The Surprise of Americanah
Americanah is not the book that you might expect it to be. It is an honest look at African, British, and American society seen through a unique point of view that has never been fully explored before.
Americanah is the fourth book and the third novel of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Booker prize, while Half a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize. Needless to say, the expectations were very high for her next work and she didn’t disappoint. Her work is a sprawling look at three cultures.
The novel shows why Adichie is considered to be one of the most promising authors out there today. Americanah at times feels highly personal as if the author is confessing something she has just uncovered about herself. It is also highly modern using a language that is only possible now.
Nigeria, America, and Britain
Americanah is a book about three countries, namely Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The book tells the story of Ifemelu, a young girl with a very strong will and her own opinions. She’s the main protagonist in the book but it also tells the story of Obinze, who is her teenage boyfriend. They seem to be polar opposites, Ifemelu is argumentative and is unafraid to speak her mind. Obinze, on the other hand, is calm which is why he draws others around him with his charm. Despite their differences, they fall in love.
It is also worth noting that Ifemelu and Obinze are not like the usual characters from Africa that people will encounter in recent fiction. They are not the victims of war and abject poverty. They come from the middle class and they love books. They know a great deal about western culture and literature. During their time in secondary school, Nigeria was still under a military dictatorship and it was driving many from the middle class out of the country. Many of those from their generation have been conditioned to look elsewhere for opportunities and a better life.
Ifemelu chose to move to the United States (the book is mostly about her and her journey in America) where she faces racism for the first time in her life. She went to Philadelphia to continue her postgraduate studies. It was a major opportunity and she knew it, which is why she grabbed the chance to go to America.
A few years later, Obinze goes out of Nigeria too in search of his fortune. At first, he tries to join Ifemelu in the United States but he was denied an entry visa because of the 9/11 attacks. This is the stage in the book where we see the full talent of Adichie as a novelist. She was able to craft a story that covers both what’s happening in the United States and Britain. She was able to paint a sprawling picture that encompasses both countries. It was almost epic in its proportions that reminded one of the old classical novels.
Obinze becomes an undocumented migrant in London after his visa expired and he had to struggle there to earn a living, like many of his fellow Africans. The papers in London were filled with stories about migrants and their children and how they were overwhelming the schools. The politicians attempt to enforce laws against the asylum seekers who are taking away the opportunities from native Brits.
It was in that nearly hostile environment of London that Obinze was invited by a former classmate from Nigeria to a party. The former classmate has done well and has married a solicitor. The party was a great opportunity for Adichie to write about race and political correctness. She used the guests at the party to voice out the most inane talking points regarding race and politics. It was clear that she was mocking the usual liberal stance of being patronizing to people of color.
She points out how people like the ones she is describing in her books will be able to understand those who are fleeing war, rape, and economic desperation but they would never understand someone like her characters who just chose to flee their land in search for something else because that was how they were conditioned from birth.
Living in America
As you can read in Americanah Ifemelu has a hard time too when living in America. She finds it hard to find part-time work that will suit her. Somehow, she gets turned away when she applies as a janitor, a waitress, or any other low-paying job. Her relationship with her fellow students is not that great either. Many of her classmates speak to her with deliberate slowness, as if assuming that she will have a hard time understanding their English.
But, what she found so strange was that she was singled out in class as someone who will automatically understand the plight of the African Americans in the United States in the belief that she shared a black consciousness with them.
Perhaps what Adichie does best with this book is to hold up a mirror to America and show how it is dealing with its uncomfortable recent past. Even those who are well-meaning are somehow doing things incorrectly. There is one character in the novel that symbolizes this more than anything. That would be the blonde Kimberley. Ifemelu becomes a nanny for her.
Although Kimberley is well-meaning she has some habits that strike Ifemelu as odd. Kimberley has a habit of calling every black woman she was talking about as beautiful. “We’re working with this beautiful woman on the inner-city project,” Kimberley would say. Ifemelu found the habit slightly annoying since she saw that the person that Kimberley was referring to was not beautiful.
So, was Kimberley calling all black women beautiful because she was afraid, not doing so would be termed racist? Does she believe that all black women are beautiful? Was it a form of condescension? In her usual candor, Ifemelu eventually points out that not all black persons are beautiful. It was that moment of honesty that allowed her to build a real friendship with Kimberley.
Starting a Blog
Ifemelu starts her blog and she calls it Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black. The blog gains a following and because of that, Ifemelu rises in prominence. The blog makes the book richer and adds a different dimension to it. One recurring theme of the blog is the politics of black hair.
The last part of the book is about Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria. She has a sort of reunion with Obinze who has returned years earlier. He has managed to become wealthy through developing properties and his own family already.
It is a testament to Adichie’s skill as a writer that her book which is so vast in scope and has several diverging parts can feel intimate and so well put-together. There are only a few parts here and there that feel like they can be left out, but for the most part, everything is in place. In such a long story that is quite an achievement. She truly deserves all the praise that she is getting right now.