There are few ways to feel whiter than to read a novel written from the perspective of a Nigerian woman who moves to America and discovers how it feels to be black.
More than a decade after coming to America from Lagos, Nigeria, Ifemelu has it pretty good. She’s got a fellowship at Princeton and a handsome professor boyfriend, and makes a decent living writing an anonymous blog about race in the U.S. But Ifem is plagued by thoughts of her past, both in a macro sense—could the only thing righter than leaving Nigeria be going back?—and in a literal one: Ifem’s teenage sweetheart ex, Obinze, is still in Lagos. Granted, he’s married now, but she finds herself thinking about him all the same.
If this sounds like a worldly set up for what is otherwise a traditional “guy meets girl, guy fucks it up with girl, guy and girl eventually reunite” love story, it isn’t. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze is at once traditional and not, and overall far more emblematic of the complications of uprooting one’s life for the ephemeral promise of America than it is of a humdrum long-distance romance. This is not Nicholas Sparks goes to Africa. (Besides, we all know Sparks only writes about white people.)
Using a variety of characters and constructs, Adichie manages to imbue Americanah with a running stream of commentary: on race, on gender, on relationships, on Nigerians, on Americans, on politics, on morality. A portion of the novel (the present day of sorts) takes place in a Trenton, New Jersey hair salon, where Ifem is getting braids while listening to the chatter of (and passing no small amount of judgment on) the multicultural smattering of women who work there. The rest of the book—at least until we catch up to the present day—is told in flashback, which is how we come to know of Ifem and Obinze, and to follow the trajectory of their romance and eventual separation. Throughout are interspersed a variety of other narrative techniques: snippets of Ifem’s blog, omniscient insight into Obinze’s life without her, and glimpses into the slow-burning rekindling of communication that comes to dominate both their thoughts. And throughout are Opinions, generally Ifemelu’s (but probably sometimes Adichie’s)—about what blackness means in America, and how that compares with what blackness means, or doesn’t, in Africa.
There’s a poignant moment late in the novel, when Ifem is describing her blog to friends in Nigeria. “When Aunty Onenenu told us you were a famous race blogger in America, I didn’t understand,” one of Ifem’s gal pals says to her. “Why race?” Ifem answers: “I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.”
This, ultimately, is the thrust of Americanah—Ifem’s gradually honed understanding that someone with no sense of “blackness” can move to the U.S. and be immediately and inherently perceived as black, with all of its associated prejudices. (In a blog post titled “To my Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby,” Ifem lays out tips for “NABs” like “you must show that you are offended when such words as ‘watermelon’ or ‘tar baby’ are used in jokes, even if you don’t know what the hell is being talked about” and “if you are a man, be hyper-mellow, never get too excited, or somebody will worry that you’re about to pull a gun.”) Ifem’s is perhaps not a revolutionary point, but it’s still one that resonates when explored with as much depth, nuance and humor as it is here.
Americanah has its flaws, though they are minor in nature. The book is a bit long—never unenjoyable, simply lengthy—and there are moments of preachiness that feel overblown, like Adichie herself is speaking a little too loudly through her characters. Moreover, Ifem isn’t particularly likable (not a flaw in the writing, just an interesting aspect of reading), and I found my white-guilted self torn between cowed agreement with all of her views and the occasional overwhelming urge to yell “shut UP already” (though those outbursts primarily related to her manipulation of interpersonal relationships). Then again, this is in some way the point: that there is a moral high ground when it comes to prejudice, but few of us deserve to stand on it in perpetuity. In truth, watching Ifem hate on the salon ladies, or her childhood Nigerian friends, is as culturally and emotionally informative as her more overt breakdowns of American racial drama.
Americanah has received all kinds of praise since it first came out in 2013, and I’m not surprised. This novel is a New Yorker/literary elite gimme, sweeping and engaging and thought-provoking while also pushing the envelope on a subject that’s been top of mind lately. Racism, it seems increasingly clear, hasn’t gone anywhere, and so Adichie’s novel accomplishes the laudable feat of being both timely and prescient, mainstream and nuanced. “If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter,” Ifem writes later in that aforementioned advice post. “Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry about racism. Otherwise you will get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”
AUTHOR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
PAGES: 588 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus
SORTA LIKE: Zadie Smith meets Atonement
FIRST LINE: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”