‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a work of modern art. It’s radical, sophisticated and subversive in all the right ways. And, dammit, there’s just something really sexy about reading an intellectual book and learning new things without it feeling like extra work.
I’ve read ‘Half of a yellow sun’ by Adichie in the past, so I went in with high expectations, which were met and exceeded by this book. It follows two star-crossed lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their upbringing in a middle-class neighbourhood in Nigeria. However their relationship is cut short when Ifemelu emigrates to America to continue her education and Obinze, failing to get a visa, starts a new undocumented life as an illegal immigrant in England instead.
In America, Ifemelu deals with success and failure, finds and ends new relationships and eventually gets a fellowship at Princeton. For the first time, she becomes aware of race as a concept, and how differently she is treated because of her skin. She starts to document her observations in the form of a blog about race, which quickly brings her newfound fame. However despite all the luxuries of her new life, something pulls her back home, back to the Nigeria she grew up in. When she returns she meets Obinze again, who is now a wealthy, married man. As the two former lovers reunite, old sparks are rekindled and the two are faced with some tough decisions about their futures.
I once heard someone on goodreads refer to this book as a ‘500 page commentary on race’ (it was meant as an insult, I think of it as a positive thing). It’s true that ‘Americanah’ is not subtle at all about the issues of racism it tackles, and very much focuses on Ifemelu’s experience of being black in America. However it doesn’t read like a text book, or a preachy rant, it reads like a very smart, very intellectual novel written by a world-renowned race academic. As Ifemelu herself says in the book, racism is not a subtle thing, and should not be dealt with in a subtle way. As it does for all African Americans, race is something that affects every aspect of the protagonist’s life, and therefore seeps into every part of her narrative. The point of the novel is to illuminate the pervasive, omnipresent shadow that race is for those living in the Western world, and also how race is not a fixed category as its definition is tied to shifting social values.
‘Americanah’ is not just another ‘book about race’. It’s brutally honest, heartbreaking and also fiercely hopeful. It analyses the very real, very damaging consequences that race can have, from racial stereotyping, to lack of representation, to alienation and loss of identity. It’s a book about overcoming hardship and succeeding in a country that is against you purely on the basis of your appearance. It’s about miscommunication, a lack of understanding, a lack of willingness to learn. It’s a story about love in many different forms and, ultimately, two people finding each other again.