I read Half a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus quite a few years back, I enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing, why it’s taken me seven years to pick up Americanah, I don’t know, I should have done it sooner.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, high school and university sweethearts in Nigeria in the 1990’s. Constant lecturer strikes at university force Ifemelu to go to the US to study, Obinze plans to join her later but is refused a visa, he eventually makes his way to the UK. 13 years later, he’s a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. After so many years and three continents, will they have courage to meet again.
Going off the blurb, I was expecting a love story, it is in many ways, but I got so much more than I bargained for. What Adichie does is explore race, social inequality, loss of identity, immigration, what it means to leave home and hair (I’ll come back to hair later).
Ifemelu, is who we find out most about during this novel, she isn’t entirely likeable, at times she can come across as snobbish and blunt, but she is believable. I enjoyed seeing how she grew through the novel. To begin with at times, she felt a little a passive, only giving thought to studying abroad after being told it’s what she should do, we only got small glimpses of her opinion despite being told she always said what she thought. Her voice eventually becomes stronger as she adapts to life in the US, observes cultural differences and starts to speak out.
Her blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” deals with inequalities and racism, something she’s not faced before.
“We all wish race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
Using blog posts at certain points in the tale, give a slight break from the main narrative, an opportunity to see how Ifemelu views herself and racism – this is where hair comes in. The story starts with Ifemelu visiting a salon to get her hair braided before returning to Nigeria, as a girl she always had her hair braided. In America, before a job interview, she’s told to relax her hair with chemicals, so people don’t think she’s unprofessional. She does but says herself it feels as though a part of her has died.
I loved the symbolism of hair. The pressure Ifemelu faces to make her hair appear more like a white woman’s show how racism isn’t just racist acts, it’s in culture and social hierarchies. When Ifemelu chooses to embrace her natural hair, it’s a moment of claiming her identity and loving herself, despite what others think.
Obinze felt slightly flat, as a teenager he viewed America as the promised land, choosing only to read American literature, as an adult I found him a little dull, I’d like to have seen him develop more. I liked his experiences of life in the UK, how friends he meets up with have changed their attitude towards him. It makes reference to newspaper headlines of classrooms “being swamped” and home office crackdowns on illegal immigrants, it explores his loneliness. I wanted more of that, a further exploration of life as an immigrant here.
It is a lengthy book, there were bits that felt a little unnecessary, but I was on the whole gripped and wanted to see how it ended.
It isn’t preachy, it’s observant and keeps the human story at its heart.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm