Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
By Reem Gaafar
I have recently discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing: first, through her novel: ‘Half of a Yellow Sun‘, and then her feminist manifesto in a Facebook post last year, which I found to be genuinely interesting and well thought out. Following these literary encounters, I decided that Adichie would be the next author, whose works I would take time to read, discover and enjoy.
Americanah follows the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who comes to the United States for college, stays for around 15 years, and then decides to return to her country. We follow her (mis)adventures, including her blog about race and racism in the US through the eyes of the non-American Black. The book opens with her decision to return home, and then we go back and forth between then and now until she eventually moves back. As is Adichie’s style, the story flows nicely with a beautiful descriptive style, the type where you can see, smell and hear everything going on – just the way I like it. The transitions between times and places are smooth and non-jarring. I literally couldn’t put the book down, and after finishing it felt that familiar sense of loss and the question of ‘now what do I do with myself?’ kind of thing. It’s like a cool, delicious, refreshing drink after a long bout of dryness. Before it, I had just finished Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore with much difficulty, and Americanah was a welcomed relief.
But of course, there were a number of things I felt critical of and took rather personally, being a repat African woman myself.
While the book and its heroine’s blog discusses race from different and rather interesting angles, it is far from addressed in her life and interactions. For example, when Ifemelu dates a super-rich republican white relative of her employer, it doesn’t at all raise any eyebrows or cause any wrinkles, and everyone in everyone’s close and extended circles are super-duper happy about it. Issues of blackness and racism are easily stepped around. I found this particularly strange and unsatisfying, and had to keep reminding myself throughout the book that Ifemelu is supposed to be drop dead gorgeous, which makes her blackness more ‘acceptable and bearable.
The issue of black and African identity is also lightly touched upon, and Ifemelu being an African in America, I expected a different perspective to the mainstream one. Today, there are millions of first and second generation immigrants born in and outside of the US, who still have more or less close ties to their homelands, and who find themselves in this awkward in-between situation: neither completely from here nor completely from there. While one focal character in this story suffers this very real and very important dilemma, it is again washed over despite a critical incident occurring. Again, the incident passes with no real insight or discussion, except of how Ifemelu (superficially) reacts to it, which I found extremely disappointing.
Adichie has the habit of describing in detail every single person that passes through the novel, how they interact with the other characters and with the world in general, the secrets they seem to keep and Ifemelu’s own ideas, doubts, insights about them, which is of course part of what makes her writing so attractive, cozy, and allows us to bond with everyone. But after countless red herrings that keep us waiting for whatever significant action or ending they will have, they simply drop out of the story without a trace. This is confusing and slightly irritating, especially when it turns out that they had no actual significant role to play in the first place. It gives the impression that, dare I say it, they are just stuffing in the story, something to fill the pages.
And then, the part I waited for the most: Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after spending almost half her life away. In her absence, governments have changed, lifestyles have evolved, people have died, and much has happened. She has moved from the clean and cool streets of Princeton to the chaos and drama of Lagos, which in itself the greatest change of all. And yet, her transition seems to be – again – easy and comfortable. Being a repat like Ifemelu, albeit not having moved so terribly far away from home for so terribly long, I took this bit personally. Living abroad for an extended period of time and moving back home, especially back to Africa from a developed country is rarely, if ever, easy and comfortable. And yet, Ifemelu slips right back in, with her friends, her family, a new job, and an old boyfriend. There is little disorientation, little struggle, little wonder. A few observations here and there, that are just enough to launch a new, immediately well-received blog, which from the get go attracts wide readership and followers, effortlessly. This last comment is most likely me being jealous since my own personal blog’s readership level is somewhere around the pathetic-and-almost-non-existent level, but in all cases, not everything written online is as dramatically successful from the first post. Just ask the girls at Teakisi.
Ifemelu does not seem to evolve, mature or change at all throughout the novel, despite it starting with her in elementary school. I wished for a different ending.
Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed reading this book. I love what Adichie and others like her (specifically Leila Aboulela) represent: African women on the front pages of the literature world, just when we had just about given up on the existence of anything other than the white male author. We finally have a new, different and greatly relatable authorship. It’s like a breath of fresh air, which despite being far from enough, is slowly growing and getting stronger. I have great hopes for the African literary world.