Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah is an ambitious novel about race, love, and belonging. It’s a rich work that sheds light on being black in America and being middle-class in Nigeria.
Americanah follows lfemelu, a Nigerian girl who moves to the US for college. Adichie’s own biography inspires the plot. Like Ifemelu, Adichie relocated to Philadelphia for university in her late teens. Like Ifemelu, she went on to hold a fellowship at Princeton. And like Ifemelu, she eventually moved back to Nigeria (though Adichie still spends part of her time in the US). The way the novel reads reflects this closeness to Adichie’s own life. It comes across like her collected observations on cultural issues — most of which pertain to how being black alters your experience of being American.
Although Ifemelu has dreamed of living abroad, a host of social, economic, and cultural problems conspire to make America never feel like home. The trauma she suffers in her adopted city of Philadelphia also estranges her from Obinze, her high school beau, whom she’d planned to marry.
While Ifemelu’s early years overseas are replete with the pains and dilemmas of poverty, her fortunes reverse when she lands a babysitting job for two wealthy kids. This leads her to a relationship with Curt, who is part of the East Coast old money scene. Borrowed privilege abruptly replaces financial troubles for Ifemelu. Curt helps her land a cushy job, showers her with the fruits of his fortune, and inserts her, however tenuously, into an élite social circle.
Yet this newfound socioeconomic bliss has a dark side, and it turns out it’s her. Or, more precisely, her skin. Race mediates Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt, with her employer, indeed with everyone in America.
This is one of the “American tribalisms” Adichie aptly describes in the novel. The term works well, and it’s also nice to see her fight fire with fire when it comes to belittling descriptors often used against Africa.
Race hijacks the novel just as it hijacks Ifemelu’s life. In Nigeria she never really thought of herself as black. But in America she can’t escape it. Even small things — like whether she wears a weave or an afro — are laden with judgement. They affect everything from job prospects to restaurant service.
Unfortunately, even the white folks who abhor racism dare not speak of the issue. It’s a taboo that eventually breaks up her relationship with Curt. He’s a minimizer who tries to interpret the racism Ifemelu faces as a series of innocent misunderstandings. While he thinks he’s smoothing her world’s rough edges, this alienates and disempowers her. She’s silenced by his rationalizations. Or if she rejects them, she appears unreasonably angry.
Either way, there’s no room for her experience of being black in America. And this experience stands Pan-Africanism on its head (at least in its racial forms). Black people of the world are not united, the novel seems to suggest. Instead, being black is a uniquely American experience worlds away from being African, which, at least in Adichie’s Nigeria, is mostly nonracial: to be Nigerian is to ignore the racial othering African Americans face on a daily basis.
Consequently, despite great career opportunities in the States — she is at turns a successful race blogger, an invited diversity speaker, and a Princeton fellow — Ifemelu ultimately quits America and head back to Lagos. She even gives up her long-term relationship with Blaine, the African American Yale professor she found after Curt.
There she starts a new blog about the Nigerian well-to-do’s foibles. Much as her US blog explored American cultural fault lines from the perspective of an outsider (an “American African” not an African American), her new one draws attention to sensitive issues locals want to sweep under the rug: rampant materialism, pretentious charity, the state’s rough treatment of the poor. And she also falls back in love with Obinze.
This is where the novel turns sentimental. It’s also where the structure shows weakness. Ifemelu and Obinze have not seen each other in well over a decade. They have not spoken in years. Obinze has married an ultra-kind, ultra-understanding, and ultra-attractive woman with whom he has a lovely daughter. There are also some 400 pages of American life separating this bookended Nigerian love story. (At almost 500 pages, Americanah is a long novel.) Yet somehow they wind up back together.
This does not work well because it’s improbable and because the novel’s focus is elsewhere. The real heart of this book is in the race question. There’s enough material at its core to make a full novel about that issue alone.
Indeed, the section after her move back to Lagos is mostly extraneous. For one, her observations on Nigeria are not nearly as broad in scope as those on the US. Her America encompasses the poor and rich. It gets at the whole country. Her Nigeria, however, reflects a southern Christian élite. Although her observations about this group are piercing, they’re narrow.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Adichie may have included this. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is a validation. It says Lagos isn’t a place to be from, it’s a place to go. And her focus on the well-to-do — whose worries include convincing your significant other to buy you a new car and increasing your gossip magazine’s circulation — shifts the conversation about Africa away from stereotypes of fly covered children. It shows a side of the continent many don’t know.
Yet one of the consequences of Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria — without Blaine — is the novel reads like it rejects cross-cultural communication. There seemed to be nothing fundamentally wrong with Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship. Her choice to leave for Lagos shocked him. Indeed the decision was shocking, because it seemed grounded in nothing more than a vague feeling that she couldn’t be with him because he was simply so… American.
This makes Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze all the more disappointing. In some ways it flies in the face of her anti-racism critique, as it implies people “belong with their own.” While Adichie surely wouldn’t support such a proposition, the narrative seems to suggest as much because Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze lacks grounding and her relationship with Blaine seemed rich.
Nigerian questions aside, Adichie’s treatment of race in America shines. What Americanah says about being black in the US is akin to what Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question said about being Jewish in the UK. Its observations penetrate, and it holds nothing back. The entire skin tone hierarchy comes in for close and witty analysis. The book explores all the possible relationships between black, Latino, Asian, and white Americans in settings as diverse as the classroom, the workplace, the hair salon, and the internet. The book is a major contribution to the cultural conversation on this question.
And while it also speaks volumes to the immigrant experience, plumbs the depths of long-lost love, and sheds light on southern Nigerian élite culture, these subjects are like birds resting on a cow: relatively small, and tenuously connected to the main subject. Had they been left for later treatment, the book might have had a more pleasing unity.
Nonetheless, Americanah brims with intelligence and sensitivity. Adichie is razor-sharp and her emotional acuity impresses. Her third novel is deeply considered, highly readable, and well worth checking out.