It’s 9 p.m. on a chilly fall evening. You are knackered from your four-hour shift at the library circulation desk and all you want to do is watch an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” But your linear algebra problem set is calling. Sigh. You run your hand through your now loose and dandruffed braids, looking around your dorm room. Your huge national flag stares at you. You remember that you may have to find another on-campus job because working four hours a week isn’t enough to pay your phone bill and buy textbooks. “Is this really the American college experience?” Welcome to the life of many international students. It may not be everyone’s story but it’s a well-known one. It’s also reminiscent of Ifemelu, the protagonist of Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel Americanah’s first experiences in America.
Americanah tells the story of a witty young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who decides to return to Lagos after living in the United States for thirteen years. Ifemelu goes to the US in pursuit of an undergraduate degree, which she receives after some life-altering experiences. By the time she leaves for Nigeria, Ifemelu has finished a fellowship at Princeton University and become a famous blogger on race.
At the core of Ifemelu’s life experiences is her relationship with the love of her life, Obinze. Theirs is a classic tale of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl become inseparable from then on. She nicknames him “Ceiling” because “[her] eyes were open but [she] did not see the ceiling” the first time they make love. However, they become estranged for a brief period when Ifemelu leaves for America. During that phase, Americanah takes Obinze to London where he gets his fair share of the immigrant experience. He scrapes to get along by taking up menial jobs. He even tries to marry an Englishwoman, a plan that backfires and costs him an arm and a leg in the process. In the end, Obinze must return to Nigeria and reinvent his image.
Adichie deftly interweaves their love story with an exploration of race, immigration, repatriation, and identity. Other issues that are discussed include depression – a topic that is rarely talked about in African communities – and, to a certain extent, divorce. From Ifemelu’s difficulty in finding a job as an international student to Obinze’s adventures as an immigrant who has overstayed his welcome in the UK to her aunt Uju’s struggle with going to medical school in the US, Adichie captures the immigrant experience. Ultimately, Americanah chronicles the experience of people who have spent years abroad, often for educational purposes, and their journeys with repatriation.
Here are three aspects of the book that really resonated with me:
Black studies 101: Are you an African in America or an African-American?
In Americanah, Adichie raises an issue that many Africans in America, like myself, begin to think about only after we step on these shores – being black. Prior to coming to the US, Ifemelu does not pay attention to her race. It is only after starting college that she begins to consciously realize that she is black. She becomes obsessed with racism and starts to blog about it. During a dinner party the day after Barack Obama becomes the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, a balding white man says “Obama will end racism in this country.” Ifemelu retorts, “It is a lie / that’s a lie / I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” Ouch! Ifemelu’s statement echoed my exact sentiments on race and how America tends to heighten one’s ‘race-radar.’
In college Ifemelu realizes that there is a nuanced difference between Africans who are “fresh off the boat,” aka Africans in America, and African-Americans. Wambui, Ifemelu’s new Kenyan friend, advises her to make friends with “African-American brothers and sisters in a spirit of true pan-Africanism.” She also advises, “but make sure you remain friends with fellow Africans, as they help you keep your perspective. Always attend African Students Association meetings, but if you must, you can also try the Black Student Union. Please note that in general, African Americans go to Black Student Union and Africans go to the African Students Association. Sometimes it overlaps, but not a lot.” I kept nodding at Wambui’s statement because it reflected my college experience and that of my friends as well.
Hair is its own character, as it is another channel through which Adichie analyzes both identity and the immigrant experience. When we first meet Ifemelu, she is on her way to Trenton, a not-so-fancy neighbourhood in New Jersey, because Princeton does not have a braiding salon. The fact that she has to leave her neighbourhood to get her hair done is reflective of the hassle that young African students go through when we emigrate for school.
It’s what forces young students to suddenly become hairdressers, be it through learning how to braid or relax their own hair like my friends and I did. Other times the hassle forces you to get the big chop (B.C.) and go natural because of the unwillingness to pay exorbitant sums to get your hair done. The B.C. also happens as a statement for embracing one’s natural hair in all its nappiness. Wearing your hair natural has become somewhat of a movement – some even call it a revolution!
I just got back!
While Americanah chronicles the immigrant’s account, it also critiques the returnee story. Like many young students who come to pursue an education in the US, Ifemelu finally comes to a point where she’s consumed by homesickness and decides to make the move to go back home: “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.”
Finally being in Lagos brings with it a new and increasingly common returnee narrative. Now Ifemelu needs to learn how to transition into a home that is different from what she left thirteen years ago. One that feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A Lagos filled with “Been-To’s” who hold “Nigerpolitan Club” meetings to share their experiences on living in England and the US, as well as to network. She learns that Lagos won’t stop or change to accommodate her “Americanah” ways and learns to adjust her new habits.
In as much as Americanah is thoroughly enjoyable, its ending comes off as abrupt and may leave the reader dissatisfied. One would think that Adichie was forced to finish and so decided to string a few sentences together to end the story. But that is something that can be overlooked for the unpeeling of important societal layers that Adichie does with her book.
Americanah may be about a Nigerian character but it ends up echoing the story of the afropolitan. It’s the story of the immigrant who wants to go home and feels trapped in the rat race that is the American way of life. It’s the story of the girl or boy who came to get a degree, finds a successful job and is wondering if it’s time to go back home. It’s the story that leaves you comforted and conflicted at the same time. It gets you thinking about where you want to establish your roots as a young person who leaves home too early. It’s the story that feels all too familiar.
By Edem Torkornoo