Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze and spans almost two decades. The two meet in high school in Nigeria. They fall in love and pursue degrees at the same university. However, an opportunity arises for her to study in the United States, leading to her decision to immigrate. Ifemelu grew up middle-class but, like many of her peers, yearned for the sold ideal of Western opportunity and success.
It is only after immigrating, though, that Ifemelu becomes acutely aware of her blackness.
In one instance, Ifemelu points out to her white boss that she describes every black woman as ‘stunning’ regardless of their looks. In another, Ifemelu’s beautician tells her she doesn’t thread ‘curly’ eyebrows. And later in the book, Ifemelu dates a white, wealthy American called Curt. He loves her and is angry on her behalf when Ifemelu recounts the racist events she witnessed.
“We don’t tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better because we are worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being sensitive,” Ifemulu reflects at one point (p. 359).
And on the topic of confronting racism, Ifemelu says you can only try to do so with liberals and even so, it has to be broached carefully.
“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism” (p. 274).
Alongside Ifemulu’s tale is Obinze’s. While she immigrated to the US, he moved to the UK after finishing his degree to obtain the elusive British visa. He had his own experiences with racism and was subjected to a certain kind of hostility in the UK that is reserved for African expats.
The novel is also, at its core, a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. And Adichie successfully moves the tale between protagonists. I was equally appalled and angered by everything Obinze had to go through. However, I found that his story wasn’t told with the same conviction that Ifemelu’s was told. Perhaps this is because more of Adichie’s own character and thoughts shine through in Ifemelu. Nonetheless, she brilliantly captured the nuances of the human experience along with the struggles of identity, race, and immigration.
I have read two of her other two novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, and while both are brilliant, neither carry the authenticity and scope that Americanah holds. I think this is because of the way Americanah relates to Adichie’s own experiences. Her other novels’ protagonists aren’t as self-aware in their thoughts and opinions. Ifemelu, however, is aware, critical and doesn’t hold back in her own self-reflection and discussions with friends and partners.
Part of why reading Americanah is so important is that Adichie brings to light many of the subtle ways racial power dynamics manifest in society. And while my white privilege ensures that I won’t ever truly understand racial oppression, I am grateful to Adichie for giving me a glimpse into the experience through Ifemelu and Obinze and forcing me to recognize my own ignorance.
Buy a few boxes of tissues in preparation for the inevitable anger, remorse, elation, and sorrow that you will experience while reading Americanah. I promise the emotional rollercoaster is worth every minute.
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