Americanah is the third book I’ve read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, after Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. This book, which digs deeply into the experience of being black in America (and, secondarily, the UK), is fascinating and painful and funny. I went away for a couple of days over Memorial Day weekend, and I hardly wanted to stop reading it; I lay in bed every evening and read for hours, immersed in the lives of the characters, wanting to hear more.
The novel has a nonlinear time frame revolving around two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, both from Nigeria. It begins in the present day as Ifemelu, a Princeton fellow, takes the train to Trenton to have her hair braided: after more than a decade in the United States, she has finally acknowledged her deep homesickness, and the braided hair is a preparation to move back to Lagos. From there, the timeline, like the braid, moves back and forth between past and present, and between Ifemelu’s perspective and Obinze’s (though it’s heavily weighted toward Ifemelu’s.) It’s a tribute to Adichie’s splendid writing that I never found this confusing.
Back in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze fell in love with each other in high school and their early college years. They both excelled at school, but only Obinze was obsessed with America, reading American novels, following American politics. So it was a surprise and a heartbreak when Ifemelu got the visa to go to the US, and Obinze — post 9/11 — did not.
The book follows Ifemelu as she struggles during her first hard months in the US, reaching out to family and Nigerian friends, trying to find any kind of legal or decent work, struggling with a depression she’s not allowed to name because only Americans have depression. The narration here is about her confusion, and her razor-sharp observations of life as a recent immigrant. For a while, she’s sustained by Obinze’s calm, loving emails and letters. Eventually, however, the emotional and physical work she has to do to survive grinds her down, and she’s not willing to share it any longer. She can’t imagine telling Obinze everything, so she tells him nothing: the correspondence ceases.
Obinze, shut out of the US and out of Ifemelu’s life, travels to London. His visa soon expires, and he lives an undocumented immigrant’s life, working on his friends’ National Insurance cards for companies that don’t insist on seeing his passport. Obinze comes from a privileged family in Nigeria, and the kind of work he has to do in London leaves him not so much humiliated as breathless and a little bewildered: cleaning and rough outdoor construction, all under a name he doesn’t recognize when someone calls it out.
Eventually, Ifemelu gets a job babysitting for a white family, and at the same time, she begins writing a race blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. These blog entries are a fascinating part of the book. Authors sometimes fail at this kind of thing (look! I’m a blog entry! technology is a Thing We Do!) but I thought these were integrated pretty seamlessly into the novel. One interesting piece of it, though, is that Ifemelu’s voice in these entries is so different from her voice in the rest of the novel. Ifemelu herself, of course, like all of us, is often confused, full of sorrow and grief, and holds back her words for fear of offending others. The Ifemelu on the blog? She’s sharp, funny, provocative, unwilling to appease, and takes no crap whatsoever. A few lines I loved from the blog:
Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
Imagine if Michelle Obama got tired of all the heat and decided to go natural and appeared on TV with lots of woolly hair, or tight spirally curls. She would totally rock but poor Obama would certainly lose the independent vote, even the undecided Democrat vote.
When my father was in school in my [Non-American Black] country, many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called “reverse racism.”
If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery?
Americanah is so rich and interesting and exciting. It’s been summed up as a romance, and indeed there is a love story here, one in which Ifemelu and Obinze must question and establish their own identities through huge changes before they can consider finding each other again. There are other loves in the novel as well, boyfriends and sisters and wives and friends. My favorite of these was Ifemelu’s nephew Dike, who grows up in America, trying to grope his way to some sense of who he is. But the novel is about more than romance, more than love between family and friends, more even than the great, deep shadow that race throws onto every human action and interaction in these great United States.
Adichie is a wonderful writer. She’s very good at understanding human motivation, and at creating consequences without judging her characters (much — there are a few minor characters here who are set in the book in order to say platitudes. But who can resist when the platitudes are so delicious? “‘In graduate school I knew a woman from Africa who was just like this doctor, I think she was from Uganda. She was wonderful, and she didn’t get along with the African-American woman in our class at all. She didn’t have all those issues.’ ‘Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for Parliament or studying at Oxford.'” Issues indeed.) I am on record as saying that my favorite authors do poignancy well: sorrow and humor in the same book, and preferably in the same breath. Adichie does this, and she does it better with every book she writes. This is a funny, vivid, sad, complex book. Tell me what you thought of it, or go read it and then tell me.