Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
Ifemelu, like Adichie ‘s other heroines, is an Igbo woman. At the start of the novel, she is in Princeton and has been in the US for some thirteen years but is thinking of returning to Nigeria. We get sections on her life in the US and her early life. As a child, she had been outspoken, which occasionally got her into trouble. She continues this in adult life. Things had not been easy for her when growing up. Her father had lost his job of twelve years, because he refused to address his (female) boss as Mummy and been unable to find another job. The family had depended on the mother’s income as a deputy headmistress. The family rented a flat and were now finding it difficult to pay the rent, so much so that the landlord was banging on the door, demanding his money. Ifemelu had grown up with a woman she called Aunty Uju. Uju was not her aunt but her father’s cousin. They had been very close. Uju had gone off to study medicine. One day, at a party, uju met an army general. He took a fancy to her and, as she had difficulty finding a job, he put her in flat and kept her. (He was, of course, married.) Uju managed to get money from the general to pay the back rent of her cousin and his family. When Uju became pregnant, the general continued to support her and her son, Dike (named after Uku’s father). The general came to Dike’s first birthday party but was killed in a plane crash a week later. It is not clear if it was an accident or a political assassination. His widow’s family immediately came round to Uju’s flat and tried to drive her out.
The most important thing in Ifemelu’s teenage years was meeting Obinze. At her school he was with the cool set and a mutual friend had planned to set him up with Ifemelu’s best friend, the very attractive Ginika. However, when they were introduced, he took a fancy to Ifemelu because, while perhaps not as pretty as Ginika, she had more personality. Despite a few ups and downs, including differences in literary tastes (he reads only US literature, which she does not enjoy), they remained together, even going to the same university, the University of Nigeria, where Adichie studied and her parents worked. She became close to Obinze’s mother, who lectured them both on contraception. Ifemelu manages to get a place in a university in the United States and sets off. The plan is for Obinze to join her later, when he can get a visa, which he is unable to do. However, things do not go well for Ifemelu. She is unable to find a job and has no money. Aunty Uju, who is now in the United Sates, is able to help her somewhat but, being a single mother, she is not well-off, even when she moves in with Bartholomew, a fellow Nigerian, who is always on the look-out for”business”. Things go so badly, that she becomes depressed and refuses to take Obinze’s phone calls or reply to his e-mails. Both drift off into their own relationships. Ifemelu has an affair with the rich (white) cousin of the woman who eventually gives her a job as babysitter, while Obinze manages to get to England but only manages to get a good job when he is deported back to Nigeria. He also gets married.
Meanwhile, we follow Ifemelu’s final days in the US. She had had a fellowship at Princeton, which was ending. She had been living for three years with Blaine, an African-American whom she unceremoniously dumps, to his disgust. She has a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, of which we get some very amusing samples with titles such as Badly-Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio Are Not Always What You Think or Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down. Indeed, one of the many interesting things about this book are her observations, both through the blog and in the story, on the differences between African-Americans and Africans who have settled in the United States. (The term Americanah, by the way, is a somewhat facetious term used by Nigerians in this book to describe Nigerians who have spent some time in the United States.) We get an excellent illustration of this when she goes to get her braids done and the hairdresser is from Mali. Ifemelu spends several chapters there. The blog is one more thing that disappears when she decides to leave the United States. Africans seem to change when they go the United States. Nigerian women came to America and became wild, Igbo Massachusetts Accountant wrote in one post; it was an unpleasant truth but one that had to be said. What else accounted for the high divorce rates among Nigerians in America and the low rates among Nigerians in Nigeria?
Is going back about Obinze? She had emailed him when she decided to go back. She was eagerly awaiting his reply and, as we learn, he was eager to hear from her. He had become a successful business man, not entirely by legitimate means, and was happily married with children. But… Though this story is a love story (love gained, love lost, love regained) its great strength is its discussion of the issue of race. There have been many excellent African-American novels on the issue of race most of James Baldwin‘s novels, the novels of Richard Wright, Colson Whitehead‘s The Intuitionist and, most famously, Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man. There are, of course, many more, including novels on race and racism by and about other ethnic groups. However, this novel will surely come to be considered to be one of the best on this topic, not just because it addresses the issue of racism in the United States so intelligently and so humorously but because it deals with the issue of race between African-Americans (i.e. blacks born in the United States) and American-Africans (i.e. blacks born in Africa who emigrate to the United States).
Adichie rightly refers to the tribalism found in the US in her blog. In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk. Second, ideology. Liberals and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There’s a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. She mildly mocks white Americans who like to pretend that they are not racist, as most liberals and many non-liberals do (and not just in the US; Obinze’s time in England also gives her the opportunity to mock the British approach to race). And, as for the excuses, Oh, it’s not really race, it’s class. Oh, it’s not race, it’s gender. Oh, it’s not race, it’s the cookie monster.” You see, American Blacks actually don’t WANT it to be race. They would rather not have racist shit happen. So maybe when they say something is about race, it’s maybe because it actually is?.
In short, this is a superb novel but, at least for me, its strength is not the love story, however well told that may be, it is how skilfully it deals with the issue of race. You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country, says Shan, Blaine’s sister. However, Adichie has written a very honest novel about race and it is one you should read, whatever your race or nationality.
First published 2013 by Fourth Estate