This was my first round reading a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I loved Americanah for its humor, readability, and fearless commentary on race in America. It’s a very contemporary novel, set in the late 1990s to 2000s, as part way through, the election of Barack Obama to the American presidency is featured in dialogue. I realized as I read that most novels on my bookshelves are at least somewhat historical; its rare that I read a “right now” story. It will be interesting to visit this novel again in twenty years. Right now, this book is absolutely unflinching on the current affairs of race in America, a topic I often hear discussed as being “over” or no longer central in modern life. Still and as this book reminds us, race is alive, well, and pretty much defines how everyone interacts as Americans–if only we look from the right perspective.
The overarching story is the resolution of the unrequited love affair between Ifemulu, a Nigerian woman who emigrates to the US to study and stays for about 15 years, and Obinze, the man she leaves back home and estranges though never forgets and stops loving. But the nitty-gritty of the book is Ifemulu’s experience at suddenly “becoming black” when she emigrates. It’s at first bewildering and deeply puzzling and Adichie puts the reader into the Ifemulu’s perspective so we see the “rules” of a racialized society from her perspective of the outsider looking in. It’s like holding up a mirror so you can really see what is there. In this way, it’s also a novel about identity. In America, none of us can escape the identity of our races and precisely because the culture itself is racialized, we are powerless to choose a different identity. Ifemulu moves from being a FOB African immigrant, unemployable and isolated, to the trophy girlfriend of a wealthy, liberal white man, to a celebrated and successful blogger on race, to the girlfriend of an educated American black man with whom she is on equal footing but always has a different viewpoint in that she is a “NAB”–non-American black.
Later, as Ifemulu left the meeting, she thought of Dike [her pre-teen Nigerian immigrant nephew], wondered…what he would be considered, whether American African or African American. He would have to choose what he was, or rather, what was would be chosen for him.
Ifemulu’s hair styles are used in the book as symbol of the journey. In the beginning of the book, we meet Ifemulu at the end of her time in the US, just as she has decided to back to Nigeria for good. She is a well-assimilated NAB (non-American black) at this point. She has to travel from her achieved lifestyle in affluent Princeton, N. J. by bus into another town of immigrant neighborhoods to find a shop that can braid her hair for the journey home. Traveling to the neighborhood is like traveling back to her earlier self as a new African immigrant. As we learn the story of her time in the US, we learn about all her different hair styles–from using relaxers to make her hair more straight (and non-black), to letting it grow into a natural Afro, to having it braided in complex designs and styles by these immigrant women from various places in Africa. I don’t even pretend to understand the complex role that hair and hair styling plays in identity of black women, immigrant or otherwise, but I’ve heard a bit about it (Chris Rock even did a documentary on hair and black women), and thought it was a very interesting theme to weave (yes, pun) through the books.
Near the end of the book, one-not-very-likable character who is a writer says:
You can’t write an honest book about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can either do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, no one knows what to do with you. So if you are going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t’ read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.
Well, it seems to me that Adichie has written a very honest book about race in America, that struck me as neither precious nor pretentious. I hope we know what to do with her–read, enjoy, think. And oh–it’s a good love story to boot.
Anchor Books, 2013