Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is so full of ideas it’s hard to know where to start. The story touches on race, identity, immigration, culture, language, money, class, prejudice, family, disappointment, and homecoming. Our two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, are our eyes in Lagos, London, and middle Atlantic America. They are perpetually outsiders. They are the only ones who understand each other. It may seem strange (or frustrating) that Ifemelu and Obinze are separated for much of the novel, but in the maelstrom of all the other topics, Americanah is also their love story.
Ifemelu’s flaw (as other characters see it) is her willingness to speak the truth as she sees it. Her tongue is always getting her in trouble, in Nigeria and in America. She and Obinze meet in high school. They have an instant intellectual and physical connection, but they take it slow. They stick together through to university. The true test of their relationship comes when Ifemelu gets a visa to travel to the United States for graduate school. Obinze gets rejected again and again. After a traumatic experience trying to earn money under the table, Ifemelu stops talking to Obinze and it all falls apart. Obinze gets a temporary visa to go to London. They grow further apart as Obinze struggles as an illegal immigrant and Ifemelu strives for legitimacy and independence.
Adichie frames the first two thirds of Americanah in flashbacks as Ifemelu has her hair braided one afternoon in Trenton, New Jersey. As she whiles away the hours, we learn more about her relationship with Obinze, her fifteen years in America, her success as a blogger writing about race. Obinze gets his turn to reflect, too, until we are caught up on their lives apart. Ifemelu returns to Lagos after shuttering her popular blog and her research fellowship at Princeton ends. The last third of Americanah is Ifemelu and Obinze’s homecoming.
Americanah is highly episodic. There are flashbacks and set pieces and posts from Ifemelu’s fictional blog, all connected by the arc of her life. And this is where Ifemelu gets to reflect on what it is to be a “Non-American Black,” African American, Nigerian immigrant, and all the other roles she plays. I’m trying not to say this is a brave or honest book (though it very much is both of those things), because those are platitudes. Ifemelu would not approve.
Because Ifemelu is an outsider, she sees things the way no one else sees them. There are so many scenes in this book that made me squirm because they were so true. A clothing store manager bends over backwards to try and ask which sales woman helped Ifemelu and her friend without asking, “Was it the black woman or the white woman?” There are the white liberals who deliver boneheadly offensive mini-lectures about Africans. There are academics who can only talk about race if they turn everything into metaphors and signifiers.
As I read Americanah, I started marking instances of characters changing themselves. Some characters, like Obinze’s wife, Kosi, becomes preternaturally accommodating so that she doesn’t make any waves among the Nigerian elite. Ifemelu’s aunt, Ujo, changes the most. Over the course of the book, she transforms from a general’s mistress to immigrant to the wife of another immigrant. She changes physically. She changes her personality. No one is, to use a word the academics would love, authentic. But who can really say what authentic is? As Kurt Vonnegut would say, we are who we pretend to be. Some of the characters in Americanah change themselves because they want to be someone else. Others change because their loved ones want them to. Ifemelu is told by one of her American boyfriends to read certain books, eat fair trade/organic/über-healthy food, and to write her blog posts in a more “responsible” way (my danger quotes). This is where Ifemelu has the most trouble. She angers other people because she says things they don’t want to hear.
Americanah is not an easy book to digest. In addition to its solid plot and superlative characterization, it’s also an idea book. Adichie never lets things bog down with philosophizing and speech-making, but there is so much to think about. This may be the perfect book for a book club—as long as the members can buck the social stigma of talking bluntly about race, without posturing or academic distance.