issue 28 > nonfiction > mhute
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieReviewed by Wadzanai Mhute
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
New York: Knopf, 2013
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's third novel Americanah is an ambitious novel with big themes.
In Americanah we meet Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts who are separated because of the lack of "choice and certainty" in their home country of Nigeria. Ifemelu immigrates to the United States to study while Obinze goes to England where he lives an invisible life as an illegal immigrant. The two lose contact because of separate trials in their new lives.
Ms. Adichie shows the cultural differences and struggles of an immigrant trying to navigate studies and financial pressures. We follow Ifemelu through several cities including Philadelphia where she attends college and works as a baby-sitter. Through depression and a seedy encounter, Ifemelu emerges victorious. She moves on with her life through relationships with Curt, a white wealthy man, and Blaine an African American Yale professor.
Ifemelu delves into delicate territory when she starts a popular blog titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Race issues are ubiquitous in America where Ifemelu realizes for the first time that she is black. She offers social commentary for the sometime fractious relationships between African Americans and Africans or so-called American Africans. In response to her employer's sister's admiration of a Ugandan classmate who was not on friendly terms with an African American woman, she says:
"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."
With this statement Ms. Adichie is not afraid to discuss the reality of cultural differences between people who share the same skin. Despite dating Blaine, Ifemelu does not feel the same way he does about injustices real or perceived. She even skips a rally organized by Blaine in support of an African American university security guard ironically named 'Mr. White' who was questioned by police on suspicion of selling drugs. Blaine chastises her for writing a blog on race but not living as one who believes in the fight. In the end Ifemelu concludes his anger is because she cannot relate as an African. Ifemelu closes the blog when she decides to return to Nigeria where race is not an issue.
"I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black."
"Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of Brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell."
It is interesting that the last town Ifemelu lives in has no smell. It is a place she finally has peace where she presumably sheds the history, the neglect, the saltiness and the garbage of past cities and lives.
For Obinze the struggles are to have an identity in a country where he feels invisible. Class is an issue in his England experience, something he acquires on his return to Lagos when becomes a member of the new moneyed elite.
Much has been made of Ms. Adichie's preoccupation with hair in this book. Hair does appear prominently. We learn of natural hair, braids, perms and weaves. Hair is interwoven through this story of displacement and discovery. Hair connects and separates. It connects Ifemelu to an African hair braider in America, to anonymous blog readers who ask about her natural hair regimen and to herself, as it frees her from conforming to expectations. It separates the returnees or Nigerpolitans from the Lagos women, the American African from the African American, individual conviction from societal expectations.
For all the talk on race, hair and immigration, Americanah is a love story. Its love for oneself, love for family and ultimately about Ifemelu and Obinze. Ms. Adichie hits a home-run with this one.