are from Nigeria, I decided to do some research on West African desserts. Just like when I baked cupcakes for Roxane Gay's "An Untamed State," I found that a lot of these desserts are fruit based--lots of mangoes, coconuts and plantains. Plantains (which are basically just a banana that you can't eat raw?) are also mentioned in the book several times, so I went on a hunt for a recipe focused on them. I found plenty of recipes for and weirdly in-depth conversations about banana nut breads, but one authentic Niergian food blog, called "My Belle Don Full," really stuck out with ideas, recipes and tips for cooking with plantains and mangoes.
These plantain cupcakes have hints of cinnamon and brown sugar, and are topped with classic white icing and candied mangoes. Somehow the cupcakes are still light and airy, even with random chunks of plantains. If you like bananas, you will love these!
MASHED PLANTAINS FOR THE BATTER:
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
3 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3 SUPER ripe plantains (brown/black peels only), peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup of butter, softened
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups caramelized mashed plantains
1. Place your sliced plantains in a baking dish. Mix the melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon together and pour the mixture over the sliced plantains, making sure each plantain is thoroughly coated. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Then get to mashing those plantains. I just used a fork and it worked pretty well.
2. Lower the oven heat to 350 degrees.
3. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large mixing bowl.
4. In a separate bowl, mix the softened butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Then add buttermilk, vanilla extract, and mashed caramelized plantains.
5. Once the batter is smooth, add the dry ingredients.
6. Fill your liners and bake between 20 to 25 minutes.
CARAMELIZED MANGOES (optional topping)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted chilled butter, cut into small pieces
5 cups (1/2-inch-thick) mango wedges (about 4 large)
1. Heat sugar and water until sugar dissolves.
2. Continue cooking 3 minutes or until golden; do not stir.
3. Add butter to pan; stir to blend.
4. Reduce heat to medium and add mango to pan, tossing gently.
5. Cook 10 minutes or until mango is lightly browned, stirring frequently.
“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”
“...there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.”
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care.”
“She found this foolishly exciting, that it was raining where she was and it was not raining where he was, only minutes from her, and so she waited, with impatience, with a charged delight, until they could both see the rain together.”
"This was love, to be eager for tomorrow."
"Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being."