Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize winning book Half of A Yellow Sun was a magnificent read, a beautiful love story against the backdrop of the Biafran war, a terrible conflict I vividly remember from my childhood as totally incomprehensible…until I read this book. A truly amazing novel. Adichie casts the net wider in Americanah which spans three continents: America, Africa and Europe. Our heroine Ifemelu grows up in Nigeria’s capital Lagos with a mother lost to religion and an unhappy, underachieving father.
Ifemelu, attractive, intelligent and outspoken, falls in love with quietly confident Obinze; through their adolescent love affair they develop a deep bond. Nigeria, grind to a halt by dictatorship and strikes, offers little hope for the future and Ifemelu acts upon her dream of going to America. But, as immigrants before her know, the reality of America doesn’t always live up to the dream.
Oblivious to racism in her native Nigeria, Ifemelu is dropped in at the deep end. For the first time in her life, the colour of her skin determines her chances of getting a job, the way she is treated in shops, the way people talk to her. And this is where the book excels; we practically feel we are on Ifemelu’s shoulder as she is dealt blows from sleazy employers, rude shopkeepers and apparently well-meaning people who nevertheless harbour a deep-rooted racism. Although African, Ifemelu is treated like an African American, but expected to sympathise with African Americans. It all gets a bit complicated.
Try and make friends with our African American brothers and sisters in a spirit of true pan-Africanism. But make sure you remain friends with fellow Africans, as this will help you keep your perspective. Always attend African Students Association meetings, but if you must, you can also try the Black Student Union. […] The Africans who go the BSU are those with no confidence who are quick to tell you ‘I am originally from Kenya’ even though Kenya just pops out the minute they open their mouths. The African Americans who come to our meetings are the ones who write poems about Mother Africa and think every African is a Nubian queen.
Adichie herself has said that ‘In Nigeria I don’t think of myself as black. Race doesn’t occur to me’. We truly feel the heroine’s (and, indeed, the author’s) surprise and confusion in their meeting with racism and the exaggerated attempts at political correctness. Such as Kimberly, Ifemelu’s first employer, by all accounts a woman who strives to give the impression of being tolerant but who just tries too hard. This is also where the novel becomes funny, at times hysterically so.
Ifemelu would come to learn that, for Kimberly, the poor were blameless. Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty, because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.
Suddenly aware of her race, Ifemelu starts to dislike her hair and envy that of ‘the olive-skinned Venezuelan with corkscrew hair that fell to her shoulders, the white girl with waves and waves or russet hair’. Hour-long sessions at hair braiding salons and the application of countless hair products and straighteners ensue, to the point where ‘her hairline shifted backwards each day’. Adichie’s portrayal is clever, incredibly funny and sad at the same time. Using humour she defuses the issues but without loosing their profound seriousness. Ifemelu’s hair becomes the very symbol of her Africanness, one which she spends hours trying to erase, until she one day lets go, cuts it all off and starts wearing an afro.
In many ways, Ifemelu ‘makes it’ in America, against the odds as a black immigrant. After a rough start, she finds jobs, friends and boyfriends, and ends up as a successful blogger on racial issues and with a humanities fellowship at Princeton, but she never completely feels at home. Her own feeling of foreignness as well as the memory of her ex-boyfriend eventually urges her to move back to Nigeria.
There was something wrong with her. She did not know what it was but there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself. The sense of something farther away, beyond her reach.
Obinze, meanwhile, goes through his own migrant nightmare in the U.K., working illegally in menial jobs with the expensive and dangerous assistance of people traffickers. His meeting with Britain is hilarious and deeply sad. Obinze’s co-workers show him a good time the British way: page-three girls, pub brawls and bragging about shagging. Bombarded by constant newsreels about asylum seekers and in constant fear of discovery, Obinze’s dream of a new start slowly begins to crumble.
Race and racism features prominently in Americanah, but it is also a novel about being a foreigner. Some of the most enjoyable passages deal with the bewilderment of meeting new cultures. Ifemelu is bemused by the American habits of eating sandwiches rather than a hot meal for lunch, of giving children last-name-sounding first names and attending parties in track suits. Obinze, meanwhile, is puzzled by the reverence with which his colleague Nigel treats the dishevelled looking, arrogant customer living in Kensington, quietly reflecting that ‘if the man had spoken with a different accent, Nigel would have called him miserly for not giving them a tip.’
The magic of this novel is how real it feels and I suspect it is partly autobiographical; Adichie herself grew up in a middle-class family in Nigeria with a University lecturer and administrator as parents. At 19, she moved to America and studied and worked at a number of different universities, amongst them Princeton and Yale, which both features in the story. I also have a feeling there is a lot of Adichie’s personality in the strong-headed and intelligent Ifemelu.
At 477 pages, Americanah is not a short book, but the superb writing, the pace of the story and the humorous angle on serious issues make this a book where you’ll never pay attention to the page numbers. Go buy it! You definitively don’t want to miss this one.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published by Fourth Estate, 477 pages.