Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie is one of my favorite living novelists, and I say that having read only two-thirds of her total output (she’s written three). Her ability to craft realistic characters, especially black female characters, and to have all of her characters engage in thoughtful, intelligent, unpandering dramas built around race and ethnic identities is second to none right now; she’s even passed Toni Morrison, whose recent output hasn’t matched her Beloved/Song of Solomon peak. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2007, made my last top 100 novels update at #92.
Her most recent novel, 2013’s Americanah, once again begins and ends in Nigeria, but this time follows two people as they emigrate to the west, one legally and one illegally, to escape a limited economic future in their native country, one that deprives them of hope. Ifemelu and Odinze are high school sweethearts, bonded by their intelligence and refusal to submit to a grey future, but the expectation that they’ll marry is lost when Ifemelu is allowed to enter the United States legally but Odinze, a single foreign male from Africa, is rejected due (we assume) to U.S. immigration crackdowns post-9/11. While Ifemelu encounters financial difficulties and humiliations as a student in the U.S. who lacks money or worldliness, even finding that her brand of English isn’t much use in understanding the American idiom, Odinze enters England without papers and aims for a sham marriage with a citizen to allow himself to stay and work. Ifemelu, ashamed by her situation and depressed by her isolation, ceases contact with Odinze and only resumes it when she returns to Nigeria over a decade later, finding the love of her life now married with a daughter.
“Americanah” is a derogatory term in Nigerian slang referring to someone who has moved to America and come back a changed person, especially one affecting an American accent or an excessive affection for American customs and culture. Ifemelu tries to assimilate early in her time in the U.S. because she’s told repeatedly that she won’t receive job offers if she’s too “ethnic,” but eventually sheds her American façade in favor of her own accent, her own hair, and her identity as an African woman. She adapts rather than assimilating, eventually advancing in her education and career thanks to a blog she writes under a pen name, called Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes), that documents her thoughts on the racial divide in the United States from the perspective of someone who was not conscious of race before she arrived in this country. (Adichie has since brought Ifemelu’s second blog, written after the character’s return to Nigeria, to life online as The Small Redemptions of Lagos.) Odinze’s story is shorter, as was his stint abroad, working dicey jobs under someone else’s National Insurance number, before he’s discovered and shipped back to Lagos.
Ifemelu is the star of the book, as Odinze, while a well-defined character, is rarely in the spotlight, while his story in England seems like a plot contrivance to contrast with Ifemelu’s experiences as a legal emigrant from Nigeria. Her story has global aspirations which largely succeed, coming through her series of jobs (including nanny to a definite White Privilege family) and relationships, including one with Progressive White Guy and one with Earnest Black Intellectual. We get some pretentious dialogue along the way, especially when Ifemelu starts to travel in increasingly academic circles, but Adichie avoids turning the book into a sermon by keeping Ifemelu’s emotions at the center of the book rather than driving us toward some Big Conclusion via plot tricks. The book describes the emigrant/immigrant experience, the desire to return home for its own sake (rather than to change the world), the emotional pull of a romance that one can’t fully separate from its environment, instead of trying to tell us one country or culture or path is better. This is Ifemelu’s story, just one tale that has its metaphorical implications but doesn’t feel in any way like Adichie is trying to tell every immigrant’s story at once.
Adichie’s strengths in characterization and avoiding predictable plot lines cover some of her weaknesses in portions of the dialogue and nearly all of the sample blog posts included in the book. The posts she includes are far too short and superficial to garner the kind of audience Ifemelu is supposed to have collected through her writing, not enough in a real world that has Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tanzina Vega and Jamil Smith and too many others to name who produce statement pieces that bring examples and evidence to the table. Ifemelu’s blog posts from the book wouldn’t find an audience because they’re not saying much of anything we haven’t heard hundreds of times before. Adichie says more about race when she’s not talking directly about it, putting characters into situations that force them to confront questions of racism and identity, than she does when she tries to blog through Ifemelu’s lens.
Told through frequent moves back and forth in time and across an ocean, Americanah marks another hugely compelling and intelligent novel from Adichie and her biggest seller to date, even though it lacks the gravity of Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict and resulting genocide. Her eye for detail is sharper in the sections of Americanah where her characters are still in Lagos, growing up among ambitious economic strivers, religious zealots, and co-opted concubines whose fortunes are only secure as long as the current regime stays in power. When she transitions to America and England, Adichie’s writing becomes less nuanced and the stakes are largely lower (especially since we know from the first chapter that Odinze gets back to Nigeria safely). The strongest scenes of Ifemelu’s time in America come in an African hair salon she visits, somewhat resentfully, in Trenton, because she can’t find a place that knows how to braid hair properly in Princeton. The reactions she receives there from women who might share some of her background but clearly want very different things from life – and are largely appalled that she would return to Africa of her own volition – drive not just Ifemelu’s own memories but the overall narrative of the book, as well as its strongest symbol (hair) of race and identity.