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Americanah (2013) is the highly acclaimed third book written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It explores important themes like race, identity, love, and honesty through a young Nigerian woman's journey to the United States in pursuit of higher education. So, let's find out more about Americanah!
Content warning: The following text contextualises the lived experiences of Nigerian immigrants and members of the African-American community from the 1990s to the 2000s. Some descriptions of events and the inclusion of certain terms may be considered offensive by some readers.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie opens with the protagonist, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman residing in Princeton, New Jersey, as she has her hair braided at an African salon to prepare for her return to Nigeria. In her interactions with the women at the salon, Ifemelu thinks about her past and also considers her current situation. It is revealed that she has recently uprooted her life: she has suspended her blog, in which she writes about race in America, and broken up with her boyfriend, Blaine. Her thoughts lead her to remember her first love, a man named Obinze, prompting her to email him.
Obinze is now a wealthy man living in Lagos, Nigeria, with his wife and their daughter. Upon receiving Ifemelu's email, he, too, remembers their shared past and becomes distracted from his present life. He becomes caught up in memories of the love he and Ifemelu once shared, which was a stronger connection than the one he currently shares with his wife, Kosi.
The narrative then pivots with a flashback that begins by focusing on Ifemelu's youth in Nigeria. She meets Obinze at a school party, where they fall in love. They date throughout their school years and attend university together. Nigeria, however, is under the rule of a military dictatorship that causes university strikes that frustrate Ifemelu. At the encouragement of her Aunty Uju, whom she is close with, and Obinze, Ifemelu applies to a university in America. She is accepted and, shortly thereafter, approved for a student visa. The couple subsequently breaks up, but they promise to reunite in America one day.
Upon moving to America, Ifemelu lives in Brooklyn with Aunty Uju, who has also fled Nigeria with her young son, Dike, who was fathered by a rich, married man in Nigeria. Ifemelu is not permitted to work on her student visa. However, without a scholarship, she must look for work when she leaves for Philadelphia, where she will attend university. Aunty Uju gives her a fake social security card to apply for jobs, which turns out unsuccessful. At school, Ifemelu reunites with a friend from Nigeria, Ginika, who helps to familiarise her with American culture and, importantly, the country's complex racial politics.
Still desperate for a job, Ifemelu reluctantly agrees to become a 'relaxation assistant' for a tennis coach, which involves him inappropriately touching her in return for $100. Afterwards, she becomes ashamed and depressed. She stops replying to Obinze's emails and struggles to eat and sleep.
Ginika later introduces Ifemelu to Kimberly, a wealthy woman who offers her a job babysitting her children. Ifemelu finally feels stable, and the reliable work allows her to focus on her studies. Kimberly and Ifemelu become friendly, and Kimberly introduces Ifemelu to her cousin, Curt, who she soon begins dating. After graduating, Curt helps her find a job so that she can secure a green card.
Meanwhile, a jilted Obinze moves to London after graduating from university, unable to secure an American visa because of the stricter immigration laws that were brought in after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Whilst in Britain, Obinze also struggles to find work and overstays his visa, making him an illegal immigrant. To find employment, Obinze resorts to using a friend's national insurance card in exchange for a portion of his earnings. He begins a job in a warehouse, where he makes friends with his boss and co-workers but is later reported for his illegal immigrant status. Out of desperation, Obinze manages to arrange a sham marriage with a woman named Cleotilde to remain in the country. However, on the day of the wedding, he is arrested and deported back to Nigeria.
The narrative soon shifts back to Ifemelu, who is struggling to adjust to the pressures of her interracial relationship with Curt. She is frustrated by his inability to fully recognise racial nuances that are present in American society. She cheats on him, and they break up. Her friend Wambui suggests that Ifemelu should start a blog, which she does to popular reception due to her funny and interesting observations. She attends a conference for minority ethnic bloggers, where she meets a black American Yale professor named Blaine, who she begins dating.
Ifemelu moves in with Blaine, but their relationship becomes fraught after they have an explosive argument because she did not attend a protest that he organised. However, they soon reconcile by connecting through their shared passion for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. As the election nears, Ifemelu is offered a fellowship at Princeton. However, she is unsure about her life in America and resolves to move back to Nigeria. She breaks up with Blaine and shuts down her blog in the process.
The narrative returns to the opening scene of the novel, in which Ifemelu is having her hair braided in the salon a week before she is due to return home. After leaving the salon, Ifemelu receives a call from Aunty Uju, who frantically tells her that her son, Dike, has attempted suicide. She then rushes to the scene: this marks the climax of the novel.
After returning to Nigeria, Ifemelu slowly readjusts with the help of an old friend and begins work at a women's magazine. She quits after a short period of time and resumes blogging, now about her experiences living in Lagos.
After a long period of hesitance, she finally calls Obinze, and they arrange to meet up. He asks her why she ignored his messages, and she tearfully reveals her experience with the tennis coach. The two fondly remember their connection and begin to see each other every day, rekindling their relationship for a few weeks. Obinze, however, is reluctant to divorce his wife, upsetting Ifemelu, who calls him a coward. In the face of this accusation, Obinze asks Kosi for a divorce, to which she objects, claiming that he has a duty to his family; however, Obinze does not want to live in dishonesty and create a false narrative for his daughter.
A while later, Obinze shows up on Ifemelu's doorstep to tell her that he is divorcing Kosi whilst still maintaining a relationship with his daughter and that he wants to commit to a relationship with her. She invites him in, and the novel ends.
Throughout Americanah, Adichie explores many themes, including race and identity, which are considered through the eyes of Ifemelu as she learns to understand them over the course of her own journey.
One of the major themes explored by Adichie in Americanah is race. There is an interesting consideration of race throughout the novel, especially as Ifemelu learns to understand American racial politics in its differences from Nigeria.
Adichie critiques race through Ifemelu's experiences as a non-American African who, before moving abroad, did not consider herself black in the same way that African-Americans do. Though there is a kind of racism that exists in Nigeria, in the form of colourism, where lighter-skinned people are considered more beautiful, there is a more definite racial hierarchy in America that places black Americans at the bottom. Ifemelu notes that black Americans are afforded the least privilege, and although she is not American, she soon finds that she is treated accordingly.
Throughout the novel, Adichie observes that there is a conflation of blackness in America that does not distinguish culture. Instead, it creates a narrowness that frustrates and baffles Ifemelu, as she notes in her blog.
These blog posts are scattered throughout the novel, giving Adichie the freedom to criticise racial politics in America through Ifemelu's experiences that include, but are not limited to, incidents of racism, microaggressions, and various assumptions made about her.
In Americanah, the discussion around race is grounded in the authenticity the characters carry with them throughout their respective journeys.
These journeys are also significant in another key theme of the novel: identity. Throughout the novel, both Ifemelu and Obinze search for their place in the world, working to reconcile their goals and ambitions with culture, love, and authenticity, particularly for outsiders who have experienced turmoil in their own countries, as most American immigrants have.
In their journeys abroad, Ifemelu and Obinze struggle to maintain the strong cultural and racial identities that are inextricably linked to their homeland. Once abroad, Ifemelu seeks to assimilate into American culture, forgoing her own cultural identity, for example, when she straightens her hair and adopts an American accent. She even uses a false social security card, which serves as an important symbol for the disappearance of her identity.
However, Ifemelu later gains confidence and learns to embrace her cultural heritage. She allows her hair to grow naturally again, drops her American accent, and simultaneously experiences success in her career and her love life. Ifemelu learns how to blend the cultures in a way that is authentic to herself as she comes to define her identity.
Americanah is a novel filled with various literary devices. Through the use of literary devices such as epistolary devices and symbolism, Adichie creates a rich narrative that conveys Ifemelu's experiences and allows a space for the character's personal perspective and observations.
Throughout the novel, Adichie intersperses the narrative with Ifemelu's blog posts. These posts can be categorised as an epistolary device, which would make Americanah an epistolary novel in parts.
Epistolary novel: a novel in which the narrative is written through a series of documents, including letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and, more recently, blog posts. The word 'epistolary' comes from the Greek word epistolē, which means 'a letter'.
In Americanah, Ifemelu's blog posts are monologic, which means that the novel only includes epistolary devices of one person from one perspective.
In experimenting with narrative techniques, Adichie is able to show the reader Ifemelu's personal perspective in more depth, which is crucial to understanding her character. The blog posts bypass the need for a narrator, speaking directly to the reader in an informal, humorous tone that gives her astute observations of race and culture in modern society a more authentic and real voice.
We can further consider Adichie's use of symbols, particularly how she relays the symbolic nature of hair. For Ifemelu, her hair is an important reminder of her cultural heritage. When she relaxes her hair, it feels inauthentic and almost betrays her personal identity. However, when she allows it to grow naturally, she feels empowered and confident.
Hair relaxation: the process of applying a chemical straightening agent to naturally curly hair.
Let's look at some quotes from the novel! We can analyse them, as well as understand Adichie's writing style and explore her observations in how they relate thematically.
Race doesn't really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don't have that choice.
(Part 4, Chapter 38)
This quote from the novel highlights the harsh reality of racism for 'black folks' who must deal with the invisible 'barriers' white people don't experience. Adichie points out that a society cannot be post-racial without confronting the disparity in privilege between members of different races.
Post-racial: a term that refers to a societal state in which racial discrimination and prejudice no longer exist. The term is mostly used theoretically in discussions of race in current society.
Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.
(Part 2, Chapter 20)
Hair serves as an important symbol of identity for Ifemelu. In relaxing her hair, Ifemelu conforms to a 'prison' that betrays her identity in more ways than one. She has surrendered her freedom in her attempts to become American.
There are many different ways to be poor in the world but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.
(Part 7, Chapter 54)
Amongst observations about race, Adichie also comments on economic disparities, not just in America but more extensively 'in the world'. There is a kind of resignation in this that forces the reader to consider why people seek riches in a world riddled with problems that are not just economic.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an internationally celebrated Nigerian writer whose works include three novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, a play, and multiple essay collections.
Much like Ifemelu, the protagonist of Americanah, Adichie attended university in the United States and went on to have an impressive career. Her debut novel, Purple Hisbiscus (2003), was a critical success, garnering much acclaim and leaving a strong foundation for her widely celebrated second novel. Half of a Yellow Sun was published in 2006, and it received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 before later being adapted into a film.
After a fellowship at Princeton University, Adichie was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (unofficially known as the 'genius grant') in 2008, cementing her place as an incredibly important modern writer. Her most recent publication is a 2021 memoir, Notes on Grief, based on her father's death.
Adichie is a famously outspoken feminist, even penning a widely acclaimed collection of essays titled We Should All Be Feminists in 2014. Her writing often carries messages of female empowerment, especially in relation to issues of race and culture.
Americanah was the third novel written by Adichie, and it was published in 2013. It was a success both commercially and critically, and Adichie won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in the same year it was published.
Today, we can consider the novel's legacy: the narrative of Americanah has interesting parallels with Adichie's journey, lending its voice further authenticity and gravity. Thoughtful observations of race are blended with a subtle story of female empowerment, highlighting the intersections that are not always visible. It can be said that the novel is much a feminist novel as it is a racial one.
The novel serves as an honest portrayal of the universal search for identity, contextualised in a deeply personal journey. Adichie's writing considers issues of racial politics and contemporary society while still showing an authentic and relatable experience that is still relevant to readers now. Through Americanah and her other novels, Adichie has created an important space for African literature in the Western world, attracting a new generation of readers as well as encouraging other young African writers to celebrate their heritage through the literary world.
The main narrative at the start of Americanah is set around 2009, but it is pivoted back to the 1990s and through to the early 2000s in a flashback that follows Ifemelu's life.
There are 55 chapters in the novel Americanah.
There are many themes that are explored in the novel, and a major message is a discussion of identity at all its crossroads including race, nationality, love, and individuality.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a famously outspoken feminist who has talked about the importance of women's rights and harmful gender roles. Americanah seems to carry similar feminist messages as we see a young woman empowered in her journey and discovering her identity in her own right despite issues of racism and sexism.
Americanah explores important themes like race, identity, and nationality in contemporary society. Adichie provides biting observations and, through her writing, helps to create a space for non-white women in literature.
When was the novel Americanah published?
Where is the main character, Ifemelu, from?
What is the opening scene of the novel?
Ifemelu having her hair braided in a salon.
How does the novel end?
Obinze tells Ifemelu he is leaving his wife, and she welcomes him into her flat.
What event marks the climax of the novel?
When Aunty Uju's son, Dike, attempts suicide.
Through what medium does Ifemelu write?
What are the major themes of the novel?
Race and identity
What forms an important symbol for Ifemelu's identity?
At which university is Ifemelu offered a fellowship?
Why does Obinze move to London?
He is denied a visa to the U.S. after harsher immigration laws are introduced due to the 9/11 terror attacks
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