Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie: A Book Review

20 Jan



Ifemelu and Obinze are lovers. They are two young Nigerians who are like two puzzle pieces, made to be together. But when life separates them, sending Efimelu to the U.S. and Obinze on a more complicated journey to England and back to Nigeria, they lose track of each other. Obinze’s, and especially Efimelu’s, journeys, their adjustments to their situations, their struggles against racism, poverty, cultural differences, loneliness, and finding their authentic selves and destinies is the subject of Americanah, Chimimanda Ngozie Adizie’s long, rich, complex, and delicious book Americanah.  


Adizie has a sharp eye, a wicked tongue (or pen) and a magical way of putting the truth of the strengths and weaknesses of three countries on the table without being mortally offensive or off-putting to any of them—while at the same time making clear that she means what she says.She skewers certain kind of people (including, ahem, people like me, a well-meaning white American liberal) without making you want to throw the book across the room and sulk.


I hate the word immersive. Why is everybody using this word all of a sudden? But Americanah is a deeply immersive book. When I finished it, I got a big headache. I wasn’t in Efimelu’s world anymore. I wasn’t going to see anything out of her eyes. I felt disoriented. When I feel like that, I know I’ve read a good book.


One of the things I admire about this book is how it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by over-explaining. The author will write sentences in (Igbo?) or in some mix of Efi’s native tongue and English and expect the reader to get the meaning from context. She will have Efi meet some well-meaning white lady who will overexplains how she gives money to a charity in Africa and the incredible awkwardness of the Efi is put in (is she supposed to say thank you for helping my continent?) becomes clear. This, to me, is very lifelike. Most people who live in a multicultural environment, as, say, I am as a resident of the greater New York area, are constantly subjected—or gifted—I should say,  


Much of the book takes place as Efimelu is getting her hair braided in a salon for black women’s hair in a bad neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. Although she has a prestigious position as a Princeton Fellow, beaten-down Trenton is the closest place she can go for the proper care of her hair. Much attention is given to the subject of black women’s hair in this book—about what long, painstaking efforts black women have to make to have hair that seems acceptable and normal in the U.S., and whether or not she wants to compromise herself for that standard. Meanwhile, she notes the irony of how in Nigerian women also torture their hair with ironing and other treatments to make it look “good.” In the beauty shop she meets a variety of characters, African, African-American, and white, throughout the long day, listens to their chatter, and reflects on her life. Because even though she has reached a pinnacle of success in America—becoming relatively famous for her blog (Okay, this part—getting successful from a blog is like a beautiful fantasy to me, unlike the rest of the book). By the way, her blog is called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and it includes some of Efi’s excellent blogposts.) She is constantly looking at the world around her with a critical but curious eye. One dreadlocked white man whom she suspected would be a good guest blogger tells her, “Race is totally overhyped these days, black people need to get over themselves.. . “ and she writes a post called, “Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down.” And then, she meets a middle manager from Ohio in a boxy suit and expected him to be racist—and HE turns out to have adopted a dark-skinned black baby and talks to her about how this experience has taught him  “even black families” don’t want to adopt a dark-skinned child. She writes a post about HIM called, “Badly-Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio Are Not Always What You Think.”


Ifemelu’s life in America is complicated. At first she is poor, desperate for work, until she gradually becomes acclimated to America’s ways, becomes a highly educated and confident woman, and claims her place as who she is. One of her ways of becoming authentic, for example, is not taking on an American accent. She refuses to be anything else but what she is. Meanwhile, she has relationships with an Anglo-American and later an African-American man that teach her many things about America. She finds Americans who are good and Americans who are bad. One thing that she does find is that race is a very powerful subject.


Let me repeat that. Race is a very powerful subject in the United States. In fact, I have recently been doing a lot of reading about race in the United States. One of the observations I have made from my reading is that many white people feel that racism is a thing of the past (“We have a black president”), but for black people, race is very much present and real. And that when people say they are “colorblind,” it can seem very insulting, despite the speaker’s good intentions. When they say racism was in the past, white Americans often mean that they themselves are not racist and would not do anything racist. But African Americans can feel that this is a denial of history and present day reality. The author puts this much better than I can.


This is so much more to say about Americanah and the author’s observations. (By the way, an Americanah is defined more-or-less as someone who went to America and became all American and now thinks she’s a big shot back in Nigeria). But this book would not be worth reading if the author did not hook you in with appealing characters and action that keeps the plot moving in a lively, satisfying way. This is not a treatise—it is a novel. And one I highly recommend.


Writing Prompt: What observations can you make about race in America (or your country)?

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