“Americanah, an epic saga . . . offers a fresh, bold, and timely perspective on identity and race . . .”
“An intense, noble, and admirable achievement.”
Undoubtedly one of the most anticipated literary events of the season, this fourth book by the prize-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and The Thing Around Your Neck once again establishes Ms. Adichie as a leading light of contemporary Nigerian fiction.
With the death of the iconic Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in March 2013, all eyes will no doubt be on Ms. Adichie latest work, and it does not disappoint.
Americanah, an epic saga that spans the United States, Britain, and Nigeria in the late 1990s and 2000s, offers a fresh, bold, and timely perspective on identity and race in the wake of colonialism, dictatorship, and immigration.
Americanah, however, marks a change of course from Ms. Adichie’s earlier writings, in that the action takes place largely in America and Britain, and less so in a Nigeria torn apart by strife and revolution. The dry, parching winds of the harmattan, so vividly evoked in her earlier novels, are now but a distant memory from the past as are the sumptuous meals and descriptions of food and ritual one finds in the Nigerian tales.
There are, of course, passing allusions to the cataclysmic events that precipitated the Biafran war (the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun) and to dictatorship in Nigeria, but the novel is largely about what it means to be an African immigrant in the West (specifically, America and Britain). Immigration from Nigeria, reflects one of the characters, is not so much motivated by a desire to escape dictatorship but is rather an “escape from the ominous lethargy of choicelessness.”
In addition to being what Ms. Adichie herself terms “a conventional love story” revolving around the shifting sands of the relationship between Ifemelu, a Nigerian student and blogger, and her ex-boyfriend Obinze, the son of a professor in Nsukka, Nigeria, Americanah is, more centrally, a devastatingly revealing satire of white liberal suburbia in the United States in post-Affirmative Action America.
It offers an at-times unflattering portrait of America and Americans as seen through immigrant eyes.
The narrative alternates between the stories of Ifemelu, who, at the beginning of the novel, is a blogger living in Princeton and who is at the point of leaving the United States for Lagos, Nigeria. The novel is divided into four parts, and the chapters alternate between the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze.
Part 1 introduces us to Ifemelu’s ex-boyfriend Obinze, who is now married with two children and lives in Lagos, and describes the early days of their relationship, before both of them left Nigeria.
Part 2 revolves around Ifemelu’s experiences as an immigrant in America and her growing, dismayed awareness of the pervasiveness of race in American life, an awareness that manifests in her blog posts and that eventually changes the course of the relationships she has with her two American boyfriends, Curt and Blaine.
Part 3 turns to Obinze’s life in Britain, the botched marriage of convenience he attempts to embark on, and his eventual deportation back to Nigeria. In parallel, it also tells the story of Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine, an African American professor at Yale.
Part 4 is about Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria and her eventual reunion with Obinze.
The novel closely explores the theme of how America changes those who are culturally different and Americanizes them, with questionable results. Ms. Adichie captures such moments of change in her own inimitable and introspective style— for example, she writes: “Ifemelu decided to stop faking an American accent on a sunlit day in July, the same day she met Blaine. It was convincing, the accent. She had perfected, from careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with “so,” and the sliding response of “oh really,” but the accent creaked with consciousness, it was an act of will.”
Ms. Adichie’s gift for social satire is evident in the sharp strokes with which she characterizes the falseness of Obinze’s Nigerian circle in England, made up of pretentious upper-class people who are ghosts of who they used to be in their home country. Of Obinze’s friend Emenike, she writes that he had become, in England, the kind of person “who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country.”
The Nigerian term for a Nigerian who goes to America and then imitates American ways is “Americanah,” a term whose suggestiveness runs like a motif through the entire novel. The novel is thus not only about things American, but is also about what is eventually lost in the process of immigration to America.
Ms. Adichie does a masterful job of conveying the incongruities of being a person of color in America through the many blog posts that are embedded in the main narrative and also through her relentless mockery of white liberals who would have a hard time locating Senegal on a map.
At times, the emphasis on race becomes heavy and repetitive, and the author labors hard to get across her many points about how Americans, especially whites, misperceive Africa and blacks, and skirt around the issue of race.
Underlying the richness of Ms. Adichie’s insights about “the shiny falseness of surfaces” in America and the intensity of her marvelously descriptive prose, there is occasionally a sense, especially in the blog posts, that she is working too hard to get a “message” across and trying to tell her reader what to think.
But the canvas on which she paints her ruminations and reflections about race is so vast and so epic in scope that narrative transcends the particularity of its message about race.
In her TED Talk of July 2009, Ms. Adichie, reflecting on what she calls “the single story” about Africa she encountered in the America, says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Americanah can be seen as Ms. Adichie’s attempt to rewrite this single story about Africa and race and show how multilayered, nuanced, and charged a subject is the story of migration to the West.
An intense, noble, and admirable achievement.