Americanah is the title of the latest book by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is her fourth book to be published after two novels and a collection of short stories. All have been excellent and this latest is no exception. The title is meant to represent the Nigerian way of pronouncing American and is used to refer to an African who has lived in the USA. An Americanah is someone who has “made it” by escaping from Africa. Though as Adichie’s novel makes clear not everyone finds success and the trials and tribulations of trying can be brutal. It can also be demeaning and much of value can be lost.
The main character in the novel is Ifemelu who as the story starts has just decided to return to Nigeria after 13 years as an Americanah. As she reflects over this momentous decision she reminisces about her journey from a young teenager in Lagos to her current life in Princeton. Ifemelu was one of the privileged Nigerians. Though her family was not very rich, they were relatively well off and her mother was a university lecturer. Ifemelu went to a very good school attended by other privileged Nigerians. While at university Ifemelu wins a scholarship to attend college in the USA. So begins her 13 year odyssey as an Americanah.
The other main character in the novel is Obinze, Ifemelu’s boyfriend and lover. And at one level the novel is a love story with Ifemelu and Obinze as the protagonists. In going to the States Ifemelu has to leave Obinze behind, but they hope he will be able to join her soon. Alas when the time comes for Obinze to apply for a visa, the tragedy of 9/11 has happened and Americans are less open to new immigrants. So Obinze has to remain in Nigeria. He tries his luck as an illegal immigrant in London with harrowing results, and ends up being deported back to Nigeria. Where he does eventually make a successful career for himself. During the 13 years that Ifemelu is in the States they lose contact with each other. Can they re-establish their former relationship when she returns home to Lagos?
Though this on/off love story is the thread that runs through the novel, the book is more about the experiences of Ifemelu and other African immigrants in the USA. This new life can be very harsh and demeaning as Ifemelu discovers. This phase in her life is perhaps the key to the novel. Her set backs, failures and latter successes are told in flashbacks as Ifemelu contrasts her experiences in the States with her life in Nigeria. An important part of this experience was racism. Adichie approaches this facet of American life partly through Ifemelu’s brushes with racism and also more explicitly via extracts from Ifemelus’ blog which she called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks(Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. These contain some wonderful observations and allow Adichie to give voice to her own feelings. The titles on their own are a master class in themselves. A couple of examples will suffice: Travelling While Black and What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes, it Sucks to be Poor and White but Try being Poor and Non-White. The novel is a mine of details about the fine nuances of racism in America, including the difference between an African-American and an American-African.
The novel ends with Ifemelu creating a new life and career for herself in Lagos. Though she did enjoy much of her time in America, she comes to realize that she prefers her own country. And she does meet up with Obinze again, but is their love to be rekindled? If you have not read this novel, then I urge you to do so.