I first came across Americanah in October 2012 when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie announced on her Facebook page that her new book was coming out in 2013. The noticed explained that the title Americanah ‘comes from the word Nigerians use for those who have left the country for the US and become “Americanised”- a borderline insult’.
Wow, I thought to myself. Chimamanda has written a book about Chongololos. I was immediately sold. Months later when the book came out, in interviews Adichie described it as a book about love, race and hair - an intriguing combination that had me even more interested.
It is always difficult to review a book by a beloved author. Especially one that has received rave reviews elsewhere. You want to like it. In fact, you want to LOVE it. It’s hard not to look for faults, just to prove one is objective. But, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is 21st Century Africa’s foremost writer for a reason. In a nutshell, this is a great book. Her third foray into writing a full-length novel (and fourth publication if you include her collection of short stories), Americanah is a tour de force. This book tackles the difficult, complex and uncomfortable subject of race with boldness.
The book tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who as teenagers in a Lagos high school, fall in love. With time, Ifemelu moves to the US to study and later becomes a famous blogger on race. Obinze is denied a US visa and instead finds himself in London as an undocumented immigrant. Fast forward fifteen years and Ifemelu makes the decision to give up her life in the US and return to Nigeria where Obinze has since become very successful.
Adichie sets the scene very well with a visually poignant descriptive opening sentence at a train station, which takes Ifemelu and the reader to where we kick off the action in an African braiding shop in New Jersey. The book is told over a series of back and forth flashbacks while in the same salon. And we all know how long it takes to braid one’s hair. Actually, hair is one of the major themes of this book. The value and identity that we place on our hair and the relationship that black women and black people have with the kinky hair that grows out of our heads, the hair that we forcibly straighten with relaxers, or the hair that we buy from others and attach to our own hair. Americanah has something on hair for everyone, including male pattern baldness and children’s haircare. As a well-known natural hair advocate herself, Adichie uses Ifemelu’s journey in abandoning relaxers and embracing her natural African hair as a way of explaining her own views and philosophy on the matter (full disclosure, I also have natural hair and blog about it on www.ZedHair.com). Naturalistas will be excited to read Ifemelu’s natural hair regimen and will recognise the real-life inspiration for the fictional natural hair forum www.happilykinkynappy.com, where she gets tips and encouragement to go natural. Don’t bother visiting the site, because I tried. It’s not real. Yet.
Like many accomplished writers of short stories, in her full-length novels Adichie has beautiful vignettes of tales that can almost stand-alone. For example, the description of Ifemelu’s mother becoming born again and the ensuing religious fervour, moving from church to church with Pastor and Bishop so and so was so evocative and a complete little tale in itself.
In a similar vein, Adichie’s description of young people’s voracity in reading Robert Ludlum, James Hadley Chase and Jeffrey Archer novels is reminiscent of any high school, as is the discussion on reading culture among young people. Do we have a lack of a reading culture in Zambia and Africa, or do we have a paucity of quality reading materials? I strongly believe it is the latter.
And who can forget the heady experience of first love that is approached so beautifully. This is after all a love story that includes the ups and the downs and the sacrifices and difficult decisions that must be made in life. Americanah is not just Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story, but also about love in general. What drives us to enter into relationships with other people? What about inter-racial relationships, marriages of convenience for immigration purposes, or because of societal pressure to settle down and be like everyone else? Should you settle for someone because of tribe? What about being a kept woman? Or what happens when the one you love is married to someone else?
Americanah also tackles the issue of cultural identity – what it means to be a Nigerian living in Nigeria (or a Zambian living in Zambia) and what that means when you are in another country. There is a passage in the book where the characters trade proverbs in their local language, Igbo. Ifemelu expresses surprise that Obinze knows Igbo proverbs because most young people try to pretend that they don’t speak their language. Sound familiar?
Americanah is about Nigeria, but the experience applies to any African nation. So for many of us who have grown up in Africa, it is sometimes difficult to make others understand why so many cherish ‘The American Dream’, sacrificing everything in order to try and make another life elsewhere. In a country mired in poverty, underdevelopment, corruption or dictatorship, Americanah skilfully handles the tragedy of a generation of youth who are starved of choice. Yes, there is no war, no famine, no mass systematic rape, but without the luxury of choice the odds are stacked against you anyway.
When discussing americanah’s, you also have the phenomena of what we in Zambia call SRB (Strong Rural Background). This is where no matter how long you spend in whatever country, be it the United States or United Kingdom, SRB can never be completely supressed or masked. This is the plight of the character named Bartholomew who tries to compensate for SRB ‘with his American affectation, his gonnas and wannas’.
There were so many other great things I loved about this book. I chuckled out loud many times at the bewilderment of first moving to America. And oh my goodness, they even have ‘Gold Rush’ in Nigeria - where senior male students rush to grab ‘fresh’ female first year students at the beginning of the academic year. Gold rush is many a girl’s dream. Who doesn’t want to be inundated with male attention?
But it is in handling the phenomena of race that Americanah truly excels. What does it mean to be black? Why is race something that makes us so very uncomfortable? Adichie deftly describes what it is like to feel the burden of your race – of your entire people on your shoulders. A large portion of the book takes place in the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential election and the many struggles that America had (and still has) to come to terms with regarding this black candidate called Barack Obama. We follow Ifemelu as a new student trying to settle in America, trying to find work, trying to be understood because of her accent and attempting to navigate not only interacting with white America, but also the complicated relationship between African-Americans and American-Africans. It’s a hilarious passage in the book where the difference between the two is explained at Ifemelu’s first meeting of the African Students Association (for American-Africans). The African-Americans go to the Black Student Union.
It is these distinctions and explanations based on astute observations that make Americanah so remarkable. And just to be clear, Adichie makes the same subtle indictment of modern Nigeria when describing Obinze and Ifemelu’s life there and that of their friends and relatives. Running a business in Africa is not easy due to bureaucracy, corruption, infrastructure and a deeply entrenched way of doing things. The pre-occupation with status symbols and an extravagant lifestyle is very Nollywood but also very real. The rise in disposable income and growth of the middle class makes clear where some of our priorities lie and this is often difficult to reconcile with poverty, equity and our relationship with the less privileged.
Much as I loved the book, I did have one small gripe with the book, and that is the ending, which felt rushed as though there was a page limit that the author had to meet (probably true). In the same vein, I thought Obinze’s story could have been explored with a bit more depth. So because of this, I gave Americanah 4.5 stars. Oh, this is a very long book - 477 pages to be precise. Not that I even noticed it that much.
This article was first published in the Bulletin and Record magazine in September 2013. It kind of went viral, but not for reasons that I thought. Alongside the review, I included a short history of the term Chongololo. Somehow it got scanned and emailed all over the world. You can read that here next week.