‘They roared with laughter, at that word “Americanah”, wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke’.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.65
It is no surprise to me that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third, and ‘most ambitious’, novel has made the shortlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I first heard of Adichie when my A Level English teacher encouraged me to read her first novel and coming-of-age story, Purple Hibiscus, which I subsequently used in a comparative essay with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was only last year that I finally picked up Adichie’s second novel, Half of A Yellow Sun (you can read my review here), which won the 2007 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I have no idea what took me so long to read more of her work. She is an incredible writer who can not only tell a good story but can make you look at the world more critically, from different perspectives. She can also steep her novels in specific historical times whilst still maintaining a long-lasting relevance and contemporariness.
‘Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing. Ifemelu disliked the question’.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.189
As this quote suggests, Americanah encompasses so many different genres and ideas – from race, ethnicity and identity to human relationships and interactions – that it is difficult to sum up, though I will try my best without giving away too much! Americanah tells the story of the strong-minded and independent Ifemelu who has taken the opportunity to finish her studies in the United States. Leaving behind a Nigeria that is currently under military dictatorship and a man she has loved since secondary school, Obinze, she struggles, at first, to fit into this alien world. Coming from a place where people do not define themselves by the colour of their skin, she is surprised by the importance of race in an America that has supposedly moved on from its turbulent past – for example, Ifemelu doesn’t view herself as black until she moves to America. She is surprised by its subtleties and hypocrisies, and she notes how society is ordered in terms of a racial, rather than a class, hierarchy.
One example that really struck me about the lengths people go to to evade issues of race was when Ifemelu and her friend, Ginika, are in a store and the cashier asks which sales assistant helped them so that they could get their commission. There are only two sales assistants in the shop and Ginika can’t remember the name of the person who helped her. The cashier asks many questions about the appearance of the sales assistant, evading the most obvious difference that one of them was black and the other was white:
‘As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, “I was waiting for her to ask ‘Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?’ Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?'”
Ginika laughed. “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things”‘.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.127
It is these small, yet frequent, experiences that prompt Ifemelu to start a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. These blog posts make up part of the novel, often placed at the end of chapters (reminding me, almost, of Richard’s attempt to write a novel about Biafra in Half of a Yellow Sun), which makes for an interesting device. Through these blog posts Adichie is able to include more instances of observations on race in America without it feeling as if she is patronising the reader.
After many years of struggling to make it in America – and ostracising Obinze in the process – she has finally settled in to a relatively successful life. Her blog has enabled her to earn money from public speaking, she has embarked on a Princeton fellowship (which Adichie also did) and she has settled down with her African-American boyfriend and Harvard professor, Blaine.
‘[…] yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness. […] Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil’.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.6
At the beginning of the novel she has closed up her blog, finished her Princeton fellowship and ended her relationship with Blaine. As she is sitting in an overbearing and stiflingly hot hair salon, having her hair braided, the threads of her story come together to give us the full picture. She is yearning to return to the Nigeria of her childhood, the Nigeria she has loved and always will love. We learn about her past – her school days in Lagos, meeting Obinze for the first time, the university strikes that led her to America to complete her degree – and we learn about the last thirteen years she has spent in America, which all leads up to her decision to leave.
Meanwhile, Obinze, who was meant to follow Ifemelu to America after his studies were completed, finds that post-9/11 America refuses to grant him a visa. Instead he ends up in the murky underground of undocumented life in England:
‘Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, 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, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, 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, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.276
With Americanah, Adichie encapsulates not only American attitudes towards race, but attitudes also prevalent in English society. Obinze is constantly living in fear that he may be found out as an illegal immigrant. Working under someone else’s National Insurance number going from menial job to menial job, and subsequently handing over almost half of his earnings to be able to do so, is the only way he can survive until he manages to secure a marriage with an EU citizen. As the above quote suggests, not many Westerners would understand why people like Obinze (or Ifemelu) would want to escape a country where they have been ‘raised well-fed and watered’. They would not understand why Obinze would go to the lengths of living illegally on the off-chance that he may, one day, gain legal status because they cannot imagine a life without the privileges of choice and certainty.
However, for very different reasons, both Ifemelu and Obinze end up back in Lagos and what follows is a very human story about enduring love. What I love about Adichie is that she can couple the literary with the real. She can open my mind about issues regarding race and identity whilst at the same time she knows how to tug at my heartstrings. By the end of the novel I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat, eagerly turning the pages, wanting to find out how the novel would end. I was not disappointed!
‘Each memory stunned her with its blinding luminosity. Each brought with it a sense of unassailable loss, a great burden hurtling towards her, and she wished she could duck, lower herself so that it would bypass her, so that she would save herself. Love was a kind of grief. This was what the novelists meant by suffering’.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Pg.473