Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Release date: May 14, 2013
Source: Personal collection*
Rating: 3 out of 5
Americanah begins not in the United States but in Nigeria, a country in the midst of intense growing pains. Young Ifemelu and her boyfriend, Obinze, navigate a country in the throes of a military dictatorship, often wishing farewell to friends and family members trying to piece together a life in another place.
After her university studies are interrupted yet again by strikes, Ifemelu herself decides to emigrate to the United States to start her degree over at an American college. Obinze is unable to join her, instead disappearing into the murky world of undocumented immigrants in London. Outside of the warm bubble of her relationship with Obinze, Ifemelu falters. She must rediscover who she is and what she wants, far from home.
In the U.S., Ifemelu is confronted with race for the first time. She begins writing about her experiences on her blog, the rather SEO-unfriendly named “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The blog becomes so popular, she is able to quit her full-time job. (Yeah, I’m still waiting for that to happen to me!)
Yet Ifemelu still feels unfulfilled by her life in the U.S., and she decides to quit her blog and return to Nigeria. The book opens on the day she is getting her hair done for her return, and much of the story is told in flashbacks.
At one point, Ifemelu ponders, “Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” Yet Americanah is, overwhelmingly, about one thing, or rather, about many aspects of the same thing: race.
As Ifemelu blurts out at a dinner party:
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie… But we don’t talk about it… We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.”
Adichie is trying to do just that–talk about race head-on, through blog posts and dinner-party soliloquies. I love Ifemelu’s candor, and I applaud the idea of discussing race so openly in a novel. These full-frontal discussions of race are refreshing in some ways.
But taken together, these discussions were just too overt for me. The ideology overwhelmed the story; I found myself getting wrapped up in the romance of Ifemelu and Obinze, and wincing whenever I turned the page and saw a blog post.
When I’m reading a novel, I like to focus on the story. The underlying themes are that much more powerful because they are subtle and don’t overwhelm the narrative; the reader reaches these conclusions on her own. It’s the classic writing adage: Show, don’t tell.
Adichie clearly has a lot of compelling material for a treatise on race in the U.S. and elsewhere, and I would love to read that in a nonfiction book. I’m particularly interested to read her slim volume, We Should All Be Feminists, next month.
The story of Ifemelu and Obinze stood on its own just fine. Adichie is an incredibly talented writer; I just wish she’d trusted her readers to reach the conclusions she had in mind. Americanah is ultimately an optimistic story about love and forgiveness, soul-mates and second chances, identity and belonging.
Rabbit trail: After reading this book, I found myself noticing hair a lot; in fact, when I watched this video, Ifemelu popped into my head:
Quote of Note:
“There are many different ways to be poor in the world but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.”
*I dog-eared many pages that I wanted to mention, but unfortunately, I left my copy in Belize due to a missed flight (long story). Instead, I had to pull together quotes from Goodreads, so please forgive me if they are not entirely accurate.
Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Americanah for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.