In the interviews surrounding the launch of her new book, Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been very forthright about the fact that it is a love story. Well, a story mostly about love, but also about race, and hair, and self. The lovers at hand, Ifemelu and Obinze, are young and Nigerian, and the course of their true love may run far and wide, across nations and time and governments, but it doesn’t run smoothly.
Obinze is a bookworm’s hero, a blogger’s dream – tender and introspective, a boy taught to cook by his mother. It would be easy, however, to dislike Ifemelu. It pains me to admit it, but I’m petty, and when everything falls into someone’s lap I dislike them easily. And Ifemelu very nearly has the charmed heroine’s existence – 1000 views of her brand new blog in 6 days especially rankled. Never mind hair tips, I want click bait tips! She even grows an ass – the one physical shortcoming Obinze ever saw fit to point out. Still, she’s flawed enough to remain human and likeable – her pain and struggles are raw and real, and while she may make snap judgments of others, she is by no means totally sure of herself.
Both Ifemelu and Obinze leave their home and their first love in search of other places to maybe call home, and consequently other loves. Americanah traces their journeys as they come full circle. But life is not neatly geometric, and circles are never completed as expected. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos, after a decade-long absence, she finds that she is Americanah – different. Despite a conscious decision to cling to her Nigerian accent, and with it her Nigerian-ness, she has not remained unchanged. Though she doesn’t lament as bitterly as some of her fellow returnees, she still empathises with them: a shared longing for non-instant coffee, the perfect panini, salonists who don’t think natural hair an unfortunate mistake. She is dismayed by her discovery that home – or love – is never as perfect as it is when you’re somewhere else, but comforted to find it can still be home, if you’re willing to let it.
While Ifemelu and Obinze are multi-dimensional, nearly everyone else in the book is rather flat, rather trope-y – the pretty best friend, the wanna-be who made it, the Stepford wife. We explore them only as far as they relate to either of the main pair, but this works. It is a love story, after all. Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you, when you’re crazy for someone, everything else is just background music. And tropes aside, it is a richly diverse supporting cast, whose varying stories form the greater theme within which Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s play out.
Regarding the twinned themes of race and hair – I must say, it did feel a bit heavy-handed. You can’t help but realise there are Issues At Hand. Ifemelu’s blog posts especially felt like the recommended reading you get at the beginning of a university course. A sample post: Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend. You could go into it, but on the whole – meh.
What of the titular Americanah? It’s the term a teenage Ifemelu and her Naija girlfriends use to describe someone who’s been abroad – the right kind of abroad – and has the accent and mannerisms to prove it. (If this book was written by a Kenyan and had more clubs than books, it would have been called Summer Bunny.) It is a label, and much of the book deals with the perception of self in the face of labels plastered on you by your environment. Most of the characters go through this struggle –but it is Ifemelu we know most intimately, and it is her reconciliation of self that forms part of the unfolding love story. We share the space in her head, we know the shadows that populate it, and watching her “spin herself fully into being” is just as satisfying as discovering the tender origins of her lover’s nickname.
I am a big fan of Ms. Adichie’s multiple stories idea, as articulated in her popular Ted talk (you can watch it here or read the transcript here) – and Americanah definitely gives a you a story you can own. Ifemelu is as incredulous over seedless oranges and the desperate, faux American accents as you would imagine yourself to be. In her American media class, a firm, female voice with a non-American accent cuts through a discussion demanding to know why the word “nigger” is censored. It was a voice I just knew was going to be Kenyan, and as it turned out, it belonged to a Wambui. So much of this story is recognizable. You can sing along with Ifem and Obinze to Yori Yori, picture the Nollywood movies, hear the Naija accents o. No need to YouTube.
So in the end, she delivers what she promises. A love story, done with the touch of someone who’s had plenty of her own leavings and arrivals, a big global span with a touch of home.
About the Author
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is from Abba in Anambra state, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka, where she attended primary and secondary schools. She is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and a collection of short stories titled The Thing around Your Neck (2009).
She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008).
First published at nuktamrefu.wordpress.com