Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf, 2013) ISBN: 9780007356348
Americanah is a sharp and absorbing consideration of the migrant experience, identity and relationships. It follows Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as students in Nigeria and have two very different experiences upon deciding to migrate to the US. Though it is the story of both Ifemelu and Obinze, Americanah concentrates foremost on Ifemelu and her quest for identity.
We meet Ifemelu as she prepares to return to Nigeria. As she has her hair braided in preparation for her return, she thinks back on her experiences. We watch her upbringing in an aspirational Lagos family on the fringe of privilege, her rocky first years studying and working in America, and her eventual success there. The memories are interspersed with scenes of the African-run hair salon, which provide amusing observations of the cultural differences between black Americans, black Africans, and white Americans. This cultural examination is one of the central themes of the novel and provides ample ground for humour as well as penetrating commentary.
Be aware, white people: if you have not yet given serious thoughts to your own attitudes to race and racism, this novel will provoke them. Much of the novel’s humour relies on recognising hypocrisy, elitism and ignorance in oneself and others. Adichie never condescends to her readers in an attempt to make them understand—that is not her job—and she never over-simplifies complex social issues into bite-size portions. She pokes gentle fun at everyone—people who ‘don’t see race’, well-meaning social justice campaigners, racial fetishists, Nigerians, British and Americans alike. The portions of Ifemelu’s biting blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, serve to prevent white readers becoming too comfortable with their own conceptions of race, or in their own beliefs of their own lack of racism. This is not a book to read with self-satisfaction. While I try hard to be an ally to people of colour, I recognised my own attitudes and gaps in my knowledge which could only exist because of my position of white privilege, examined with wit and incisiveness.
Americanah also contains a strong feminist narrative, which is demonstrated in part by Obinze’s parallel migration journey. He, too, attempts to obtain a US student visa. Unlike Ifemelu, he fails because of terrorism fears and instead migrates to the UK. Unable to obtain a permanent work or study visa, he overstays his temporary visa and lives undocumented in London until he is deported. While Obinze later attains success in Lagos, marries and becomes very wealthy, his life seems hollow.
In America, Ifemelu has two transformative relationships, with a white and then a black American man. Both relationships change Ifemelu. However, both relationships eventually end because Ifemelu is not what either man pictures her as or expects her to be. She muses, at one point, why a novel must ‘always be about one thing’, which I feel is a reflection on people as much as books. Ifemelu is not about one thing—her womanness, her blackness or her Africanness. She is an individual. Thus, in defiance of expectation she returns to Nigeria on her own terms, a true individual who is no longer bound by societal pressures or the desires of the men in her life.
Americanah is a genuinely funny and thought-provoking novel. I recommend it with only the reservation that it may not, and should not, be an easy or self-congratulatory read for white audiences—or anyone. It demands self-reflection.