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independent study...still planning

calamityschild's picture

I finished Americanah yesterday, and I'm very interested in Ifemelu's migrant identity and her journey to and from America. She and Obinze share some idealized vision of the country before leaving, but when they do, they are disappointed by their experiences in America and England. In America, Ifemelu becomes depressed as she adjusts to life where she faces dramatic exclusion. She cannot get a job because of her immigrant status and her race, she has to cope with the stress of being racialized as "black for the first time," and the politics of being non-American and black in the United States. The journey changes Ifemelu profoundly, she is marked by her time spent abroad, and she is called an "Americanah" when she returns to Nigeria. She joins a group of fellow Nigerians who have come back to Nigeria from abroad, the Nigerpolitan club, full of people who are sentimental for American life. She finds comfort in this club, but also feels uneasy to be among a group of people who are so critical of Nigeria. She starts a new blog called The Small Redemptions of Lagos to talk about Nigeria without the "arrogance of Nigerian returnees." 

At the same time, I'm reading Unbound Feet but Judy Yung, which recovers some of the history of Chinese American women living in San Francisco. One of the main themes in the book is the liberation second generation women found in American society, which compelled them to "challenge traditional gender roles at home racial discrimination in the larger society" as well as forge a "bicultural identity" to respond to the limitations they still faced. 

There's also a Said quote from Exile and Other Essays that I've been thinking about that goes like: 

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.” 

The books I've picked up recently have really made me want to think about the fluidity of identity across borders, nostalgia of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants (thinking about the ways Ifemelu misses Nigeria when she's in America, and the ways Dike feels somewhat rooted in Nigeria even though he was born in America), and balancing the foreign values with native values. I'd like to dig into Ifemelu's feelings of (be)longing in Nigeria, America, and again in Nigeria when she returns. I see Ifemelu constructing something that might be called a cosmpolitan identity, as a citizen belonging to the world more than any particular locality, and having to grapple with the loneliness that comes along with it. I'll probably post more in the comments as I continue reading and doing some preliminary writing for my final. 


Anne Dalke's picture

So I'm beginning to see a line of thought emerging: your central text will be Americanah, your central questions aimed @ better understanding this phenomenon of the construction of identity across borders. I'm thinking that, rather than Said's description of the "unhealable," never-to-be-surmounted "rift" of exile, you might find more assistance from the work of Kwame Anthony Appiah (a British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist whose interests include political and moral theory, the philosophy of language and mind, and African intellectual history). His book on The Ethics of Identity insistently refuses the binary that structures Said's thinking, begins by calling "overdone" the conventional contrast...between "rootless cosmopolitan" and the rootedness of traditional societies:

Appiah offers a defense of 'rooted cosmopolianism'...a decent respect for what we have inherited is consistent with a wish to do something novel with it....we acquire an individual identity by acquiring a social identity...that is not a straitjacket....we acquire both our individuality and our sense of who we are by learning how to fill the social roles available to us...What we are faced with is a tension between a respect for the variousness of different ways of life and a wish to help individuals to emancipate themselves from any one of them if they so choose... Appiah repudiates any suggestion that we should attach all our loyalties to some particular culture...Appiah fears what he calls the Medusa stare of an exaggerated respect for culture...benign campaigns to secure respect...can end by trying to impose one canonical identity on individuals...Rooted cosmopoltians are citizens of the world who employ the resources of the particular cultures to which they are attached in order to construct their own individual lives.

Appiah paid a series of visits to Bryn Mawr a few years ago, when he talked about the process of what he calls "educative soul-making." Appiah closely follows John Stuart Mill in his two central claims: that

  • the "duty of man respect to his own nature...not to follow but to amend it," and that
  • "the cultivation of individuality is the most social thing of all."

These observations make me think about both Ifemelu and Obinze's reflections on "choice." See the quotes I included in my response Hannah's proposal (which resembles yours): /oneworld/comment/29248#comment-29248

So looking forward to seeing where/how this goes!