Americanah the Beautiful

When discussing race or immigration in the United States, the maxim “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” applies. In Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrestles both issues without lace gloves and without apologies. And while we cannot say for certain that she is an angel, Ms. Adichie is clearly no fool.

The title refers to a Nigerian who travels to the U.S. and returns with the affectations of an American. That sounds like high praise to us, but surprisingly the term is not considered a compliment in Nigeria. Yes, we are confounded, too. The main character, Ifemelu, is a young Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. to attend college. Upon arriving, she is confronted for the first time with the concept that she is black, and she describes this experience humorously and forthrightly in her blog. “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now.” And as the book details, being black in America (whether you are American black or Non-American black) means the backpack you carry as you climb the steep mountain that is the American dream is heavier than anyone else’s.

Now we know what you are thinking. Forget this awkward race stuff. Ifemelu has a blog? Oh, that’s so original (said with dripping sarcasm like maple syrup running down a stack of pancakes). Everyone has a blog. They are as ubiquitous as sunblock on a Block Island beach in August. True. But Ifemelu’s blog is intelligent and successful (that’s how you know the book is fiction), and it allows Ms. Adichie to shrewdly and effectively comment on all sorts of racial issues in the U.S., such as (a) Why Dark-Skinned Black Women – Both American and Non-American Love Barack Obama; (b) Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What do WASPs Aspire To?; (c) Job Vacancy in America – National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who is Racist’ ; and (d) A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor. Major Metaphor Alert: the novel opens in a hair salon for a reason, and Ms. Adichie’s use of hair to illustrate her points about race is compelling and engaging.

Race is a major theme but so is immigration. Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart, Obinze, leaves Nigeria for London soon after Ifemelu arrives in the U.S. Neither leave Nigeria to flee poverty or war. Their reasons are far more complicated and intriguing. They leave to escape the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” As Ms. Adichie writes, they were “raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in the somewhere else.” They (and other similarly situated immigrants) were “now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.” Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s divergent paths allow Ms. Adichie to comment on the different immigrant experiences in England and the U.S. “[I]n America blacks and whites work together but don’t play together, and here (London) blacks and whites play together but don’t work together.” Glib, perhaps, but not devoid of truth. Ironically, Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s individual quests bring them back to a vibrant Nigeria.

More than anything, Americanah is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. It follows them from the early romantic stages (where just the heart is engaged) to a more complicated stage (where both the heart and brain are engaged). It develops into an “aware” love, which also could describe Ifemelu’s feelings for America and Nigeria.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans