Americanah proves that it is possible for a book to tell a great love story and simultaneously sharply analyze modern times. Published in 2013, it is the third novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She set her other two books – Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus – in African countries during the political and civil transformations caused by the transition from colonial rule to independence. Americanah takes place instead mainly in various American cities such as Philadelphia, New Haven, Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Princeton, between the mid-90s’ and early 2000.
With this novel, Adichie confirms her capacity for social analysis. Her first novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize and her second one won the Orange Prize. Americanah has also garnered various accolades and positive reviews. In 2013, it was listed among the New York Times Book Review’s “Ten Best Books of 2013” and won The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction. The same year, it also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. A review from Vogue reported:
Americanah is that rare thing in contemporary literary fiction. A lush, big-hearted love story that also happens to be a piercingly funny social critique.
A story set on three continents
Americanah covers a time span of several decades. It takes place mostly in the United States but also in Africa and Europe. These are the places where the two young protagonists, Ifimelu and Obinze, live. Born in Nigeria, they had a relationship in high school and in the early years of university, but when Ifimelu leaves for America, their paths diverge. Obinze can’t leave the country with her because he can’t get an American Visa. Some years later, he will move to London.
Despite their intention to keep in touch, an episode definitively pushes them apart. Due to a lack of money, Ifimelu decides to have a sexual affair with an elderly man. After this episode, she closes herself off and does not give any news to Obinze. They will meet again only many years later, at 40, when Ifimelu decides to return to Nigeria. Much of the novel is a flashback, while she has her hair braided in a New Jersey salon before going to Africa after 15 years.
Hair as a racial metaphor
It is no coincidence that the flashback takes place at the hairdresser. Hair is of fundamental importance in this novel. To find someone who can style her hair, Ifemelu has to embark on a long train ride under the scorching summer sun.
It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton—the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids.
So it is also through aesthetic factors that discrimination against black people takes place. Covering or uncovering hair, styling it one way or another: these choices are deeply symbolic and political. Ifemelu, who runs a blog, will also write an article about it titled A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor.
Ifimelu’s blog – Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black – is a lucid analysis of American society and its approach to diversity (an operation similar to that of the Dear White People series). The blog posts do not interrupt the narrative flow; they usually come as the conclusion of chapters.
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.
The narrative style is critical and outspoken but also extremely ironic and empathetic. During her years in America, Ifemelu (and therefore Adichie, since the novel is partially autobiographical) notices many things and is not afraid to share her opinions, even at the cost of being unpopular.
Finding one’s own identity
When she lived in Nigeria, Ifemelu identified herself as an Igbo, her ethnic group, and as a Christian. In the United States, she suddenly becomes a black person. Moreover, in the first months, she has to work under another name. She does not have the documents, another element that undermines her identity.
Obinze instead is even willing to contract a sham marriage to obtain British citizenship and not be expelled. During his stay in London, he realizes that his friends who didn’t migrate often don’t understand why he wants to live in England so badly.
They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else… were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.
These issues are also addressed by writer Bernardine Evaristo, born in London but of Nigerian descent. Her novel Girl, Woman, Other follows the stories of twelve black women in post-colonial Britain. Like Ifimelu, the protagonists of Evaristo’s novel face socio-political struggles not only because of their gender but also because of race. Both Adichie and Evaristo are exponents of intersectional feminism.
When Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria, she is not sure about her choice. At first, she feels disoriented because her country has changed, and she has changed too. Unknowingly, she became an Americanah.
“She’ll come back and be a serious Americanah like Bisi”, Ranyinudo said. They roared with laughter, at that word, Americanah, wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke.
Later in the novel, the word emerges more markedly. It does not refer only to language but also to clothing and, more generally, to style. An Americanah can be distinguished by her speaking affectations and her choice of clothes which marks her know-how on the up-to-date fashion trends.
Americanah is a word that encapsulates the greatest danger that the characters of the book face: becoming someone else to fit in. This is the effort that both Ifimelu and Obinze have to make throughout the novel. They have to remain themselves, whether in Nigeria, in the United States, or anywhere else.