Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Release Date: 2013
“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
I don’t read a lot of love stories and the quotes on the book cover made me squint my eyes suspiciously. But I plunged in anyway and am I glad I did! Yes, this is a story about love. The main characters are two Nigerian teenagers; Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu is a strong-willed and smart girl from a poor family, Obinze an intelligent boy raised by a single mother and obsessed with a romanticized notion of America. But it is also, and maybe to a larger extend, a tale about race (and hair). Like most Nigerian teenagers, they dream of getting a Western visa. So when Ifemelu is given the chance to pursue an education in Philadelphia, she takes it. The America she meets is, however, nothing like the America Obinze has been raving about and it leaves her lonely and depressed. She finds herself unable to get any type of work because of her accent and in class everyone assumes she understands the plight of the African-American, simply because she’s black. Before leaving Nigeria, Ifemely wasn’t conscious of her skincolor or race, in America she’s constantly reminded of it, even though “you’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”
The descriptions of class-structures and attitudes to race, as witnessed by woman who’s simultaneously an outsider and an insider, are skillfully crafted and nuanced. Ifemelu’s experience with the liberal elite, Asian hair-dressers who “don’t do curly”, American Blacks, other Non-American Blacks, rich white boyfriends and white employers is expertly rendered, enthralling and deeply frustrating. After a period of depression, Ifemely gets back on her feet i a big way, starts a hugely successful blog about race called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” where she comments on the different ethnicities’ attitudes toward each other. Adichie shows us race in a real and honest way and it is never boring or condescending, though often frustrating. There are several discussions about race and scattered throughout the book are excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog. While it isn’t just black and white, the entries are often reproachful and lecturing, reminding us of white privilege and how every other race/minority/ethnicity gets shit from whites. Like the rest of the book, these bits are extremely well-written but annoying at times and there too many of them. I much prefer Ifemelu’s life and interactions to her online persona’s musings over them. Similarly, I prefer Adichie’s indirect discussion and portrayal of race relations to Ifemelu’s.
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.”
Hair is a major theme Americanah, the author being a self-described “hair fundamentalist”. To most black women in the book, both American and Non-American, wearing their hair naturally is simply out of the question; some go for the straight and sleek “professional” look, others for braids, cornrows etc. Ifemelu must endure many comments from other black women after she decides to wear her hair big and natural, dropping all the chemicals and painful weaving. Hair-politics are apparently as complex as race itself. This was a bit of an eye-opener and fairly interesting, but hard to really comprehend, despite my frequent bad hair days.
Ifemelu ultimately opts to return to a very changed Nigeria after completing her post-grad studies in the States. Several years have passed. Back in Nigeria Obinze has become a wealthy property developer after a failed attempt at creating a life for himself in England. His American visa rejected, he travels to England on his mother’s visa and stays there illegally, struggling to get the elusive national security number, working under someone else’s name and paying a fortune to have a sham marriage arranged. Immigration is a political hot topic and for Obinze too, the West isn’t what he had hoped. At the same time he sees old Nigerian friends marrying British people and becoming rich. While the American dinner parties unfailingly ends in discussions on race, the British seem very concerned with being as politically correct as possible. The Nigerian host self-consciously serves dinner on plates bought in India with his British wife and Obinze wonders whether he has become someone “who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so”.
Americanah is a brilliant and gripping book written by an incredibly talented storyteller. It’s about migration, leaving home in search for something better and returning home for the same reason. The narrative is tightly structured and Adichie never loses her way, despite the many stories and characters she weaves together. She obviously has a lot of say on race and does it in an extremely engaging way. The prose is fluid, humorous and touching. I’m picking up another one of her novels very very soon! Even if race isn’t your favorite topic, the lives of these characters (and not just Ifemelu and Obinze) are just enthralling. The book is almost unputdownable! Sure, it’s about love and race, it’s also about identity… and hair.