Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant novel ‘Americanah’ (2013) reflects an unbelievable life journey, highly capable of impressing readers with its unending and satisfying chain of events. Adichie’s manner fearlessly tackles major topics of oppression, race and identity as well as the principal themes of love and culture. ‘Americanah’ is unlike other mainstream fiction of its kind simply due to its brash portrayal, deep rooted honesty and African flavour.
Adichie introduces brazen main characters Obinze and Ifemelu, two strangers who meet and soon create a deep mutual romantic love and bond that readers will grow to dote on. Ifemelu is a strong protagonist, direct and unassuming that we as readers should in any way understand her life and most importantly her Nigerian culture and her blackness. The writer leads us through her mind anticipating Ifemelu’s motives, at times, encouraging us to sympathize even.
At the start of the novel, the politics of black hair is very much alive as Ifemelu describes visiting a hair salon to get her hair braided. After disagreeing with the Senegalese hairdresser that she does not need a relaxer to soften her hair to fit in, the hairdresser offers a compliment on the improvement of Nollywood films lately, expecting Ifemelu to understand, speaking to her as if she is the sole person accountable for the Nigerian film industry.
‘‘She nodded in agreement because to hear ‘Nigeria’ and ‘good’ in the same sentence was a luxury.’’
The start of the book reinforces the irony that Ifemelu has become her own worst nightmare, as she strolls through New Haven, Princeton University. She begins to understand that you still cannot be a black African in America, not the way Ifemelu arrived. You must morph into an African American. This story is surprisingly refreshing with an incredible balance between the harsh difficulties in both characters’ lives, intertwined with the recurrent love story peeking through the blinds. The integral theme throughout is the importance of culture and remembering who you are, wherever one resides.
The other main character Obinze on the other hand is a rarity. He’s a charming and educated young man, who reveals a sensitivity one can only spot as a fly on the wall or maybe weaved into Adichie’s prose. He exudes a warmth and romance through his interests and ideals, yet eventually turns into almost the opposite person he intended to be. Both characters long to leave their small homes in search of a big dream and we completely understand. They become each other’s backbone through Lagos school, holding tight to big dreams of a visa and a life altering move to America.
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.. It seemed so natural, to talk to him about odd things. She had never done that before. The trust, so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her.. But now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.”
- Obinze is inspired by his mother to read books and so he buries his head in American novels which sustain him through the years. Nevertheless, the dream is and always has been leaving home and boasting that they’ll each soon have a glowing shiny visa stamped in their passports. However, when Ifemelu is presented the opportunity to flee and study first, she promises to wait and has no choice but to leave Obinze behind. Years later, Obinze’s opportunity to change his life leaves him with England as his only option where he attempts to find solace unhappily without Ifemelu by his side. Both characters lives take unexpected turns, changing both of them forever. The couple lose touch and begin to think their journey is over.
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. ”
Obinze struggles in the UK financially and meets up with friends from Nigeria, back home, friends who have established themselves in English society; they’ve married English now and are sporting new accents. He can’t begin to understand how this much change has taken place, how the cultural differences leave him itching to argue during dinner parties where they eat on ‘ethnic plates’ alongside his old friends and new acquaintances. Obinze struggles with controversial conversations with these people who discuss ‘foreignness’ like a disease and he’s instantly infuriated. The character becomes a lone wolf and faces many hardships in England. Eventually, Obinze is forced to return to Lagos by the English authorities who catch him in a desperate act to stay in the country with no official paperwork.
Ifemelu also struggles terribly when she first gets to America. With a thick accent and no chance of getting a part time job, she slowly sinks into a depression which is maximised as she begins contemplating and eventually partaking in a sexual favour for money. Eventually, Ifemelu represses those memories finding a respectable escape as a babysitter for a caucasian family who feel a need to discuss Africa or African women whenever she is in the room. Adichie introduces Curt and Blaine (new men in Ifemelu’s life) which allows her to fasten Ifemelu to a pedestal as the token black girlfriend. Short hair, dark skin; a foreign beauty.
“When it comes to dressing well, American culture is so self-fulfilled that it has not only disregarded this courtesy of self-presentation, but has turned that disregard into a virtue. “We are too superior/busy/cool/not-uptight to bother about how we look to other people, and so we can wear pajamas to school and underwear to the mall.”
From arrival in America to her departure, Ifemelu battles the weighty topic of race relations. Race is achingly relevant as Ifemelu eventually creates a blog where she constantly vents about race in America through her Nigerian eyes and she eventually makes enough money to stop working.
Adichie reinforces the importance of family as she paints Aunt Uju and Dikes story, reinforcing cultural acceptance when moving to the west. The story suggests America is like a uncle who spoils children. Cousin Dikes suicidal episode reinforces the stigma of not seeing the signs of turning western so to speak, or simply the shock of how dare a Nigerian child even view suicide as an option?
“I realized that if I ever have children, I don’t want them to have American childhoods. I don’t want them to say ‘Hi’ to adults I want them to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon’. I don’t want them to mumble ‘Good’ when someone says ‘How are you?’ to them. Or to raise five fingers when asked how old they are. I want them to say ‘I’m fine thank you’ and ‘I’m five years old’. I don’t want a child who feeds on praise and expects a star for effort and talks back to adults in the name of self-expression. Is that terribly conservative?”
The position of Nigerian women and relationships they partake in is a huge topic in the last third of this novel too. The give and take notion whereby Nigerian women stay in unhappy relationships so their men can pay for everything, is reinforced when Ifemelu exposes her friend’s relationship. Ifemelu’s eventual return to Nigeria is intriguing as she does not so much adjust to life in Nigeria, but slips back into routine, although even she learns to accept that though she has changed, Nigeria has changed a great deal too.
Obinze becomes a rich and popular man, married even and this is where the story becomes light hearted while birthing a major cliff-hanger. By the end of this novel, the importance of Americanah is startling. Adichie cleverly critiques society’s stupidity but also cultural foolishness. This is a racially charged novel but a extremely relevant one nonetheless. Adichie writes impressively, challenging culture and loving it in the same breathe. Even at points when readers try to predict what will happen, she shocks and delivers. Adichie did not seek out to create a hero and heroine, rather she tries to bravely evoke love and the realistic truth she has lived. There is a truth to this book that will make you ache.