Nigerian American academic Ifemelu journeys from Princeton, New Jersey, to nearby Trenton to find an African salon to get her hair braided, thinking about the fact that she’s recently shuttered her popular blog about race in America and left her boyfriend Blaine in preparation for a move back to Nigeria, where she’s still in love with her old boyfriend Obinze, who is now married.
Why Ifemelu might be hard to identify with: I think we’re hardwired to dislike bloggers, spewing digital noise instead of producing a physical product. Betsy and I both felt a sea change of respect when we turned out blogs into physical books.
- You would think that another reason she might be hard to identify with is that she’s fairly hypocritical. Her blog consisted of calling out white people for saying insensitive things about black people, but at the salon she’s fairly disgusted by things she should probably not be. One can only imagine how much she would have nailed a white woman who said “Mariama pointed at the smallest of the braiders, who had a skin condition, pinkish-cream whorls of discoloration on her arms and neck that looked worryingly infectious.” But we actually identify with hypocrisy. It’s a pretty universal emotion.
- The wonderful sensory details begin with the first sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing.” She then gives us a tour of other places she’s lived in America according to their smells: “Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage.”
- Everybody has their totem objects: She sees a white man eating ice cream during the day and that seems so oddly American to her. (“She had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public) She worries if she goes to Nigeria, she’ll be one of those returnees always carrying a water bottle. (“Ranyinudo, had made her return seem normal. ‘Lagos is now full of American returnees, so you better come back and join them. Every day you see them carrying a bottle of water as if they will die of heat if they are not drinking water every minute’”)
- Collapsing confidence is always easy to identify with: “She began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.”
- The love of her life has married another woman.
- The braiders treat her as alien, both for wanting her hair to be natural and other reasons, making her worried that she’ll no longer be at home in either world.
- She feels unsure about walking away from her blog, her boyfriend, her apartment, and everything she’s known in recent years. She’s alienated even from her own emotions. (“Imagining him at his wedding left her with a feeling like sorrow, a faded sorrow.”)
- She has unique problems, because she is uncomfortably stuck between worlds, not entirely welcome in either. She’s afraid that her taxi driver will be Nigerian because of the questions and/or resentments they often have for her.
- She has a sharp eye. She diagnoses the ills and oddnesses of both America and Nigeria well. (“Before, she would have said, ‘I know,’ that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge.”)
- We love heroes that bestride two worlds, and she does so right away, going from Ivy-covered Princeton to working class Trenton, prefiguring a much bigger journey.
- We aren’t very inclined to like bloggers, but she’s at least talented at her quest to get people to say racist things she could skewer on her blog: “People were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill silences.”