Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After reading some rather lackluster fiction lately, starting Adichie’s third novel felt similarly rejuvenating to the spring-like days that have arrived as we near the end of a long winter. Centered around high school sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, Americanah traces the start of their relationship and the turn it takes when Ifemelu leaves Nigeria amidst ongoing teacher strikes to study in the US. As the book begins, she is older, planning to return home to Nigeria and reconnecting with Obinze, as they’ve been out of touch for many years. Ifemelu is living at Princeton on a fellowship and goes to Newark to get her hair braided. This scene in the salon becomes the recurring central support of the narrative, as each chapter is plaited around the promise of Ifemelu’s homecoming and this reunion of old friends.

Though we hear about Obinze’s attempt to move to London, which ends in deportation, mostly we follow Ifemelu’s story, as she arrives in the US and discovers for the first time that she is black, that race is an issue. She also finds how difficult and isolating the immigrant experience is, and an early incident is so demoralizing that it causes her to stop corresponding with Obinze entirely; her initial shame about what happened morphs into an insurmountable wall.

For her the histories of race in this country are so fascinating that she starts a blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non–American Black.” Some of these posts are included within chapters with their often irreverent perspectives. This work becomes her career, supporting her and leading to opportunities like the Princeton fellowship. At one point she describes giving talks about diversity to not very diverse audiences but discovering they don’t actually want to hear what she has to say — they just want to be reassured they are already approaching race issue conscientiously. She has two serious relationships, one with a rich white man and the other with an African American academic, and in both she finds herself struggling with differing degrees of outsider status. Ifemelu is pleasingly complicated character: she can seem distant from those around her and doesn’t always do or say things that feel completely “right,” but this is part of what makes her piece of the story so rich.

In the end Ifemelu fulfills the title’s significance in becoming an Americanah, a Nigerian whose life is influenced by time spent living in the US but has returned home. In one of her “Why are you doing that?” moments, she arrives yet doesn’t get in touch with Obinze for weeks and weeks, abandoning their correspondence again. The pacing lags a bit here and there, but is most uneven here at the end, even once the two finally reconnect. The resolution could have been more striking, but it’s hard to criticize this novel. I’ve seen a few readers familiar with more of her work lament that she “just” wrote a love story. Even if you want to limit this book’s scope to just that aspect, I think it’s great to see a smart romance that incorporates perspectives on race and immigration.