Americanah (Ala Notable Books for Adults)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
496 pp., $28.95
Editor's Note: The National Book Critics Circle Awards for 2013 were announced on March 13, 2014. The award for fiction went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her novel Americanah. Here is Susan VanZanten's review, which first appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Books & Culture.
A door-stopper at almost 500 pages, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel Americanah harbors an old-fashioned love story amidst sharp social commentary about the lives of young, affluent Nigerians and Americans. "Americanah" refers to Africans who have visited the United States and are enamored of all things American; the affected term suggests the way they lose their African accents to adopt American pronunciation and usage, and highlights the narrative's linguistic motif of difference. The ambiguities of being Americanah evoke both scorn and admiration in the mind of the protagonist and, perhaps, the author herself.
The acclaimed, prize-winning author of three previous books and winner of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award, Adichie earned an MFA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins and an ma from Yale in African Studies. She currently divides her time between Nigeria and the United States, and she has adcknowledged that some of the incidents in her latest novel stem from her own experiences. In April 2012, she was named as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine, and she has given two well-received TED talks, the most recent one on being an African feminist.
Ifemelu, the protagonist of Americanah, is a beautiful, intelligent, outspoken Igbo young woman who comes to the U.S. to complete her college degree because of the strikes paralyzing the Nigerian educational system in the 1990s. After struggling to find employment with only a student visa and resorting to some desperate (and demeaning) measures, she takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy white family, who are alternately kind and paternalistic, sympathetic and tone-deaf. Within a few years, Ifemelu has achieved the American dream: graduating and obtaining a green card, writing a financially remunerative blog about race, holding a prestigious Princeton fellowship (as Adichie did), buying a fashionable condo, collecting a diverse assortment of academic and artistic friends, and living with a handsome black American who is a Yale professor. And yet, Ifemelu feels "cement in her soul" after thirteen years in America, a "dull ache of loss" associated with the sights, smells, tastes, language, food, and culture of her home, compounded with a secret conviction that she has never met a man the equal of Obinze, her first love.
In a series of flashbacks, many of which occur in an American hair-braiding salon employing African women from various parts of the continent, we follow Ifemelu through her teenage and college years in Nigeria, when she falls in love with Obinze, an Americanophile who knows everything there is to know about the United States—from its presidents to its television shows—and whose ultimate compliment is "You look like a black American." The third-person narration is focused primarily through Ifemelu, but it occasionally enters into Obinze's perspective, providing a sketch of a starkly different expatriate Nigerian life. Ironically, Obinze is unable to get an American visa, and his story takes him to London, where he cleans toilets and delivers appliances, giving 35 percent of his salary as a bribe in order to use the name and papers of another Nigerian. Desperate to remain in England, he pays several thousand pounds to some shady Angolans in order to arrange a marriage with a European Union passport holder. The day of the wedding, he's apprehended by immigration and deported. The passages about Obinze's life in London, parts of which first appeared in The New Yorker as a short story, are some of the most vividly rendered and deeply moving of the entire novel.
What Ifemelu discovers in America is that race matters. The color of her skin, the style of her hair, the lilt of her accent are all markers to which white Americans, black Americans, and other Africans respond in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Entries from her blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, are interspersed throughout the narrative and further depict the paradoxes and challenges of race in America. Skin color and hair styles play major roles in these entries.
Watching The Cosby Show and reading American magazines has not prepared Ifemelu for small but telling cultural differences: in the first chapter alone she thinks about the oddity of grown-up men eating ice cream cones, the peculiar American expression of "I know" that expresses agreement rather than knowledge, and the fact that "fat" was an insulting term in the U.S. While she and her boyfriend Blaine share an overwhelming joy in the election of Barack Obama, she is puzzled by Blaine's physical fitness regimen, commitment to buying organic produce, and social conscience: "Later, when she came to know of the letters he wrote to Congress about Darfur, the teenagers he tutored at the high school on Dixwell, the shelter he volunteered at, she thought of him as a person who did not have a normal spine but had, instead, a firm reed of goodness." Blaine's social concerns are not normal in some sense, and Ifemelu tires of his goodness.