Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I was blown away by this novel, which absorbed me totally in the life of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who lives in the United States for some years during and after college and then returns home to Lagos. It is large and sweeping in its considerations of cultural differences and personal relationships but also retains its focus on one life.

Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze have a deep and intense relationship, and no doubts about one another, but they both know – as everyone around them seems to know – that it is necessary to get out of Lagos and into the West, where there will be more opportunity to learn and study and earn money and build a life beyond the limitations of their home. Ifemelu is able to get to the United States to attend college in Philadelphia, where she struggles to scrape by, and to navigate a race and class system that is new to her. She has one strong family connection in the states, her aunt and younger cousin Dike. Her path is not easy but she eventually establishes a proper and “successful” life for herself, finally in New Haven, which is where we meet her in the opening chapter. Meanwhile, Obinze is unable to get papers to the United States, eventually traveling to London and overstaying his visa to live a hidden, undocumented life there. Each of them faces unique dangers, and after a particular trauma, they fall out of touch. The novel follows Ifemelu but occasionally checks in with her childhood sweetheart until the two eventually reconnect.

Americanah is first a story about people. It’s also about race and class in America, and about Nigerian and American cultures, and others (especially the multitude of “Non-American Black” cultures Ifemelu encounters in this country). While stateside, Ifemelu makes a career for herself as a blogger about race in America (she is clear that she wasn’t black till she got here). But it’s also just people, in the loveliest, messiest way, the ways in which we can be ugly and beautiful and complicated. There is some romance; but I take issue with the materials that describe this as a book about Ifemelu and Obinze, or an ‘intergenerational’ story. Although it’s true that Obinze is present for much of the book, and that there are multiple generations in it, I would say that this is a book firmly about Ifemelu, and the life she leads and everything it exposes about race and class and culture – Ifemelu as an individual, not a symbol or a device. This book is beautifully written and completely captivating; it’s the quickest nearly-600-pages I’ve taken in in a long time.

Ifemelu’s blog does provide Adichie with a mechanism for communicating pointed and explicit observations about race; but this is still far from polemic. Ifemelu mostly tells anecdotes from the world she encounters, which is a very approachable or accessible way to have these conversations (points to both Ifemelu and her creator). “…she began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.” Now, look, I have no reason to conflate the character in these sentences with the writer Adichie, but I do think any time a writer writes about writing, we should consider that relationship. And I will certainly say that I relate to Ifemelu’s challenges here as a writer.

There is plenty of heaviness here, but it was also a pure delight to spend time with Ifemelu, a gorgeously self-assured, thoughtful character. While there is much here that is culturally foreign to my experiences, I always found it easy to sink into and to follow. I strongly recommend Americanah and admire Adichie.

Rating: 9 fried plantains.

6 Responses

  1. Nice review! I really enjoyed this book, and I have read most of Adichie’s books. My favorite is Purple Hibiscus. Have you read it?

  2. Hi again, Julia. I read this recently and was also deeply engaged and touched. This is the kind of novel that can stop me in my tracks in awe of the creative process that can generate such a massive and profound piece of art. I’m glad to hear about Purple Hibiscus, too!

  3. […] Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – fiction […]

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