by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 496 pp., $26.95
With “Americanah,” Nigeria-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has done something that few authors ever achieve.
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The “Half of a Yellow Sun” author and MacArthur “genius” grant winner has rendered a near-flawless novel, one whose language so beautifully captures the surreal experience of an African becoming an American that one walks away with the sense of having read something definitive.
Ifemelu, a college-educated young Nigerian woman with a razor-sharp wit and piercing intuition, and Obinze, the man she’s loved since they fled political unrest in Nigeria as teens, end up separated by an ocean.
She settles on the East Coast of the United States and struggles to assimilate in a country where issues around blackness are treated quite differently than in her homeland, eventually starting a feisty blog about race. He makes it to the U.K. but after misadventures there, winds up back in Nigeria, married and wealthy.
Though apart for most of the novel, the love between Ifemelu and Obinze feels epic.
It is Ifemelu who will steal your heart, though. Smart, pretty and brutally honest — often hilariously so — she is an immigrant who is mostly unbowed by the intimidating experience of trying to form a new life, and perhaps a new identity, in a society she scarcely understands, one that is run by white people, no less.
But Ifemelu turns a questioning eye on fellow Nigerian immigrants, too, especially ones who chat a bit too nostalgically on online forums about a homeland they don’t really know anymore. These Nigerians save up for trips back home during the holidays, when they lavish their families with shoes and watches bought in the states in hopes of making their relatives look a little more American.
“Afterwards,” Ifemelu imagines, “They would return to America to fight on the Internet over their mythologies of home, because home was now a blurred place between here and there.”
Even sadder, she sees in Nigerians who live in the states, as she does, an over-willingness to embrace their new country’s standards, particularly regarding race and ethnicity.
When Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, who’s just received papers to practice medicine in the United States, says she needs to unbraid her hair for her job interviews so American employers will see her as more “professional,” Ifemelu asks, with characteristic snarkiness, whether there are no doctors with braided hair in America.
Aunty Uju snaps right back: “You’re in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.”
Black women’s hair quandaries play a huge role in this novel. They add comic relief in some situations and, as in the exchange with Aunty Uju, serve as reminders of what people will sacrifice of themselves (or not) in order to fit in and get ahead.
Would she succumb to the same cultural temptations? Would she handle a return to Nigeria any better? Would folks back home think differently about her now that she’s been away?
“Americanah” is both intellectually expansive and urgently intimate, a story about the crushing experience of finding your way in a new land — and the physical and emotional lengths one goes to to feel whole again.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.