Sometimes we fall in love too early. Ifemelu meets Obinze when they are both still at school in Lagos, Nigeria. They are perfect for each other, and it’s assumed by just about everyone that they will be together for a long time. But Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and the greatest success a young person can achieve is to leave the country, so when Ifemelu is offered a part-scholarship to an American university, she has to go.
Life in America is not what Ifemelu had expected. Everything is much harder than it should be, and her race, which she had never even thought much about in Nigeria, now seems to be the most important thing about her. Unable to get a job, and forced into situations she would never have chosen in order to survive, Ifemelu’s life drifts farther and farther from Obinze.
Many years later, after much struggle, Ifemelu has built a successful life in America. She writes a blog about race that is considered one of the foremost sources of the subject. But something doesn’t feel right, despite her success. In search of the missing pieces, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and Obinze. After almost a decade apart their lives collide once again.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a book about everything. It’s about love, coming of age, race, family, politics, heartbreak and hair.
The story weaves in and out of time. We begin with Ifemelu having her hair braided in a sweaty salon in Trenton, New Jersey, prepping herself to go home to Lagos. From there we fall with her back to her teenage years when she met and fell in love with Obinze, and gradually work our way toward the present.
I love Ifemelu. She was one of those girls people spent a lot of time telling to be quiet when she was a kid, but it never really stuck. She’s frequently the smartest person in the room, and she always knows it. She holds people to high standards they can’t always meet. She avoids situations that scare her until they become unavoidable, and then throws herself in whole-heartedly. She’s not afraid to use her voice. One of the most interesting things in this book is watching Ifemelu’s journey from complete bemusement by America, to being able to satirise it to perfection. She repeats the process when she returns home to Nigeria.
There is a distinct sense of otherness surrounding Ifemelu throughout the book. Some of this she places upon herself, and some a result of the racism embedded in Western culture.
She considers herself an outsider in most of the social groups she’s in throughout the novel. When she first arrives in the US, she feels like her friends from Nigeria there are too ‘Americanised’ to have anything in common with anymore. Even once she joins her university’s African Student’s Association and starts down the path that will define her professional life, the sensation never truly leaves her. She gets in a serious relationship with a man she has politics in common with, but little else. She’s uncomfortable with his friends. It’s this feeling of being an outsider that eventually sends her back to Nigeria. Ifemelu is a person in search of home, and I think that’s an experience most of us can relate to.
As for the racist othering? There is a ton of it. As both a woman of colour and an immigrant, Ifemelu finds it near impossible to get a job when she first arrives in America. In order to be considered employable she is asked to change her physical appearance. She relaxes her hair until the chemicals that sting her scalp cause it to start falling out. She has to relearn her place in society as American culture makes her race the most important thing about her.
She starts a blog to share her experiences. Posts from the blog are scattered throughout the novel. They are wonderful, thought provoking and funny and made me love Ifemelu (and Adichie) even more. One of my favourite articles she posted was a list of questions determining white privilege. Questions included:
‘If you criticise the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider? Or that might you be asked to “go back to X,” X being somewhere not in America?’
‘When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?’
Once she is back in Nigeria, it’s not long before Ifemelu starts to blog again. Writing about her life is like an irresistible pull. There is a certain joyousness with which Ifemelu approaches her second blog. She’s writing with the knowledge that she is finally home.
‘Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself into being.’
This book is perfect. I can’t recommend it enough.