Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre: Fiction, Africa, Contemporary Fiction, Feminism, Literary Fiction
See more on Goodreads
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
Americanah was my favourite book of 2019, so much so that I’m still suffering from a book hangover, and I suspect that it will be a long while before I discover its equal/superior. Americanah explores race and immigration… and the best love story that I have read in the longest time. Perhaps the best love story of all-time in literature.
Ifemelu is enterprising, self-assured, pragmatic and bold and her blog posts on race is a blogger’s delight. I can imagine a few readers finding her frustrating, but I find her to be one of the most human, realistic and inspiring female characters I have ever read. Ifemelu is a character we rarely come across in literature. Obinze, on the other hand, is self-contained, introspective and intelligent. It is difficult to not fall in love with him.
Through Ifemelu and Obinze’s respective lives as immigrants in America and the UK, we see the pair struggle to integrate and adjust to life in the West. Though Ifemelu is eventually successful, the thread of longing for their native home, Nigeria, is ever present as well as their yearning for each other.
This could potentially prove to be a difficult read for some readers, especially for a reader whose experiences are so far removed from Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s. To put it in less euphemistic terms, this may be a challenging read for a non-black person. But that is exactly what it is supposed to be, it is exactly what Americanah strives to achieve. Americanah is not a light and breezy novel. It is a novel that forces you to question how race plays an impact in our lives on both macro and micro-levels, whether you’re Black, white, Asian or Hispanic. Which is why I recommend Americanah as essential reading to all. One look at the first review on Goodreads is an example of this, but the frustration of those who’ve replied is a familiar sentiment echoed throughout Americanah that at times is far too overwhelming a burden to bear and lighten. So, be prepared.
“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I was all too aware of this which is why I hesitated to continue after the first ten pages. I had to make sure that I was ready… once I was ready, I took my time to read and reflect. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie draws us in with an intimate touch to her storytelling, we become fully immersed and involved in the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze and find ourselves forging a bond with the pair. Though the pacing stretches slowly, intricately expanding several interconnected threads, it feels right for a novel like Americanah… adjusting to a new life in a different country would realistically be a slow and grueling and dizzying process. I reached such a level of comfort that I didn’t want the book to come to an end. I wanted to continue this journey with these characters for even longer. Thankfully, this is one of the best endings I’ve read in a long time, a satisfying conclusion and a triumphant victory among victories.
I am ready to read everything Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has ever written and will write.
* * * SPOILER REVIEW * * *
Race and Immigration
Americanah begins with Ifemelu in America, preparing to move back to Nigeria and the bulk of the story focuses on the events leading up to this. Before Ifemelu immigrates to America and Obinze to the UK, Americanah primarily focuses on the relationship between Obinze and Ifemelu. The one other character here that achieves some character focus is Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju who is flashy, daring and materialistic and her son, Dike, full of joy and optimism until he is forced to deal with unexpected racism. Though the nature of Aunty Uju’s scandalous personal life is shocking, you can’t help but think fondly of Aunty Uju whose strong will, determination and pragmatism is easily found in Ifemelu too.
Life in Nigeria is a life of hustle and a teenager’s longing for the American dream (and of immeasurable wealth) without understanding the realities of obtaining the American dream. In short, Ifemelu, Obinze and their classmates all share a fantastical view of life in the West.
But eventually the reality hits once Ifemelu and Obinze land on American and British soil. They’re no longer two unique individuals with identities rooted in their individual traits… they are now Black. And it becomes difficult to separate their Blackness, they can’t escape it because America and Britain constantly reminds them of the colour of their skin. It’s wholly uncharted territory and ventured into by two vulnerable and unprepared adolescents no less.
We witness Ifemelu and Obinze suffering in their own respective lives, sunk low to desperation and poverty, and struggling to find employment that isn’t menial or degrading. The two eventually find some success, though not the luxurious success they had imagined they would. Ifemelu finds love in a white boyfriend who claims colour blindness (yet somehow has only ever had a black or Asian girlfriend) and understands very little about the complexities of racism. She then finds love in an American-Black boyfriend who understands perhaps too much about race – an all-consuming focus on race.
Somewhere along Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s nostalgia for Nigeria and the constant brush with racism, it suddenly hit me and perhaps has hit other South Asian second-generation immigrants too: that we had a comfortable and sheltered childhood surrounded by our community, we graduated from universities in our multicultural bubbles, and then we left the cocoon and entered the real world – and I mean the world outside healthcare and teaching that I often find my fellow Bangladeshi people living in -, we began working and we found ourselves confronted by the colour of our skin. Perhaps some of you were confronted by your hijab as well. We couldn’t escape the sudden difference. Racism. Prejudice. It’s everywhere. From the lowest point of the sliding scale to the highest. But from all this, all that independence we sought after, we birthed a love for our community, an irreplaceable bond for our people.
Ifemelu and Obinze finally discover their bond to their native land. They had to go through hell and back, misadventures, terrible and incompatible relationships, subconsciously battling for white acceptance and finally becoming weary of it. But they found the light at the end of the tunnel, back to Nigeria and back to each other. Ifemelu is still pestered by the nostalgia of Americanah of newly returned immigrants and can’t imagine for the life of her what exactly they miss, and you can’t blame her.
“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze
From their very first meeting, you cannot miss Ifemelu and Obinze’s undeniable chemistry. This is a love story. The two are so comfortable and free with each other and yet Ifemelu balks at times, but we can easily empathise with her – after all, how can a relationship be so easy, fun, wonderful, full of love and mutual respect and admiration? It’s scary. I found Ifemelu refreshingly relatable and Obinze effortlessly endearing. It’s easy to see that the two belong together and that you’ll root for them come hell or high water.
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.. It seemed so natural, to talk to him about odd things. She had never done that before. The trust, so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her.. But now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Once the two depart for America and the US, they respectively fumble around in relationships with very obviously incompatible love interests. But it makes you wonder that had Obinze and Ifemelu never met each other, if their separate relationships could have worked out better? But the pair were forever in the shadows in their respective and eventually failed relationships, a constant reminder that it would never fit, not truly, not even if mitigated by seemingly relative peace.
Obinze eventually returns to Nigeria and leads a successful life with a beautiful, compliant, traditional and devoted wife. But still, Ifemelu never leaves his mind or his heart. Now, this is shocking for me and totally unprecedented – once Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, I found myself rooting for the pair to get back together. I know, Obinze is married. But, please, Obinze and his wife see the world in such a different way that, despite a marriage of minimal conflict, they can never truly be happy with each other. Ifemelu and Obinze just make sense. I can’t excuse the adultery, but breaking the marriage to be with his childhood sweetheart? It had to happen. Don’t stone me. For a love like that? Sorry, husband, but bye. Wish you luck. Oh my God, let me stop here before the guilt finishes me off.
To sum it up:
Obinze and Ifemelu – the greatest love story I have ever read. Americanah – the best book I read in 2019. 2020 – more Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie books.
Happy new year to you all, may we all read books that make us feel the way Americanah made me feel in 2020. Here’s to reading great books and scrapping the terrible ones that bring no joy.
What are your thoughts on Americanah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? What is your favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book? What other books on race would you recommend?
More… how do you feel, as black or Asian person, about race once you left the safety of childhood? In what ways have you noticed racism and prejudice that you hadn’t experienced/witnessed before? How do you approach your own identity, does you race play a role? Let me know in the comments!
Connect with me: