Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you’re a fan of pop music, chances are that you’ve had a listen to Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album, Beyoncé. If you’re a feminist, you’ve probably heard the song “Flawless,” now commonly accepted as a modern feminist anthem. In the original version of the song, around halfway through, Beyoncé stops singing and instead an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” plays. This was my first introduction to her work.
A few months later, my cousin Kristy recommended a book called Americanah to me. Although I didn’t read it immediately, it was definitely on my radar, and after months of anticipation, I was finally able to borrow the e-book copy from my local library. Clocking in at just over 700 (e-book) pages, it was a bit longer than most of my typical reads. However, Adichie makes it worth every page, with beautiful prose and thorough character development.
The book revolves around a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who immigrates to the United States from Lagos, Nigeria, before deciding to return to her home country. The story is not told in chronological order, as Adichie skips from past to present almost seamlessly. We enter the narrative with Ifemelu’s decision to return to Nigeria, after living thirteen years in the United States. The bulk of the novel, however, is a reflection on Ifemelu’s time in both Nigeria and the States, before she returns to Nigeria. Readers observe Ifemelu as she gradually transitions from an immigrant to an Americanah, a term coined by her and her friends in Lagos to refer to Nigerian immigrants who become fully acclimated to the American lifestyle.
The second-most important character in the novel is Obinze, Ifemelu’s ex-boyfriend who stays behind in Nigeria after Ifemelu gets her student visa. Throughout the novel, Adichie intertwines Obinze’s story with Ifemelu’s, dedicating parts of the novel to telling his story. Although Americanah is far from a romance novel, Adichie uses the romance between Obinze and Ifemelu to set the stage for many of the novel’s events. When Obinze and Ifemelu are together, the scene takes on a feeling of tranquility. In this moment, Ifemelu and Obinze are talking at a party thrown by one of their schoolmates, Kayode, while his parents are away in London:
“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.” (p. 73)
Ifemelu felt like a real person to me, which was one of my favorite things about the novel. Although she makes some frustrating decisions (such as purposefully losing touch with Obinze), Ifemelu is an intelligent and hilarious character who makes the novel fun to read. Combined with excellent development of Obinze and other characters (such as Obinze’s mother), Adichie creates a rich world full of characters with distinct quirks and personalities. This character development drove my enjoyment of the novel.
After struggling through creative writing classes, I was struck by Adichie’s adeptness at describing imagery and emotion. Throughout Americanah, I found myself re-reading sentences, amazed at how vivid and thoughtful some of the details were. This passage, detailing Ifemelu’s experience returning to Lagos, exemplifies Adichie’s style:
“At first, Lagos assaulted her; the sun-dazed haste, the yellow buses full of squashed limbs…and the heaps of rubbish that rose on the roadsides like a taunt…Here, she felt, anything could happen, a ripe tomato could burst out of solid stone.” (p. 475)
Perhaps the most critical thing I gained was a deeper understanding of Nigeria. Like most Americans, my history classes have tended to be more eurocentric, glossing over entire countries such as Nigeria. I have met many people who tend to think of Africa as a giant country, rather than a continent with several different countries and cultures. Though by no means do I believe I could have an intelligent, informed discussion about Nigeria or Nigerian politics from reading this book alone, I do think that Americanah offers a solid look at life from the perspective of a Nigerian immigrant. This point of view, whether Ifemelu’s or Obinze’s or Adichie’s herself, makes the novel feel fresh and original.
Before reading Americanah, I’d never really thought about the way Non-American Blacks (Ifemelu’s term) feel about and experience Black identity in America. Ifemelu frequently comments about this on her blog titled: Raceteenth or Vaious Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. In one blog post titled “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby” she writes:
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop Saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now.” (p. 273)
It’s commentary like this that makes Ifemelu’s character fun to read. She doesn’t shy away from discussing difficult topics, in fact, she makes the discussion humorous and comprehensible. I can imagine visiting a blog like hers, reading her thoughts on popular culture and politics.
When Adichie writes about a “Student Visa Miracle Vigil” held every Friday, with Nigerian students bringing their student visa applications to be blessed, I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences with visas and passports. Just this month, my older sister had her student visa for the United Kingdom approved. Americanah has pushed me to think about the privileges I have by virtue of being born a citizen of the United States. It made me re-think my perception of Nigeria, and consequently, Africa as a whole. Whether we like it or not, Adichie forces readers to recognize their privilege, something I have yet to experience another fiction writer do so forcefully. It is this quality that made Americanah so meaningful to me. Although this was my first book by Adichie, it most certainly won’t be my last.
- Why We Need to Read More Books by Non-white Authors
- More On Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- More Books Like Americanah
Regular Contributor Gabriela R. is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Writing Seminars and English with minors in Marketing and Communications and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Keep up with Gaby here.
This article was edited & prepared for publication by Callie Garp.