Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 14th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love when they are teenagers in Lagos, Nigeria. As the time comes for college and moving on they know that they have no wish to stay in Nigeria. Ifemelu gets into a school in the United States and Obinze goes to London. While this may sound straightforward it is anything but in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, Americanah. Instead, Ifemelu and Obinze struggle against the red tape and racism that surround them in both countries. Although she has a visa, Ifemelu is restricted to working student jobs at her campus which does not provide enough to live on and Obinze is in the even more precarious position of outstaying a temporary visa in Great Britain and can only find cash jobs while he lives in fear of being deported. Their relationship shreds and finally disintegrates under the pressure of their situations and their choices and they lose touch as they try to make new lives in these foreign worlds.
By looking at America through the eyes of a non-American black woman, Adichie takes what the reader knows, the everyday, and makes it as foreign as it is to Ifemelu. Nothing is as expected because her experiences are unknown to the majority of us. She finds that her body, her hair, her speech, her mannerisms, her clothes, virtually everything about her is wrong and for a time she tries to change herself to fit in but ultimately decides to own who she is. One of the ways she comes to this mindset is by starting her own anonymous blog, called Raceteenth, where she writes about life in the U.S. as a non-American Black.
Adichie’s piercing eye is not simply cast at white Americans. It is clear throughout the book that this is a writer who has been paying attention for a very long time and is graced with the talent to be able to translate what she sees into words that reach those who have never had to see it or deal with it. Of other Nigerian expatriates she says
Ifemelu imagined the writers, Nigerians in bleak houses in America, their lives deadened by work, nursing their careful savings throughout the year so that they could visit home in December for a week, when they would arrive bearing suitcases of shoes and clothes and cheap watches, and see, in the eyes of their relatives, brightly burnished images of themselves. Afterwards they would return to America to fight on the Internet over their mythologies of home, because home was now a blurred place between here and there, and at least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become.
Americanah does an admirable job educating the reader about racism in America but in doing so blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Ifemelu’s blog posts are thought provoking and challenging
Or maybe it’s just time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.
but as they increase in number they begin to feel like a lecture and soon overtake the plot. Americanah becomes less about the story between Ifemelu and Obinze and more about racism. Ifemelu’s story is rife with it and its impact on her makes for powerful reading but the novel falters under the academic weight of her blog posts. In trying to bring together two narrative forms both are weakened and Americanah loses its voice.