Penn State

‘Americanah’ author stresses need for discussion on topics of race, gender

Pennsylvania Center for the Book Assistant Director Ellysa Cahoy talks with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Days Inn Penn State on Tuesday.
Pennsylvania Center for the Book Assistant Director Ellysa Cahoy talks with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Days Inn Penn State on Tuesday. CDT photo

To uncover the issues of a society, it sometimes helps to bring in an outside observer.

In her most recent book, “Americanah,” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings her observations of race and identity in the U.S. to life through the blogs written by one of the main characters.

Adichie spoke to about 220 Penn State students and members of the community at the Days Inn on Tuesday. Pennsylvania Center for the Book Assistant Director Ellysa Cahoy hosted the event with prepared questions and submitted questions from the audience.

In addition to being angry, Cahoy said, Adichie’s writing is also hopeful because of her belief in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.

“You choose empathy over anger in your work,” she said, asking how that plays out in the book.

Adichie said she doesn’t believe anger and empathy can’t coexist. “I don’t think anger is a bad thing. I think this is a culture that is very desperate in demonizing anger.”

Anger can be very powerful and very human, she said. It’s possible to be very angry about injustice, but also look at it with a certain empathy and hope.

“For me, there is something feminist about that,” she said. “This is a culture that also tells women that female anger in particular isn’t acceptable.”

People still use feminism as a slur, she said. One of the reasons she speaks about gender is to redefine that word.

“It can go from a slur to mean something that young and old men and women can be,” she said. “There is a lot of work to be done in gender, and the more hands we have on deck, the better.”

Adichie was also unafraid of speaking on race, relating a story from the book that also happened to her in real life when a white store cashier was awkward in identifying a sales representative because she refused to refer to them by their race.

“Had she been anything but white, she might have been more willing to say ‘Was she the black woman or the white woman?’ ” she said.

Tiptoeing around race in this country comes from a good place, she said. People feel awkward, are well-meaning and don’t want to offend and think the best way to handle it is to ignore the issue.

“While I understand the basis for tiptoeing and being politically correct, I just believe in saying. ‘I believe in talking,’ ” she said. “By shrouding something in silence, you give it a kind of power.”

“Americanah” centers on Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who leave their country for the West, according to Adichie’s website. Ifemelu heads for America, while Obinze finds himself in London. The pair reunite in Nigeria after 15 years of separation.

Adichie herself grew up in Nigeria, but was educated in America, Cahoy said. She holds two master’s degrees and several awards.

“Americanah” was selected as the 2014 book for the Penn State Reads program, which is “designed to provide a shared experience among new students, encourage intellectual engagement within and beyond the classroom, stimulate critical thinking, and foster a deeper connection to Penn State’s mission and core values,” according to the program’s website.

Freshmen students were provided with a complimentary copy of the book at new student orientation.

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