Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“the other guests . . . all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him . . . conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Americanah is such an important book. Adichie has written a meaningful and beautiful story that begs its reader to partake in a larger, very timely, conversation about race, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. This novel tells the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze – two Nigerian teenagers who attend a university in Nigera but decide to leave because of frequent strikes in the academic system. When Ifemelu arrives in America, she attends a prestigious university, waits for Obinze’s arrival, and, later, begins a popular blog that discusses race issues in America.
Through this story, we see Adichie explore race in all of its intricacies. Right from the first pages, Adichie pointedly calls attention to white American culture: the habits, behaviours and nuances that I never think about, but that are absolutely happening and are uncomfortable to read about when put so plainly. As the narrative continues, Adichie carefully portrays the distinction between being black in Africa and being black in the USA. We see Ifemelu feel “black” for the first time when she arrives in the United States.
These racial complexities are depicted through the relationships in the story as well. I liked seeing Ifemelu date a variety of men: white, privileged Curt, to whom colour is “nothing”; Blaine, a black college professor; and, of course, Obinze from her younger days in Nigeria. The differences between these relationships give a really interesting look at race through the lens of race, age and geography.
Throughout this novel, Adiche’s writing in incredibly nuanced. With skill and impressive style, Adichie highlights the subtleties between the various cultures portrayed in the novel, from Nigeria, to the USA, to England, and between. Adichie is not put off by discussing controversial issues, or those deemed controversial by white Americans who are uncomfortable discussing them. These topics are often addressed in Ifemelu’s blog posts, which are scattered throughout the chapters in the later parts of the novel. I really liked this treatment of the issues because it made the discussion seem less formal while still remaining poignant. These blog posts were very effective at prodding me to think more deeply about some of Ifemelu’s arguments.
When I got to the second half of the novel I started to feel like it was dragging a bit; like the story could have been told in 400 pages instead of almost 600. When I got closer to the end, I realized that the time (and length) that had passed made the moment Ifemelu had been waiting for seem incredibly gripping for me. I felt the tightness in her stomach in my own and I felt her relief that we had, finally, made it to this moment. It was a beautiful moment that proves that, sometimes, longer books have exactly the right number of pages. The beauty of this scene was even greater because of the way Ifemelu took in her experience honestly, reflecting on the ways even those people that are dearest to us change and evolve and have aspects that irk us no matter how much we love them.
Overall, Americanah is completely enchanting while still incredibly enlightening. The narrative’s focus on the loss of cultural identity both when Ifemelu arrives in America and when she moves back to Nigeria so many years later work as a spring board for the larger exploration in the story – what drives us to leave our homes, and what eventually leads us back?