Chimamanda! Chimamanda! Did I say Chimamanda! Ah Americanah swept me off my feet and has had medeep in reflection for the past 3 weeks. That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time after finishing a book. I found myself rereading passages after I’d finished it. I couldn’t get enough.
Americanah is Adichie’s third successful novel. It’s the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are Nigerian and they meet and fall in love instantly at school. It’s the story of their love, their growth, and their immigration stories. The central character of the novel is Ifemelu who is young opinionated and intelligent. We follow her from Nigeria where she leaves the love of her life, Obinze, and her parents to immigrate to America and live with her Aunt Uju and cousin Dike. There the ups and downs and harsh reality of life in America, for immigrants, shape the story as well as Ifemelu’s character. She develops with each new situation and new character she meets. She slowly shapes into a woman with each relationship she has. For with each boyfriend comes new lessons to learn. It was wonderful to watch her grow and make mistakes.
Readers may feel that Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is non-existent, however their love story is non-conventional but oh so passionate and runs deep. Adichie constructs the novel to contain themes that are pertinent and that have not as yet been dealt with in such an outright way. Race, immigration, natural hair, and blogging are the central themes that drive the story. You’re probably thinking race and that you know what she’s going to say. Wrong! You don’t and frankly you’ll be a little surprised at times, happily surprised and maybe a little uncomfortable. Adichie deals thoroughly with all the different sides to race. You get the points of view of the Africans, the African immigrants (Americanahs), the African-Americans, the white Americans, and other races. Some may not appreciate her African-American view and feel as if she’s slighting us but I had to admit that I know African-Americans that I’ve heard saying a lot of the things she writes in the book. Adichie’s views may at times come off as semi-rants but the context in which she writes them are fitting.
The novel was written in third person, which is lively and amiable, just like a good friend accompanying you throughout the 477 pages. At times the third person was Ifemelu speaking and Obinze but most of the time I felt it was Adichie expressing her personnel opinions. All in all, I loved that because those passages were filled with the most stimulating and thought-provoking lines. To aid in telling this story Adichie uses blog entries which Ifemelu writes while in the United States to talk about race. Through these strategically placed blog entries Adichie examines all the uncomfortable angles around the subject of race. At times they made me laugh aloud, smile, or just say a subtle yes. I hadn’t thought so much about race from an African’s point of view, much less an African’s view of race in the United States.
Immigration was the next ubiquitous theme. The heart-rendering immigration stories of Ifemelu in the United States and Obinze in England paralleling each other depicted the difficulties they were going through, while showing their growth as people – lack of money, being homesick, looking for jobs, being illegal, dealing with unsavoury characters, and constantly searching and not finding. It was funny that through all the difficulty of immigration they both had, they always seemed to turn to reading or books for comfort, which I found astounding. The books mentioned in Americanah are A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipul, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama. Each book mentioned has ideas relevant to the scenes where they are mentioned in Americanah. Adichie is trying to reinforce her ideas through the recurring accepted ideas of an old British classic, a story about an Indian living in Central Africa, a highly respected classical African work, and a novel written by an African-American president who had an African father. I love the way The Heart of a Matter is mentioned in the beginning by Obinze’s mother and how things come full circle at the end when Ifemelu says how much she likes The Heart of a Matter and how much the story means to her.
Amongst these two real subjects, natural hair is wedged in throughout the story here and there. The novel opens with Ifemelu in a salon getting her hair braided. This was a symbol of many things – African-American women being a slave to their hair and trying to tame it at all costs to fit into American society, the workplace, etc., It’s also a place where one is meant to open up and exchange stories about themselves and often be judged, and a place which has a lot of cultural value in the African-American community for getting women together and getting men together. The hair salon is like a meeting of cultural similarities for Africans and African-Americans. We see Ifemelu struggle with accepting her hair when she is forced to stop relaxing it because her hair is falling out. So she has her hair cut to a short afro. She doesn’t accept her short kinky hair at all so she calls in sick two days because she’s apprehensive about the way she will be perceived. As the story went on, it seemed as if Ifememlu got more radical as her her afro grew. Is natural hair political? Is it just hair? Those are two questions that are debated incessantly these days as the the natural hair movement spreads in the African-American community. Acceptance of one’s appearance, actions, and ideas is one of the first steps to accepting and knowing one’s self. This Ifemelu and Obinze both learned the long and hard way.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She has a successful list of works starting with Purple Hibiscus which was her first novel written in 2003 and followed by Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006, which is set during the Biafran War. The Thing Around Your Neck was a short story collection written in 2009. “My writing comes from melancholy, from rage, from curiosity, from hope.” (quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during a lecture at Princeton University, 20 October 2010 – The Writer as Two Selves: Reflections on the Private Act of Writing and the Public Act of Citizenship) That is very clear in her writing. That’s what makes it sincere and palpable. I urge you all to give Americanah a try and to check out the video of Adichie speaking about the dangers of the single story on TEDTalks. Brilliant!