Americanah


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a contemporary Nigerian novelist who has won many awards for her earlier books. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus
(2003), is a coming of age story set in post-colonial Nigeria. This
novel focuses not only on the social upheaval of those times, but
mirrors it with the domestic violence found in the upper-class home of
her 15 year old protagonist. Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
takes place in Nigeria during the Nigerian-Biafran War, 1967-1970. This
was a civil war following Britain's departure in 1960 and the formation
of Nigeria as an independent country. Britain, like other colonial
powers, failed to consider ethnic differences and already established
territorial monarchies when they imposed colonial rule in 1912. Thus
when they left, the southeastern provinces attempted to secede and form
the Republic of Biafra. Adichie writes compassionately about the impact
those events had on her four main characters--a noted political hero, a
professor, a British citizen, and a servant.  She won the coveted
Orange Prize for this book.

Now with her third novel, Adichie takes on an entirely different theme.  In Americanah,
she explores the experiences of an educated Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, in
the racially-charged United States. The time frame is very
contemporary, discussed in flashbacks during and including the 13 years
prior to the election of Barach Obama in 2008.

We first
meet Ifemelu in a beauty shop getting her hair braided. She has just
taken a long train ride from Princeton, where she has a post-graduate
fellowship, into a seedy area of Trenton, New Jersey--about 13 miles
away. This is the location of a run-down hair salon that caters to black
women. Ifemelu is preparing to return home to Nigeria despite her
apparent success and United States citizenship.

The
book weaves back and forth through time. We come to know Ifemelu as a
teenager falling in love with Obinze. Both are in high school. 
Obinze's mother is a professor-- beautiful, and forward-thinking. He is a
bright and considerate adolescent whose relationship with his mother is
very close. Ifemelu's mother, by contrast, suffers from depression and
searches for relief through a variety of churches. Her father has lost
his job on the grounds of insubordination and he has been unemployed for
some time. Family life is not pleasant and Ifemelu is determined to
succeed.

Before graduation, she applies to a
university in the United States and is accepted. There she struggles to
supplement her scholarship with employment but is met with one
rejection after another. Is it her race, her Nigerian accent? We never
know for sure but the reader is led to suspect her "otherness" might be
the cause. Her white roommates are portrayed as self-absorbed and trite.
Desperate, Ifemelu accepts a sexual job--one that robs her of her
self-respect and throws her into a year-long depression. She now drops
all contact with the devoted Obinze, throwing him into a tail-spin of
worry and confusion.

From here, Ifemelu's life
improves. Through the help of a friend, she secures a job as a nanny
and meets a wealthy, white young man, and eventually, lives with him.
Adichie uses this relationship as a vehicle to highlight Ifemelu's sense
of alienation in upper class white society. She finds even
well-meaning people making careless and ignorant remarks.

Obinze,
now in England doing menial jobs, is having a similar experience. He
is not as lucky as Ifemelu.  She has found a sponsor and has a green
card.  He is scrubbing toilets and trying to get an illegal national
security number.  This will allow him to work legally and get health
insurance. He is also trying to get an arranged visa marriage through
shady brokers. Adichie depicts this nether-world with its inherent
terrors.

Both characters, although in different
countries with far different histories, have similar experiences as
middle-class, educated immigrants. When Obinze meets an old college
chum who has married a Brit and become a citizen, he is invited to a
party at his home. It is there that Obinze, perhaps speaking with the
author's voice, feels especially alone.

(All the
guests) understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that
crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape
the ominous lethargy of choicelessness.  They would not understand why
people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in
dissatisfaction...were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal
things, so as to leave, none of them starving or raped...but merely
hungry for choice and certainty.

During her
relationship with a white boyfriend, Ifemelu starts writing a blog about
race. This blog becomes successful and eventually, earns her money and
enhances her reputation. It is through this blog that Ifemelu connects
with an African-American professor. Yet another layer of complication
ensues with this relationship--namely, an assumption that an African
should completely understand and empathize with issues of race.

Americanah is
an issues driven book with good characters and an interesting plot. Ifemelu is as full of contradictions as is society itself.  She is
arrogant and prickly and seems unable to truly grieve or to truly love. And she suffers because of these very traits. It is a bold step for an
author to create an unlikeable main protagonist. But create her she
does in this epic tale of love across continents, of race, and finally,
of hair.

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