I picked up Americanah with some reservations. I had loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s earlier novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, but the synopsis of Americanah seemed contrived and more contemporary than I’m use to, with the main character writing a blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. I’m not sure whether I thought the novel would be too preachy, or too far from my own experience or whether it just seemed vastly different to her last two novels, but how wrong I was and how glad I am that I picked this book up.
In Americanah you walk in the shoes of two immigrants. Ifemulu immigrates to the US from Nigeria and we read her about her struggles as an immigrant and her thoughts about race in the above mentioned blog. In Nigeria Ifemulu never realises she’s a ‘colour’, but is only labelled ‘black’ after arriving in the US. Her high school sweetheart, Obinze, goes to the UK after being refused a visa into the US, and spends time as an illegal immigrant in a land where he’s another black immigrant and where no one cares he has an university degree and is forced to take illegal jobs to survive. This story is at its basics a love story between Ifemulu and Obinze who met and fall in love as teenagers and who want to leave Nigeria which is under a military dictatorship. But all is not rosy in the life of an immigrant especially when you are ‘black’.
This book forces you to think about your own prejudice and racism, even if it isn’t explicit or how you outwardly treat people, but in how you inadvertently judge others and stereotype. Even if we look similar, do we all think and act the same? We may look the same but we are also individuals, different due to our own dispositions, our family situation, and how we were brought up. This book reminds you that one isn’t ‘black’, one may be gingerbread or caramel or blueberry, metaphors for difference within a racial look or ethnicity. This book encourages you to take a look at yourself and your belief system and could possibly make you a better person. On top of all this it’s great storytelling.
I only have a few minor criticisms. One is that it took a few chapters to get a feel for the story, as the story moves back and forth a few times in narrator and time, but once Ifemulu enters the US the story settles down and I was pulled into the story. Secondly, the narrative of Obinze is less relevant to the overall arc of the novel, in the sense that if we didn’t have it, it wouldn’t have changed the book at all, but in saying that it does offer another aspect to the immigrant story and most importantly when Obinze changes his value system over the length of the novel you have a deeper understanding of the ‘why’, because you know his story. A small gripe for what is an unputdownable read.
I like books that give me something to think about but I don’t want to be lectured to, I want to be told a story and Adichie has the magic touch of being able to write an easy-to-read literary novel that also critiques social matters. Americanah at its basics is a love story but it also is an intelligent read on race, prejudice, and being an immigrant.