Americanah is a love story that explores being black/African

Writer Leslie Ishimwe reads Americanah in the newsroom Photo credit: Jasper Myers

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria, Alfred A. Knopf, May 14, 2013, 496 pp.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author who won the Orange Prize for her the best-selling novel Half Of The Yellow Sun, does not cease to amaze her audience. In her third book, Americanah, Adichie writes passionately about two young lovers who go different paths and both experience different life lessons.

One of the main characters, a young female named Ifelmelu, is from Lagos, Nigeria. She immigrates to the United States under a scholarship visa. Adichie tells the story in flashbacks from Ifemelu’s perspective while she’s getting her hair braided before going back to Nigeria after 15 years in the States.

The flashbacks reveal that as Ifemelu tries to integrate into her new environment, she realizes the western world is nothing like she imagined. Adichie goes back and forth between three countries, Nigeria, the U.S. and England, following Ifemelu and her teenage boyfriend, Obinze.

When Ifemelu is given a scholarship to Philadelphia, she does not hesitate to take it, hoping Obinze would join her but he is denied a visa after 9/11. Instead, he applies to go to England where he has a hard time finding his identity.

Meanwhile, Ifemulu integrates herself in Brooklyn, New York, where she is living with her Aunt Uju and nephew Dike. She enjoys living with them because she left her mother and father behind in Nigeria. Aunt Uju and Dike are her extended family.

Eventually, Ifemulu she leaves her aunt’s apartment to go to Philadelphia where she struggles to live by herself after her scholarship funds run out. She can’t bring herself to ask her parents for money and has a hard time finding part-time work and experiences what it means to be black/African in America.

Ifemulu starts writing about this experience in her blog posts. These posts become quite popular and are all based on Ifemulu’s day-to-day observations.

Ifemelu was shocked when her classmates would speak too slowly for her to understand. Ifemelu speaks English fluently.

Her roommate Kimberly makes a joke by asking her not to put Vodoo on her dog when Ifemelu makes a remark that the dog should not eat other people’s food. She starts isolating herself speaking to her family a lot less than usual. She eventually stops responding to Obinze’s emails.

Ifemelu invests her time in her blog, which is a platform chronicling her life experiences. It also explores the politics of hair.

She realizes relaxed hair, straight hair with weaves or wigs is more acceptable than natural kinky hair. Her Aunt Uju, who just finished med-school, was preparing herself for an interview when she says, “I have to take my braids out for my interview and relax my hair. If you have braids, they will think you’re unprofessional.” This is the discrimination black/Africans face in America.

Another part of the book is focused on the arrival of Obinze in England.

He wrestles to find papers that will enable him to be in the country and work legally. He meets his former classmate Emenike who is financially stable and impresses Obinze by inviting him to a lunch party where he realizes people are surprised by how well he presents himself.

“They understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, they would not understand how people like him, were raised, well-fed and watered.”

Adichie speaks directly to her audience in this quote, explaining how the rest of the world sees people in Africa.

Emenike connects Obinze with Angolan thugs who try to help him obtain citizenship in England by marrying him with an Angolan girl. Obinze feels sorry for her but he also needs papers. Unfortunately, he gets caught and deported back to Nigeria.

The final section of the novel ends with Ifemelu going back to Nigeria where she gets a job at a magazine. She reconnects with old friends and they describe her as “Americanah” which is where the title comes from. Ifemelu’s friends think she has changed and acts American.

Ifemelu also reconnects with Obinze, only to find out he’s married and has a daughter. He is very unhappy in his marriage. His wife is nothing like Ifemelu. Obinze finds the courage to leave his wife and reunite with his former teenage lover.

Americanah is an extraordinary book because the characters’ everyday life experiences speak loudly about issues often ignored in society.

While others might argue it is not their job to educate those who are not informed about race and cultures, Adichie disagrees. She encourages everyone to educate themselves by not being afraid to ask questions.

For instance, in Ifemelu’s blog, she writes “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable asking questions, say you’re uncomfortable. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.”

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