I’d been waiting to read Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche for months. A friend had recommended it as a ‘must – read’. So read it I did. I was unsure what to expect but the novel didn’t disappoint. At face value Americanah is another seemingly innocuous novel about two lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze. We follow them as they overcome obstacles including deportation, immigration and marriage to find each other once more. And yet it is so much more than that.
Somehow Adiche manages to conflate a novel with a pseudo-manifesto/essay on race. But this is no rant or diatribe. The story line is meticulously structured around moments where Adiche can shine a light on race. The use of Ifemelu’s blog to highlight the underlying issues is nothing short of genius. But it never feels heavy handed or fake.
There is a realism to the characters who are astonishingly 3D. The “racially charged” (read racist) moments are deftly skewered and revealed for what they truly are by our main protagonist Ifemelu. Her directness and refusal to be anything other than herself is refreshing. She’s reminiscent of many an activist lit from within by an inner fire. She questions half-formed or ill-formed or outright racist beliefs. In the midst of this she does not set herself up on a pedestal. She is no saviour. She recognizes her inner flaws and like many of us, in a moment when she holds back from calling racism out, she dislikes herself for it.
Race and Otherness
One element of the novel which particularly struck me is Ifemelu’s otherness as a character. Initially on entrance to America she is made aware that she is black. This cultural consciousness of colour is a construct. Back home in Nigeria Ifemelu just is. Her skin colour is no signifyer. Neither is her natural hair. Upon arriving in America, Ifemelu feels pressure to conform. She is made aware of her otherness both from within and without. From the vapid blonde who well-meaningly calls all black women ‘beautiful’ to the one who questions her ‘jungle hair’. Even her classmates at university assumes she will speak for all black people. That she must agree with African-Americans as a non-American black. Even within the immigrant and black community Ifemelu struggles to conform.
This ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality drives Ifemelu into unconscious activism. Firstly, through her decision to drop her Americanized accent and then to stop relaxing her hair in favour of embracing her natural afro. Her drive to embody her true herself becomes both her armour, against her own cognitive dissonance of otherness, as well as her weapons against racism and conformity. Ifemelu literally embodies her values and beliefs. She spreads her messages further through her blog and her discovery of a pro-afro website. Here she begins to hit her stride.
Otherness Back Home
As Ifemelu becomes more comfortable in her skin; the lure of Nigeria beckons. She has done what is expected of her. She moved to America and became successful. And yet, her homecoming is a mixed blessing. Nigeria is no longer the home Ifemelu left behind. Both she and Nigeria have moved on. As she walks the streets of Lagos she questions everything. Was it always like this? Did she take it for granted or have things changed? Her friends laugh at her American idiosyncrasies, crying “Americanah”. Whilst no insult, Ifemelu’s American citizenship makes her the golden goose, she once again is the other.
Her return home inducts her into an elite group of well-monied returnees. They flock together bemoaning the lack of Americanized food and the shoddy workmanship of Nigerian natives. Ifemelu is drawn to this group like a butterfly to a flame. Here her own hidden thoughts are given voice. And yet, once again she despises herself for it. She feels uncomfortable in her superiority. Her Nigerian status may no longer be problem. But her American passport has become the key to everything and nothing. Both as a immigrant on the lowest societal rung and back home in Nigeria on a pedestal; Ifemelu is always the other.
Relationships & Closure
There was another, more personal, reason Americanah resonated with me. The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze was only too reminiscent of first love. For her own reasons Ifemelu cuts off contact with Obinze. She in America and he back home in Nigeria. There is very little recourse to action for either. She refuses to answer his calls and his only weapon is the telephone. Their relationship reaches a stasis with no resolution until they meet once more in Nigeria many years later. Whilst for many this reunion of the characters is the height of romance, I am unconvinced.
From my own experience, relationships which seemingly end with no resolution or closure are never really over. There is always a niggling feeling of ‘what if’ or ‘what happened’ even many years on when one or both parties are in happy and secure relationships. Despite Ifemelu’s long term relationships in America and Obinze’s marriage neither are satisfied. Obinze acknowledges that he married the girl he thought he was meant to. Ifemelu cheats initially on her ‘perfect’ white boyfriend and later leaves her long-term partner to return to Nigeria. Both settle into relationships which do not necessarily ‘fit’, they chafe, although everything seems perfect on the surface. Only when they reconnect do we come towards resolution. Their relationship had never ended but rather had been in limbo. Perhaps unintentionally Americanah also shines a light on the need for closure in a relationship. A second message for an already profoundly enlightening book.