A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
When asked what her novel Americanah is about, author and MacArthur Fellow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “It is about love…. But it is also about race and how we reinvent ourselves. It is about how, when we leave home, we become another version of ourselves. And it is also about hair….”
Her main character, Ifemelu, is a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. as a student. She learns early on that, for Africans, “when you make the choice to come to America, you become black,” whereas race is not something Africans think about when they are in their native countries. The difference between being black in the United States and being black elsewhere is a major theme of this novel. Much of that is expressed in a blog that Ifemelu creates to share her observations on being black in America, discussing topics that are seldom discussed openly here, such as why our First Lady wears her hair straightened instead of natural.
The novel opens with Ifemelu taking a train from Princeton where she is completing a fellowship, to Trenton to get her hair braided because there are no African braiding salons around Princeton. This introduces another theme: hair, as a means of racial, cultural, and personal expression. From there the story moves back to Nigeria and Ifemelu’s family and upbringing, including her high school romance with Obinze. Ifemelu moves to the U.S. to continue her education due to turmoil in Nigeria, but Obinze is unable to obtain an American visa.
We learn about Ifemelu’s struggles with finding employment and adjusting to life here, and her romances with two Americans, one white and one black, who catapult her into the worlds of the wealthy and academia. Meanwhile, in a particularly absorbing section of the novel, we travel with Obinze to London and inside the world of illegal immigrants and their attempts to gain legitimacy. He is eventually shipped back to Nigeria, where he becomes a successful businessman.
After 15 years Ifemelu returns to Nigeria. Not surprisingly, the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze is picked up again, taking up most of the remaining chapters of the book.
I enjoyed reading this book. I liked Adichie’s observations of Americanisms that normally go unnoticed, and felt that I gained new insights on race and immigration. The book was a bit long and could have used some heavier editing, but Adichie is a very good writer it was a pleasure to read nevertheless.
Reviewed by Nancy