[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. 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, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that 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.Americanah opens shortly after Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who has been in America for thirteen years, decides to move back to her country. On a hot summer afternoon, Ifemalu makes the journey from Princeton, where she’s a research fellow, to an African hairdresser all the way in Trenton to get her hair braided. The fact that she has to travel away from the genteel privilege of Princeton to find a place that acknowledges the existence of natural black hair is the kind of detail that speaks volumes about Americanah’s political core. At the hairdresser, Ifemelu is questioned about her choice to leave America behind. Her questioners are fellow African women; women with something in common with Ifemelu, but whose overall experiences are radically different from hers because of their different class backgrounds. As the narrative moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s youth in Nigeria, her everyday life in America, and her life after she returns to Lagos, we come to understand her longing for her country, her complicated relationship with America and its racial politics, and the reasons why she left Nigeria in the first place.
Adichie’s novel has a second point of view character, Obinze, Ifemalu’s boyfriend in secondary school and college and a sharer of her American Dream. The two spend their youth planning their escape, but whereas Ifemelu is successful in obtaining a student visa, Obinze is denied entry to America and ends up an illegal immigrant in London. Americanah compares the experiences the two have as immigrants in different countries who live on different sides of the law. It also documents their tender and tortuous love story — a love story that moves across decades, geopolitical boundaries, and seemingly irrevocable life decisions.
As I said a few months back, when I wrote my recap of the Adichie talk I was lucky enough to attend, I love how Americanah complicates the dominant narrative about African immigrants. It does this by telling the story of two middle-class people who move away from Nigeria not to escape poverty or war, but for a respite from “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”. There are, of course, social and political reasons why Ifemelu and Obinze’s lives in Nigeria are constrained by choicelessness, and Americanah tackles these head-on. However, I was especially interested in the fact that Adichie does this in a way that acknowledges the legitimacy and complexity of her characters’ life choices. The Nigeria Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in is marred by a military dictatorship, and all around them people are being forced to decide whether to stay and fight for the improvement of the country they love, often at a great personal cost, or leave and try to fulfil their ambitions elsewhere.
Adichie is too smart and compassionate a writer to ever go for facile judgements, and her depiction of Ifemalu and Obinze’s international ambitions is no exception. Her characters believe in social and political reform; they believe that a better Nigeria is possible. Nevertheless, their narratives acknowledge that nobody has the personal obligation to throw their future under the bus to strive for this goal. Similarly, although Ifemalu and Obinze have what many would call colonised imaginations, Americanah acknowledges that this is not the result of gullibility, weakness of character, lack of intelligence or political savvy, or of having been personally duped in any way. There’s a long, loaded history and a complex cultural context behind the fact that they believe that “real lives happen somewhere else”, and it’s possible to question this context without pointing fingers at or patronising the people whose ambitions are shaped by it.
The novel also does this in a way that leaves room for the emotional reality of the characters’ desires: this might be a slightly strange parallel to make, but Adichie’s approach puts me in mind of what Katherine Angel says about the patriarchal forces that shaped her desire and how she gets to reclaim it nonetheless. Ifemalu and Obinze’s American dreams were formed in the context of cultural imperialism, but that doesn’t mean that the emotional relationship they have with the idea of America and the pull this idea has on their imaginations isn’t very much real, and important to them.
One of the most memorable lines in Americanah is Ifemelu’s assertion that she only became black when she moved to America. Growing up in Nigeria, she was part of the racial majority, and this made her own blackness almost invisible to her. She was aware of being black, but race wasn’t a dominant feature of her identity — it only became one once she made the journey across the Atlantic. Her experience of race is therefore very different from the experiences of the African-Americans she gets to know during her time abroad. Ifemelu’s existence in America is of course affected by racism, and during her first few years in particular she has a very difficult time. But because this is something she experiences as an adult rather than something she grows up with, it doesn’t affect her sense of self in the same way it affects, say, her little cousin Dike’s, who moves to the US as a very young boy and who feels displaced in a way entirely different from Ifemelu’s.
One of the things Ifemelu struggles with is the indiscriminate imposition of American racial narratives on the rest of the world. Even some of the anti-racist activists she meets don’t always acknowledge the fact that her being from Nigeria means she’s had a different experience of race, and she finds herself slightly bemused by the collective insistence that race must have shaped her life in Nigeria in ways she doesn’t quite realise because she lacks political sophistication — in ways that must be, in fact, a little more like the American experience. What this assumption of universality actually amounts to is a form of erasure; a flattening out of the complexity of other countries’ histories and racial dynamics and a denial of people’s lived experiences.
This aspect of the novel particularly resonated with me, for reasons I’ll try to explain: my partner is Brazilian, and he has occasionally found himself having awkward conversations with smart, caring, well-meaning American acquaintances who nevertheless make clumsy assumptions about his racial identity and life experiences based on the fact that he’s from “the third world”. He’s sometimes assumed to be a person of colour with expert knowledge of racial oppression, but in reality he’s a white middle-class person who holds dual citizenship because he’s only two generations removed from his family’s European background. Having grown up white in a multiracial society means he benefited from white privilege every day of his life, and when people conflate his experiences with those of the many people of colour in his country, he feels not only misrepresented but also implicated in a kind of appropriation he wants no part of. This imposition of racial labels people didn’t choose for themselves is always tricky, but the conflation of widely different levels of privilege adds another layer to the problem. In Americanah, Ifemelu experiences this not only when people assume she must have been racially oppressed in Nigeria, but when they erase her economic privilege by lumping her together with the poverty-stricken or with war refugees.
Race is of course a construct that goes far beyond skin colour, and my partner’s experiences would almost certainly have been different had he grown up in America. But the reality is that he didn’t, and there’s something troubling about the assumption that his whole life must have unfolded in Anglo-American cultural spaces, where only American racial dynamics matter. None of this is to say that his identity as a South American immigrant in Europe doesn’t place him outside of cultural hegemony, but this affects his life in ways that the American racial narrative doesn’t quite account for. The same goes for Ifemelu’s life as a middle-class Nigerian who moved to America as an adult, and the social dynamics in Americanah are in part driven by her attempts to have this acknowledged by the people she meets. All this to say: the next time someone insists intersectionality is a useless distraction from The Real Problem, we could always try gently hitting them on the head with a copy of Americanah.
Semi-personal detour over: the last point I want to make about Americanah is that in addition to being a smart and sophisticated political novel, it’s also a) really funny and b) a lovely romance. I actually feel slightly guilty about that “in addition to” — when I saw Adichie speak, she said it annoyed her when reviewers made a point of saying her novel was “not just” funny and “not just” a romance, as if neither of those things was sufficiently respectable in itself. So to clarify, I didn’t see the humour or the romance as cherries on top of the real cake of the social commentary, but as essential parts of what made Americanah such a compelling and satisfying read.
I’ve not yet read many reviews of this novel, but it will be interesting to see what people make of the humour in particular. I was delighted by Adichie’s versatility as a writer, but given the long cultural tradition of taking humorous stories less seriously than tragic ones, I wonder if this will lead to unfavourable comparisons with her other works. Also, much as I love Half of a Yellow Sun (and really, I can’t stress enough how much that is), it meets people’s expectations of the tragic story set in Africa, whereas Americanah deliberately subverts them. Now that I’ve written down my thoughts at long last, I look forward to seeing what the critical reception has been like.
Parting thoughts: I couldn’t put Americanah down, and I’ll be very surprised if it’s not high on my list of favourite reads of the year. Another stunning novel from an author who has yet to disappoint me.
They read it too: Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea, Tiny Library
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.