Title : Americanah
Author : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Date of Publication: 2013
Number of Pages: 477
One of the most outstanding books that I read in 2018 was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so I have decided to write my first review on it. Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013.
Chimamanda is a Nigerian writer who grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Americanah is her third novel. Her debut novel was Purple Hibiscus which was followed by Half of a Yellow Sun. She won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2005) and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (2004) for Purple Hibiscus. Half a Yellow Sun got her the Orange Prize in 2007 (presently called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). Chimamanda has also written a collection of short stories – The Thing Around Your Neck and an essay titled We Should All Be Feminists. Her most recent book is titled Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. She is additionally a prominent speaker and thought leader.
I have read her first three books and am planning to read all her publications and share my views. I was first drawn to Chimamanda after watching her 2009 TED Talk titled The Danger of a Single Story. Not that I had never seen her books in book shops, I just hadn’t come round to reading them. Half of a Yellow Sun seemed a very abstract title to me, so I did not pick it up. Understandable as that was the phase of my life when I was more interested in much lighter fare for my reading table. Once I read Americanah, I instantly became a fan and picked up her other books as well. I only wish I had started reading her books earlier!
Americanah is a beautifully narrated story of the journey of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian girl who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. A teenage Ifemelu meets and falls in love with Obinze whilst in High School. The two move on to the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. The country is under military rule and mismanagement prevails. Soon the students start a riot to protest the lack of water and electricity. Lecturers strike to protest a lack of pay, which necessitates the closure of the University. When the lecturers’ strikes become commonplace, many students leave for the US. Ifemelu also eventually joins her aunt who is already in the US with plans that Obinze will join her there after he graduates.
Unfortunately, Obinze is not able to move to the US after he is denied a visa. He ends up in the United Kingdom on a six months’ visa. He unsuccessfully tries to legalize his immigration status and after three years, he is eventually deported. Fortunately, back home, he builds himself up and becomes wealthy.
Ifemelu, on the other hand, struggles to settle down in her new life but is eventually able to make a good life for herself. She still yearns for home and in the end decides to go back to Nigeria. She then has to come to terms with a new Nigeria where she is referred to as an Americanah. Chimamanda explains this as a term used to refer to Nigerian immigrants who return home with affectations such as pretending not to understand Nigerian languages and speaking with an American accent. Ifemelu’s strongest desire is to settle down and to re-connect with Obinze, her old love.
This is a compelling story of genuine self-discovery and personal growth told along with a critical exploration of what it means to yearn for and eagerly seek greener pastures. The prolific author shows us the struggles that lead Africans to leave their homes and the daunting challenges they inevitably encounter trying to fit in in overseas countries like the US and UK. I love the way she uses Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s contrasting lives to show us two different immigrant experiences. One immigrates legally on a valid student visa and achieves a measure of success. The other travels on a short term visa and struggles to obtain residency. Even though they leave on different terms, they both end up going back home.
Most importantly, Chimamanda carefully explores controversial issues on race, through Ifemelu’s personal experiences. An interesting illustration of this is when her class watches scenes from the TV series Roots. A spirited discussion inevitably ensues between an African and several African American classmates around the bleeping of the N-word in the classic film. This gives us a glimpse of the diverse perspectives held by Black Americans on race as opposed to Africans, who have not been exposed to racism on the same scale.
I love how Chimamanda uses Ifemelu’s blog titled – Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black – to bring out what may have otherwise been tricky to discuss. She gives a frank and unadulterated view. Examples given include – how surprising it is for Africans to always be labeled ‘black’ ; how it can be difficult for Africans to recognize racists statements/questions (Do you like watermelon?) ; and how strange it feels to be asked to give ‘the black’ perspective. I particularly liked that she showed the backlash that many black women face regarding the way they choose to wear their hair.
All in all, this is a story of how it feels to be caught between two distinct worlds. It is about the struggle to remain authentic to who you are, whilst desperately trying to fit in and gain acceptance. It is also a charming love story, and a tale about growth and enduring love for home. I recommend it for anyone who loves a good tale with strong well developed characters, and most especially for anyone who would genuinely like to get a better understanding of the unique experiences of black immigrants.