Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel Americanah is a story about childhood sweethearts – Ifemelu and Obinze – who fall in love in secondary school and go to university together. But they part ways amidst the unrest in Nigeria when strikes threaten their education. The couple find themselves in the diaspora as Ifemelu sets off for America while Obinze goes to the UK.
A rude awakening awaits them both in their new locations. Ifemelu – an opinionated woman – endures near destitution, before graduating from college in the USA. She starts a blog about race with the title “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and then wins a fellowship to Princeton University. While Ifemelu eventually thrives in America, Obinze faces a bleak future in the UK. He struggles to get hold of the national security number that will enable him to work legally and begins working under a false name before planning a fake marriage in the hopes that it will gain him citizenship.
Americanah gives a vivid depiction of what it means to be black in America as Adichie touches on issues of race and racism. This aspect of the novel describes Adichie’s own experience of leaving Nigeria at nineteen to attend college in America (she has acknowledged that many of Ifemelu’s experiences are her own). In Ifemelu’s blog posts she advises other non-American Blacks about how to get along in America. “Dear non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you are black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” Americanah has a similar feel with two of fellow Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta’s books: Second Class Citizen and In the Ditch. It is quite clear to me that Buchi Emecheta works were very influential and that elements of Emecheta are present in Chimamanda’s writing.
The politics of hair – particularly black women’s hair – is a subject which stands out in the novel. For instance, how women are expected to relax their natural hair with chemicals and conform to society’s beauty standards. In this book, black women’s hair represents Ifemelu’s struggle with identity, struggles that many black women seem to face whether in an African or foreign country.
The final section of the book follows Ifemelu’s return and her reunion with Obinze who is, by now, married to someone else. It is to Adichie’s immense credit that such an epic book remains structured, never straying or confusing. My only criticism is that Chimamanda includes too many of Ifemelu’s blog posts. The title of the novel refers to the nickname given to Nigerians returning home after living in America.
Americanah won the 2013 US National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and the BBC. The rights to Americanah have been sold for it be adapted into a film starring the Oscar-winning Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o. Adichie’s other award-winning novels include Purple Hibiscus (an O’level set book here in Zimbabwe ) and Half of a Yellow Sun, which has also been made into a film starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The Thing Around Your Neck is Chimamanda’s only short story collection and We Should All Be Feminists is a book-length essay by the author based on her very popular Tedtalk.
Americanah was published in 2013 by Alfred A. Knopf.