Americanah | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As you might have noticed, march is all about women on this blog, as the 8th of March is International Women’s Day. Today is the last article in a series dedicated to female writers and empowering female figures : after a first article on the young adult novel Adèle & les noces de la Reine Margot written by Silène Edgar, a second one on the mini-series Self Made, a third one on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and a fourth article on the enthralling anthology Reclaim edited by Émilie Hache, it is time to travel to Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“If only she could feel what she wanted to feel.”

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Ifemelu loves Obinze, and Obinze loves Ifemelu. What could be simpler? At least it sounds simple. Everything seemed perfect: love at first sight in high school, a fusional relationship, shared dreams and aspirations, talks, silences, dances and laughs.

However, the overall situation is not that idyllic in military-ruled Nigeria, Ifem and Obinze’s home country. University lecturers go on repeated strikes so that most students harbour the hope of going abroad to get a better future. Ifemelu gets to study in America, pushed by Obinze, who has always been enthralled by the United States and intends to join her once he will have completed his first degree.

Of course, everything will not go as planned, and Ifemelu builds a new life for herself in the USA, while Obinze lives underground in London for some time. Their country changes in the meantime, and both of them will go back to a more democratic Nigeria as adults. But can love really survive more than ten years apart? Should it at all?

Feelings are complicated, time takes its toll, and Americanah‘s protagonists are just like every human being. They struggle with their emotions, trying to be rational whilst small voices in their heads, in their unconscious, let their heart speak. Feelings are not always handled with the greatest subtlety in this over 450-page-long novel, some sentences pointing out too blatantly the characters’ obvious unhappiness, sufferings or delights. However, Adichie replies to this criticism through one of her characters (also an author): “Like life is always fucking subtle.” Copy that!

Her characters, exquisitely complex and multifaceted, demonstrate the writer’s talent for fleshing out believable personalities that get under the reader’s skin. Maybe thanks to her own experience, as the author grew up and studied in Nigeria before getting a scholarship and emigrating to the US at nineteen, reminiding very much of Ifemelu’s path. The two main protagonists are not the only ones to spark interest and catch readers in their nets. Their friends, relatives and acquaintances are just as captivating, for better or for worse. Aunty Uju, Obinze’s mother, Kimberly, Curt, Blaine, Shan… Each of them is one more reason to pick this book back up and vibrate with them.

Vibrating with them as individuals is as interesting as following their relationships dynamics, that mirror everyone’s daily interactions and issues. Ifemelu’s boyfriends are often kind and likeable, and yet, the relationship never feels right. She is admitted in their circles, and yet, she never really belongs with them. Americanah is as much about dialogues as it is about the unspoken. It is about grief in all its forms, love(s) in all its complexity, friendships and their ups and downs and, above all, Americanah is about identity.

Identity can take on many different meanings: is it who I am, deep inside? Is it who I want to be? How others perceive me? Is it about my papers, my social status? Or about my skin colour? Being black was not a “thing” for Ifemelu back in Nigeria – she just was. As she says: “I only became black when I came to America.” Race is a major issue there, and Americanah turns out to be an eye-opening novel on the importance of skin colour and white privilege in this country. Being African is not the same as being African American, to an extent that might surprise some readers who don’t know much about this matter.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Gallimard, 2015
Americanah’s French cover
Source: Gallimard

The protagonists often feel at odds among foreigners, they don’t master the social codes and have to get to grips with (or fit into) a new culture. Ifemelu’s main sign of Africanness is her hair; a guiding thread throughout the novel, black women’s hair often being considered as political, subject to all sorts of treatments to hide their nature. How powerful, how empowering to see Ifemelu reclaim her kinky heir despite society’s prejudices! How painful too, in light of society’s prejudices… Americanah‘s French cover takes on its full meaning given the importance of hair in Black, African and African American cultures – incidentally, the Guardian has recently published an article by Priya Elan on Vogue‘s celebration of “black joy with sculpted hair” following Black Lives Matter movement, reminding readers of how creative one can get with hair. This fascinating subject makes readers ponder on their own relationship to this mass of threads on top of their (and others’) head. Reflections that could be extended to make-up, clothes and one’s overall style – how someone presents oneself to the world.

These very down-to-earth, yet extremely meaningful issues come along with more abstract considerations. Adichie seems to try to convey her love of words and literature every time she can in Americanah, in what sometimes ends up feeling like an overwhelming name-dropping game – once again lacking subtlety. The Heart of The Matter (G. Greene), The Fire Next Time (J. Baldwin), Light in August (W. Faulkner), Dreams From My Father (B. Obama), etc., are cited along with a few song titles.

An irking but totally forgivable habit, as it also provides references to become better read and educate oneself. This novel also deals with the power of writing, approached through Ifemelu’s witty and insightful blog articles. The character – and consequently the author – has a real way with words, dissecting everyday life before summing everything up in a few powerful lines.

Nevertheless, this gift for writing doesn’t mean that Americanah is perfect. Adichie’s depiction of scenes, of her characters’ environment and actions sometimes lack substance, don’t have that thing readers could sink their teeth into, as if some scenes had been cut short, shoehorned into the story so that characters could broach such or such topic.

All of these “flaws” also make this novel more realistic, more likeable. It is as imperfect and raw as its characters, simple yet complex. A book that makes one reflect on the variety of experiences immigrants and expatriates go through, whether documented or not. How foreignness impacts on one’s life, and how experiences abroad colour one’s existence, even once back home. In the meantime, non-Nigerian readers also get to discover this country and might be encouraged to do some research to know more about it.

There is much more than a simple romance behind Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story. Americanah is a love story, but a broad one, encompassing all sorts of love – for oneself, for others, for one’s nation and culture, for hope – and all sorts of grief.

A quote from the Guardian, featured on the cover, sums it all up:

“Some novels tell a great story and others make you change the way you look at the world. Americanah does both.”

— Elizabeth Day, the Guardian

And you, which novel would you recommend to step into other people’s shoes and discover different ways of life?

My grade

To read urgently

About the book

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (here is her online biography)
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (4th Estate)
Publication date: 2014 (fisrt published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US in 2013)
Pages: 400
ISBN: 978-0007356348 

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