by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I stumbled upon Adichie by accident and I dont clearly recall how I started reading her other book – ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ but I was hooked. Her vivid descriptions, quick pace and a mild familiarity with another ex-British colony despite being in a completely different continent were soothing to the soul. Unlike ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, picking up Americanah was intentional, preceded by nearly a month of waiting for my turn to pick up the book at the local library.
Americanah tells the story about Ifemelu, her female protagonist who is very well fleshed out. We hear the story from her perspective and her hair also forms a big portion of the book. The way she styles her hair directly reflects her mental state and matures with her. The story starts as a flashback in a braiding salon, a routine essential to Ifemelu. The story is a journey of Ifemelu’s life through high-school and college, then moving to the States and her three main loves – Obinze, Curt and Blaine. Obinze is her boyfriend and soulmate from Nigeria, Curt is her white suitor, a window to a completely different life and culture and Blaine is a black American scholar who embodies the definition of suave and liberal with clean habits, a careful health-conscious routine and liberal thoughts. Ifemelu is a blogger in the book and her blog ‘Raceteenth’ documents her experience as a black woman in America.
I immensely enjoyed reading this book. As a foreign graduate student myself and a recent immigrant, many of the experiences Ifemelu narrates during her time at college her were so familiar and entertaining. The title ‘Americanah’ is what Nigerians call the migrants to America and the changes they embody – in speech, attitude, clothing and habits. She notices how the American system of education encourages “empty” comments during classes where nothing of substance is said except for the part of appearing very knowledgeable. She beautifully captures how spoken English is so different from the British version and how for the first time, she experienced racism. I recall her saying that despite being from Nigeria, it was only when she came to the USA, she was told she was black. Those bits about her experience in college were the best parts about the book. Her blog ‘Raceteenth’ also is very witty in parts but the most compelling was the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. Their passion and dreams mixed with uncertainties of what lies ahead are so beautifully captured, you are left wanting desperately for the two lovers to unite.
It is by no means a love story, but a compulsory read for anyone who is interested in understanding the experience of this generation of youngsters from developing countries who share the American dream and wish for prosperity. The book is rather long (496 pages) but extremely engaging and kept me awake well past midnight many nights due to its pace and content – something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Ifemelu and Obinze have come to be one of my favorite literary characters. The hair – its styling, braiding, chemical treatments and upkeep form a big part of the book. It is something I have come to learn is an important part of a Nigerian/African woman’s life. It was interesting to read about how they manage their hair and the attention/money lavished on it. Her descriptions of Nigeria are hilarious and eerily similar to so many cities and the people of India as well. The corruption, the pride and respect acquired by money and the lifestyle of the nouveau riche are beautifully captured in the book as well. The attitudes of the recent returnees from America, the lifestyle they crave and the changes they bring back to their country of birth also hit very close to home.
All in all, a must read. One of my favorite books of the year. I’m now proudly a member of the Adichie fan-club!