I use the kindle app on my phone to read so that I can electronically bookmark any points in a book that stand out. Going through these electronic notes, I found it really hard to choose what point I would look at first. Anyway I decided to look at accent and the role it plays on the way people are perceived. In ‘Americanah’ there is a part where Ifemelu is on the phone to a telemarketer talking about International call rates. After telling the telemarketer she is Nigerian, she is told she sounds “American”. Ifemelu is pleased, but not for long:
“Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American? She had won; Cristina Thomas, pallid –faced Cristina Thomas under whose gaze she had shrunk like a small, defeated animal, would speak to her normally now. She had won….And so…she resolved to stop faking the American accent”
The reference to Cristina Thomas is a memory Ifemelu has of first arriving in America and having the admission assistant struggle to understand what she is saying. The way the assistant questions Ifemelu’s English leaves her feeling vulnerable, sub-standard and determined to ‘fit in’. Ifemelu starts practising the American accent, phrases and way of speaking until she is perfectly able to hide her Nigerian accent.
The way Adichie explores identity through accent here is interesting because it highlights how the very way we speak is vital. We may all speak English but the way we pronounce words leads to certain perceptions and preconceptions. Accent determines the way others view you and how we view ourselves. The way we speak shows the allegiances we have made consciously and subconsciously. If I use myself as an example, I grew in a Zambian household, in England. Both my parents had and still have Zambian accents. So until the age of about 13 I also had a Zambian accent. However around people other than my family, I sounded English. I adapted the way I spoke according to who I was around. I did not want to stand out. I did not want to be African around my English friends. I wanted to be one of them. From a young age I was aware of a divide simply by the way my friends spoke and the way I did.
I would switch between the two. Thankfully I have grown in my identity and am coming to understand the complexities of being Zambian, African, Black British and simply being me all at once. Now I just speak. I do not have to think about my accent and the way people view me because I am happy being me. Some words come out sounding more ‘Zambian’ than others, some do not, and that is fine.
I think the important point Adichie makes here is that accent is an important social indicator. Our accents say a lot about us. Therefore if we are trying to be something by the way we speak, instead of just being…there is a problem.