Denouncing the Stigmas Around Mental Illness

In chapter 15 of Americanah, Ifemelu becomes depressed. Adichie handles it in a very impressive way; it’s genuine, realistic, and most importantly, it creates a dialogue. Ifemelu forgets to eat, refuses to leave her room, and cuts off contact with the outside world. When her friend Ginika brings up the idea of depression, Ifemelu brushes it off, saying that “depression was what happened to Americans” (194). The perceptions of and stigma surrounding mental illnesses in Nigeria are so intense that she can’t even entertain the notion that she may be depressed. This idea that only privileged Americans are allowed to be sick in such a way is concerning. Mental illness is a very real problem that has only recently started being discussed in America; opening a dialogue is one of the best ways to move towards diminishing the shame that many sufferers are conditioned to feel. Although Ifemelu says that “nobody in Kinshasa had panic attacks” (195), I’m certain that plenty of people experienced panic attacks; it’s just that no one was willing to talk about it.

While I do not have personal experience with mental illness as a Nigerian woman, I do as an American woman. Some may argue that Americans do not hold shame around mental illnesses, but I disagree – there is definitely a stigma involved. Yes, we do talk about it more openly than other cultures and it is given more credit, but that doesn’t mean that being mentally ill is totally accepted. Sufferers are often accused of faking illness or abusing the prescription drugs they need to function. Phrases like “I’m OCD about that” or “she almost gave me a panic attack” are overused by healthy people; this diminishes the perceived severity of very real conditions. Mental illness is often ignored or passed off as something much simpler. On the other hand, some people treat sufferers like dangerously fragile things, like a single word will shatter a person. While this is true for some, there are plenty of ill people who are strong and capable. A person is not defined by whether or not they have a mental illness. Generalizing people in such a way is toxic.

Further proof of an American stigma lies with how mentally ill people are conditioned to behave. It isn’t socially acceptable to talk openly about illness. It makes people uncomfortable to know that you’re not entirely healthy. Mention clinical depression or bipolar disorder to someone; their immediate reaction is usually one of withdrawal, and things instantly become awkward. There is only way for people to learn about and more fully accept mental illnesses – we have to create and maintain a dialogue. We cannot only discuss illness in regards to one type of person. People of every age, race, gender, size, sexual orientation, and ethnicity can experience mental illness – our discussions need to be open and diverse, so we can work towards destigmatizing illness for everyone.

Maternal Figures in Americanah

In previous posts, I’ve established my opinion of Americanah‘s protagonist Ifemelu – I think she’s a very powerful and important female character. I’ve also discussed her mother and how she struggled with religion throughout Ifemelu’s childhood. From chapter 5 onward, Adichie has been introducing and developing more female characters. Obinze’s mother, who Ifemelu calls Ma or Aunty, stands as an independent and nonconforming woman. Aunty Uju, who we met earlier in the novel, is devolving into a husk of the woman that Ifemelu used to admire so much. Both of these women, in addition to Ifemelu’s actual mother, can be viewed as maternal figures.

Now, just because someone is a mother figure doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a positive one. Ifemelu watches her mother surrender her entire self and her identity to a variety of churches, and the power balance of Aunty Uju’s relationship with the General is unhealthy. Aunty Uju’s moods are controlled by the General, although she may not realize it. She and Ifemelu were very close, but after Uju slaps Ifemelu, their relationship changes. Because of her complete dependence on the General, Aunty is left with nothing after his death and leaves the country, only to struggle in America. Ifemelu’s mother blatantly looks down on and shames Aunty Uju for her relationship and pregnancy with the General, because it goes against her personal religious practices. That toxic degradation coming from her own mother could really have damaged Ifemelu if she had been younger; it’s a good thing that she had established many of her own personal beliefs by that time.

Out of these three women, I would argue that Ma (Obinze’s mother) is the best role model and the most influential woman for Ifemelu. Her open and honest approach to sexuality is empowering instead of degrading, and she instills a sense of responsibility in Ifemelu while building trust with her. A woman’s sexuality is demonized in many cultures and religions, but Ma avoids that entirely. She also sets a unique standard for Ifemelu: a woman without a husband making a life for herself. After Obinze’s father died, Ma did not remarry; instead, she provided for herself and Obinze all on her own.

Both Aunty Uju and Ifemelu’s mother might have started out as positive people for Ifemelu to look up to, but neither stayed true to themselves. Although these maternal figures might not have been as positively influential as they should have been, Ifemelu still developed aspects of herself from watching their trials. Perhaps some of Ifemelu’s pride in her natural hair comes from watching her mother work endlessly to relax it, only to chop it all off because of religion. She also knows to avoid absolute dependence in a relationship from watching Aunty Uju’s interactions with the General. Each woman teaches Ifemelu a unique lesson, although Ma is arguably the most maternal of the three.

“Full Human Being”: Female Characters Tackling Misogyny

In chapter 4 of Americanah, Adichie introduces us to an important female character and develops Ifemelu’s status as a take-no-trash powerhouse woman. After false rumors are spread about Obinze’s mother fighting (and beating) a male colleague, Ifemelu discovers the truth. She didn’t actually fight anyone; she was slapped by a man for speaking her mind. People were enraged, but only because she was a widow, and she knew that she deserved better.

“She said she should not have been slapped because she is a full human being, not because she doesn’t have a husband to speak for her.” (71)

I don’t know about you, but I’d wear that quote on a t-shirt. We also learn that Ifemelu speaks her mind and doesn’t care what other people think about her. She knows that her classmates think she talks and argues too much, unlike other “sweet” girls, and she embraces that image.

Adichie’s inclusion of these incredible ladies is wonderful, but influential male authors vastly outnumber influential female authors. Not to over-generalize, but men often don’t provide many powerful roles for females in their writing. Girls are often nothing more than a romantic conquest or a sidekick. And while some male authors do create strong female characters, it isn’t always enough. Don’t get me wrong – strong female characters are wonderful, and we need them, but we deserve more. A character can be strong without being complex, developed, or relatable, and we need to see all of those traits in our characters.

Young girls, grown ladies, and anyone who identifies as a woman can benefit from reading about important women. That certainly doesn’t mean that we need perfect characters. With Photoshopped magazine covers, perfect runway models, and over-edited photos surrounding us on every media outlet, we need leading literary ladies with flaws and imperfections – it shows us that it’s okay if we aren’t perfect.

But women need to see more than just a female protagonist with a lady friend or two. We deserve female characters in all shapes and sizes, playing all kinds of parts – protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, minor characters, dynamic characters. Diversity in representation is invaluable. Make our characters quirky, serious, funny, compassionate, anxious, withdrawn, and bubbly (just not all at the same time!). We are all unique and powerful individuals, and seeing ourselves in the literature around us can help us accept ourselves as the incredible women we are.

Superiority and Oppression Through Religion

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A large part of Americanah‘s chapter 3 is centered around Ifemelu’s memories of her mother and religious practices. She watches her mother go through several churches and mental changes before settling on a faith. Many of the churches that the family passes through oppress or demean groups of people through their religion. Everyone deserves the right to practice any religion they want, but using religion to justify oppression is unethical and inappropriate.

Misogyny is present throughout the religions. As Ifemelu’s mother cycles through churches, she changes her practices and behaviors based around what each church believed. Although they all believed in the same God, they all interpreted His word differently, and it always degraded a group of people. As a member of Revival Saints, her mother starved herself, refrained from dancing or relaxing her hair, and changed her entire demeanor to fit the preaching of the church (51). Later, she stops wearing jewelry because of the teachings of Miracle Spring (52). In Sister Ibinabo slut shames Christie in the name of religion, and Christie is thankful for it (61). That twisted image of God and religion is harmful and disturbing to the mentality of these developing girls. Comments like that, especially when they come from a religiously influential figure, can inflict lifelong mental damage.

The practices of one of the churches that Ifemelu’s mother attends carries overt classist tones. Their faith in God gives the members of the faith a false sense of superiority over poorer people. The belief that their God is “not a poor God” seemingly entitles them to wealth and prosperity over lower-class people (53).

In today’s world, religion is a sensitive subject. Religious hatred and fear is widespread, and many people hold prejudices based solely on an individual’s religion. Many people don’t realize that the actions of a few members of a faith do not define the rest of the believers. Radicalized Muslims do not represent the Islamic community as a whole, just like the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent the beliefs of all Christians. There is nothing inherently dangerous about believing in a higher power. In the end, faith is only dangerous when people twist it to fit their own agenda.

Embracing the Curl: How Natural Hair Helps Reclaim Identity

In her novel Americanah, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduces us to Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in America who has decided to move back home. As she travels to get her natural hair braided before her trip, we are given powerful and important observations on race, size, and love. Our protagonist does not hesitate to describe people as fat, but she does not connote it in a cruel way. This is a relevant issue, as body-positive communities online are trying to tear down the stigma around the word “fat”. It is an adjective, the same as “funny” or “tall”, but a culture centered around body-shaming has turned it into a curse word. The way Ifemelu addresses terms like “curvy” and “big-boned” (7) resonated with me, as I know many people who have struggled with weight and self-acceptance, and have personally experienced it as well. It is important to remember that there is no wrong way to have a body.

 

On a similar note, the first chapter of this book puts a lot of emphasis on natural hair. Ifemelu is questioned by her hairdresser as to why she chooses to keep her hair natural rather than relaxing or straightening it (15). Even from another African woman, Ifemelu receives judgement for letting her hair be and refusing to conform to more modern standards of beauty. The fact that she brings her own comb to the braiding salon shows that this type of subtle oppression is an everyday occurrence. Today, traditionally African hairstyles are claimed and renamed by white culture. Bantu knots have been turned into “mini-buns” and credited to Marc Jacobs, rather than recognizing the history behind them.

“Afro” is a widely used term that has lost its true meaning. As a white woman with 3A curls, I have had people refer to my hair as an Afro – which it clearly is not. Misuse of the term has distanced it from its roots. Natural hair itself is taken from its wearers; people often touch natural hair without permission. They do not have the right to violate an individual’s privacy simply because their curls are distinctive. By wearing her hair natural, Ifemelu bravely invites judgement while making a statement about who she is and reclaiming a bit of her culture and identity.