>>Finally got around to it: September 2013
“Please do not go to Kmart and buy twenty pairs of jeans because each costs five dollars. The jeans are not running away. They will be there tomorrow at an even more reduced price. You are now in America: do not expect to have hot food for lunch. That African taste must be abolished. When you visit the home of an American with some money, they will offer to show you their house. Forget that in your house back home, your father would throw a fit if anyone came close to his bedroom. We all know that the living room was where it stopped and, if absolutely necessary, then the toilet. But please smile and follow the American and see the house and make sure you say you like everything. And do not be shocked by the indiscriminate touching of American couples. Standing in line at the cafeteria, the girl will touch the boy’s arm and the boy will put his arm around her shoulder and they will rub shoulders and back and rub rub rub, but please do not imitate this behavior.”
They were all laughing. Wambui shouted something in Swahili.
“Very soon you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you ‘What? What?’ You will start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents, like our brother here, Kofi. Kofi’s parents came from Ghana when he was two years old, but do not be fooled by the way he sounds. If you go to their house, they eat kenkey everyday. His father slapped him when he got a C in a class. There’s no American nonsense in that house. He goes back to Ghana every year. We call people like Kofi American-African, not African-American, which is what we call our brothers and sisters whose ancestors were slaves.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a deeply talented writer. She manages in each of her books to strike a delicate balance between believably flawed and accessible characters and dense cultural commentary. Her approach is sociologically minded, seemingly crafting both character and narrative out of a specific overarching realm of study. In her latest book, Americanah, the splintered long-distance love between Ifemelu and Obinze addresses and dissects in contrasting ways the absorption and possible subjugation of one culture by another, and the rush to adopt a new culture’s ways in order to fill in the holes of the old.
Americanah primarily follows Ifemelu as she travels from Nigeria to America to finish her university education, which had been prolonged at home by continuous educational strikes. As the book opens, Ifemelu is in Princeton on a fellowship. We learn she’s been living in America for thirteen years and currently resides with her boyfriend, a very political though somewhat socially and emotionally immature man named Blaine. For some time now Ifemelu has made her living writing a lifestyle blog of sorts entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. However, just prior to the book’s opening, Ifemelu wrote her final post and closed down her blog; dissatisfied in many ways by life in America, fearing she has lost touch with a part of herself in the time she’s spent away from Nigeria, she has decided to return home to see what kind of life she can lead there after so many years of being half a world away.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love with whom she for a time maintained a long-distance relationship. At the novel’s start Obinze is at home in Lagos with his wife, Kosi, who has “an intemperate dislike of single women and an intemperate love of God,” and their two-year-old daughter, Buchi. Though Obinze did not follow Ifemelu to America, as he would have liked, his journey to find himself and make a living in the UK and at home in Nigeria is the working-class parallel to hers.
The division between Ifemelu and Obinze’s journeys—as well as the reasons for their falling out and the ramifications therein—is the emotional core of Americanah. Slowly, over the course of seven emotionally distinct parts, the full scope of their relationship is shown, filtered through the prism of contrasting life and socio-cultural experiences.
As described within the text, an “Americanah” is an African who, after a short time in America, readily adopts the accent, affectations, and/or mannerisms of the adoptive country, coming back changed in clearly identifiable ways. This, of course, is something Ifemelu fears—the loss of connection to Obinze, to her home, to a familiar and much loved way of life. But she has no choice if she’s to finish school.
The transition to life in America is not easy, with finances being Ifemelu’s first and largest hurdle. However, after some troubling instances of both her race and her gender eliminating her from job contention (and one truly horrifying experience in which she experiences emotional and physical rock bottom, and the immediate resulting loss of what innocence remained), Ifemelu finds work with a wealthy family as their nanny. From this one connection, a great many opportunities arise, each one a split between greater economic and class benefit, and further arrogance and ignorance on part of the social upper crust:
Laura picked up the menu again. “In graduate school I knew a woman from Africa who was just like this doctor, I think she was from Uganda. She was wonderful, and she didn’t get along with the African-American woman in our class at all. She didn’t have all those issues.”
“Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford,” Ifemelu said.
Americanah does not hesitate in openly discussing American tribalism and hierarchies. Ifemelu’s blog entries, which are peppered throughout the text like capsule-sized social and historical dialogues, illustrate not only her experience, but the gulf she encounters between expectations, reality, and the ways in which all sides of race-related conversations in America seem to contradict both one another. As the novel progresses and Ifemelu finds her way through a number of differing social circles—from the wealthy old-money Curt who exoticizes her at practically every turn to the politically motivated Blaine and his friends and sister who present an air of opposition to the ruling class while simultaneously doing what they can to become a part of it—she begins to feel as if her personality is gradually being compromised and she is in essence disappearing into her blog.
I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative’s progression because Ifemelu is one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across this year, one I think readers should come to know on their own terms. She’s driven and highly intelligent, but also deeply flawed and harbouring a mild penchant for self-sabotage. Her journey is relatable in a way not too many authors manage to convey, regardless of ethnic background or specific social umbrella/backdrop utilized.
As the novel nears its conclusion, the idea of an “Americanah” evolves interestingly from being a type of individual into the cultural and behavioural myopia of so many Americans, regardless of race; on a macro scale it’s about the aggression of social agendas, no matter their benevolent origins. For example, as Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine deepens, he tries to change her from an observer into an activist, and is angered when she opposes his attempt to mould her as such. In this sense Blaine, an African-American and not an American-African, is guilty of assuming, due to his high intellect and very expensive education, he knows and is capable of accurately criticizing the third world, and is more concerned with being right than he is with learning something new. In behaving in this manner he is truly no better than Curt, Ifemelu’s “hot white ex”, who was guilty of exoticizing her but did not try to limit or redirect her individual perspective.
While I highly recommend this title, I do have a few issues with the book—none so damning they overwhelmed the high quality of both the writing and the narrative being told, but worth pointing out nonetheless.
Overall the novel is incredibly unfavourable to both academics and the wealthy. Occasionally this felt like a bit of an unrealistic imbalance, as it sometimes felt as if there were no other people in Ifemelu’s life but political activists, lifelong academics, or white people of ridiculous wealth and privilege. However, given the Ivy League environment in which she spends a great deal of the novel, that is more than likely a fair assumption to make of at least a large swath of the surrounding population.
Additionally, while the resolution of Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is satisfying, I will admit to being frustrated with some of her late-in-the-narrative actions—specifically the harsh and unforgiving manner in which she criticizes him for not being quick enough to leave his wife and declare his love only for Ifemelu—for a woman who, in the past, abruptly cut off all contact with the man she loved and left him floundering on his own, without his strength and confidante, without verbalizing any rhyme or reason to her actions. While this goes a great distance in further humanizing Ifemelu and cementing the ways in which life abroad has changed her, it did, in the novel’s final pages, wound the sympathetic image I’d built for her in my head—because trust is not so easily earned back once it has been lost, and it was understandable that Obinze would feel at least some residual trepidation.
My first impressions of this novel were that it was a fish-out-of-water story, which it is not. Americanah is instead a story of cultural upheaval and transposition—like changing musical keys or a volatile chemical reaction—as new elements are introduced into an established personal ecosystem, upsetting the established balance. Ifemelu embodies this upheaval as she struggles to find peace within herself; any relationship she enters into, apart from her first with Obinze, removes personal agency over how and to what degree she decides to change her life and situation. In many ways, Ifemelu is caught in a love triangle between differing evolutionary paths: maturity through life experience (Obinze), maturity through education and activism (Blaine), and maturity through wealth and privilege (Curt). How these things and the culture of America affect her and help her to grow into a strong, independent character, and her changed and somewhat distant view of Lagos upon her return, provide Americanah with its core ideological ethos: No matter how much you might want to, you can’t always go home again.