Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s the story of Ifemelu, a young middle class woman who, due to the many strikes that have disrupted her university at home, decides to go to the U.S. for college. She attends a school in Pennsylvania and we learn about her experiences as both an international student and a non-American African in America. She struggles financially for quite some time, unable to get hired for part-time work. Out of sheer desperation, she finally takes on a humiliating job in which she compromises her dignity. This leaves her in a depression (or triggers an identity crisis?) during which time she also ends up cutting off all ties to the boyfriend she had left behind in Nigeria.
Her boyfriend Obinze is a seemingly good man, her intellectual equal, and he adores her. He is heartbroken and confused when she no longer returns his calls or e-mails, but eventually moves on. He goes to England but outstays his visa, and soon he is working illegally under someone else’s identity, and he makes arrangements to marry a British citizen in order to stay in the country.
Meanwhile, Ifemelu recovers in the U.S. and finds great success writing an anonymous blog entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. A central part of Americanah is a study on black-white race relations in America, in particular, the experience of the African in America versus that of the African American. Ifemelu says that she never even thought of herself as black – she never thought about race – until she stepped on American soil. She picks up on the peculiar ways in which people react to subtle issues of race. For example, while paying for an item at a clothing store the cashier asks which of the two sales women had helped her. The cashier would identify the two sales women by hair length (if I recall correctly) but not race, when one of them was clearly black and the other white. She finds race a volatile issue yet something that people aren’t really supposed to notice or talk about directly.
She also experiments with her own assimilation, from trying to straighten her hair to letting it go natural, from trying to perfect an upper-middle class (white) American accent to finally returning to her own. After leaving behind Obinze she dates Curt, a wealthy, white software entrepreneur, and then Blaine, an African American faculty member from Yale. One powerful part of the book is when Blaine stops speaking to her because she had chosen to attend a university department talk over the campus protest he had organized to speak up against the unfair arrest of an African American security guard. Such is the terrain that Ifemelu walks, as an African immigrant who has not lived the American black experience and who needs to learn to fully “get it.”
Race is a central theme in the middle of the book, but by the end the story evolves into more of a love story when both Ifemelu and Obinze are back in Nigeria. They meet again, and are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision.
This was my first time to read Adichie, and I have become a new fan. Americanah is one of those books where the author’s writing fit me – the book is no lightweight, at nearly 500 pages, but I glided through for the most part not feeling as though I was reading. There was a lot that I was able to relate to, in my experiences as an expat and immigrant and having worked with many international students. At the same time, it was an eye-opening read for me as it gave me a window into the Nigerian experience in America as well as a first-hand tackling of sensitive race issues.
Many readers, I’ve found, have either loved the book or felt disappointed by it. Those who don’t like it have complained that they felt lectured to on race. There are certainly parts in the book in which the race discussion feels contrived. For example, Ifemelu is a quiet and often uneasy observer in Blaine’s regular get-togethers with his sister and intellectual friends. The group is a diverse one, and during these dinners they would all discuss some topic on race. I felt the same about a conversation between Ifemelu and Obinze about the present state of Nigeria. There’s a bit of unnaturalness there, like the characters are placed there to be sociological mouthpieces.
Adichie also closes some chapters with Ifemelu’s blog posts. The following is an excerpt:
Sometimes they say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white follks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”
I was probably too fascinated by the discussions to mind the presentation of the race issues. As Ifemelu says, it is more palatable to people if an African rather than an African American writes about race in America. And that is exactly what Adichie has done, albeit to mixed reactions.