“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country [America],” we are told about two thirds of the way through Americanah. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious… So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.”
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Americanah before I started reading. Having read one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s earlier novels, Half of a Yellow Sun, and, more recently, Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, I had what I now realize was a rather abstract notion that I liked what, in my head I termed, “African fiction”. Reading Americanah, however, has shown me what a sweeping judgement this idea of African fiction is that I had. That, like the labels westerners paste on Ifemelu and Obinze (Adichie’s protagonists in Americanah), I was pasting a similarly pointless and potentially offensive label on her work.
If anything, in my judgmental state, I was expecting Americanah to be a book about Nigeria. However, if anything, it is a book about America. Which I probably should have figured out from the title. But it is also a book about judgments and race, and want and dreams, and love lost and found. If Adichie believed the statement that Ifemelu's acquaintance Shan makes, above, about writing racism in America, then she has defied this belief: Americanah is both honest and lyrical; no reading between the lines necessary.
Ifemelu and Obinze are high school sweethearts, together practically from the day they meet. But, growing up in Nigeria against a backdrop of military dictatorship and failing public services, the dream of all their contemporaries is America. And so Ifemelu and Obinze make a plan: when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university, they agree that she will go while Obinze finishes his studies in Nigeria and follow her later.
Things do not go to plan. When Ifemelu steps off the plane in America, she walks into a world entirely different from the one she imagined:
“I did not think of myself as black and only thought of myself as black when I came to America.”
I am white. I live in a white community. I notice if there is a black person walking down the street. I am not racist; I do not make (I hope) any judgment about a person by the colour of their skin; but I notice. And I never thought about this as meaning anything before I read Americanah, but Adichie shows that it is meaningful. Because for Ifemelu, she wasn’t noticed in this way before she went to America.
To begin with, America is like moving through thick columns of fog, only gradually figuring out the difficulties and differences of American culture and society through experience and the reading of American books to absorb the language, customs, mannerisms, sayings. But all around her are things that tell her she is different. Adichie shows us these things gradually and quietly as Ifemelu’s side of the story unfolds: her struggle to find even the most menial form of work, the way that everything around her is tailored for white people, the quickly masked reactions of waiters when she has dinner with a white man.
Adichie highlights throughout the book the way that white people have of piling black or African people into one single denomination, when in fact there is much, much greater variety within non-white than within white. Most often she uses hair to bring the realities across. In the opening pages we join Ifemelu as she journeys to a salon to get her hair braided and so I learnt here, and throughout the story, of the difference between white hair and non-white hair. I did not know that powerful chemicals called relaxers are frequently used to “tame” black hair, that to be considered a professional black woman in America you have to use these to get sleek straight hair like you see in white people magazines, that black people have to make themselves closer to white conformities to look “professional”. It’s surprising and shocking and eye-opening.
And so race and the concept of race flows strongly through Americanah, but alongside it runs the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. Events compound events and Ifemelu and Obinze lose touch. As they get older, they each feel a terrible shame for the things they’ve had to do to make it through the difficult periods, and this shame forms for many years an unbreakable barrier between the two of them. As Americanah unfolds, we jump from present to past, Ifemelu to Obinze and back again, as their stories track across the years. And so to the moment when they finally meet again. What new choices will they have to make? Can they pick up where they left off? Can they break down the barriers they’ve each erected?
Americanah, for me, was a surprising book. It has shown me new things, a different way of looking at the world. There is much that may have passed me by, though, because there is much about Nigeria and what it is to live there and come from that very different world that I do not know and am not likely ever to really know, not like Ifemelu does or Obinze does or, I presume, Adichie does. Sometimes, in reading, it was difficult to imagine Ifemelu, what she looked like, or to fully grasp the different descriptions of her hair, but I hope that ultimately that doesn’t matter because Adichie’s storytelling brings the reader inside Ifemelu; what is on the outside is, after all, irrelevant.