Americanah. Wow. I knew Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was up there in my personal list of top twenty writers, but I was not prepared for how much I was going to like this book.
I knew absolutely nothing about it beyond the back cover summary, and I became overly excited when I read, a few pages in it’s revealed that the narrator is a female Nigerian writer living in America who runs the anonymous blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black.”and who makes observations on the train such as, “the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing the disappointment of a public service”.
This novel takes the form of a bildungsroman, wherein Ifemelu (our protagonist narrator) is pushed from an adolescence in Nigeria, to adulthood in America, and then back to Nigeria again as an established woman.
I identified strongly with Ifemelu as a writer, a blogger, and an at-times-insecure but stubborn and intelligent young woman who takes risks and states what she sees plainly around her, who is able to sit up out of the trench of cultural norms and take a look around.
Prize observations in the novel include our narrator’s remarks about race, class and privilege; not just from her own standpoint, but others including her own traditional family, other Nigerians, black North Americans, other immigrants, non-African blacks living in America, white academia, black academia, and WASPs.
The ability to speak so candidly about real-life conviction and experience should be applauded, and if she makes you mad, all the more success to her.
Her description of Nigerian immigrants living in America, and what they represent to their families living back home speaks to a poignant immigrant archetype and misunderstandings that arise between those that leave and those that stay behind.
Everyone wants to come to America, but is America really better? What is it that makes you an Americanah?
I also think this novel should be required reading for all North American high schoolers. As is addressed in the novel, white North Americans (and especially Canadians, I think) are taught from a young age to be ‘colourblind’. That is, we ignore race because we are told that race, ‘is no longer an issue’, despite the extraordinary evidence to the contrary, and the fact that social groups among teenagers still tend to be insular in terms of both race and class.
Honestly, she made me wished I had talked to my non-white friends more about race and their experiences when I was younger, and has encouraged me to try and ask more often and keep a more open mind about the racial experiences of my non-white friends going forward.
The same idea also applies to class. Many of Americanah’s young Nigerian adolescents undergo class transitions. The secondary character (and Ifemelu’s longtime love interest) Obinze goes from a failed immigration to the U.K., to squatting in his cousin’s flat in Nigeria, to multi-millionaire within the span of a few years.
Economic differences are the second driver behind race in Adichie’s book. While Obinze stays a relatively similar character to his friends even after his rise to wealth (despite his constant wondering if he is a fraud), another of his childhood friends moves to the U.K. and marries a wealthy white lawyer, and then does all he can to hide his poor, Nigerian past, including dismissing his friends when they are not white or rich enough for his taste.
If you don’t know the difference between the African Students’ Association and the Black Students’ Association, you should read this book. If you want to read about an immigrant experience, you should read this book.
I’m going to stop setting parameters now; you should just read this book. If you are alive, you’ll benefit from it. Read it.
There’s also a bittersweet love story at the heart of the book, which will draw you in even if class and race arguments are not your usual cup of tea.
Chimamanda has also made Ifemelu’s senior blog, The Small Redemptions of Lagos ,a real thing. Although it hasn’t been updated since November 2014, it contains a lot of ‘bonus’ material: posts on daily life in Lagos (the most populous city in Nigeria, located on the coast) and a few passages that serve as epilogues to the characters’ stories in the book.
I would recommend reading the book and then taking a look at the blogs, but don’t let that stop you from doing it the other way around if you’re so inclined.
You can pick up a copy of Americanah from Amazon, here.
p.s. You may know (but not know you know) Adichie from her sample on Beyoncé’s track “Flawless“, from her 2013 TEDx Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” which has also been adapted to book format, and is available for only $7 from Amazon.