Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤❤
“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
I have always believed that any great story can be summarized in one line. If someone asks you what’s it about, you should be able to reply simply. This quote from the book is something I find difficult to agree with even after having devoured the layers of coating that this book was about. As much as I would love to agree, I cannot bring myself to. This is because I want to attest that Americanah is one of the greatest books I have read. So, if you ask me what this book is about, I will say, “It’s about Ifemulu and Obinze and how life messes with their love for each other.”
In the hope of a good education, Ifemulu leaves Nigeria to study in America much against her natural ambitions – the ones that she doesn’t have in spite of being a different, smart and self-thinking girl. When she departs her country after a military coup, she has hopes of sending back money home, and then being rejoined in America by her ambitious and intellectual boyfriend Obinze. From now on, starts Ifemulu’s journey of being a black woman in white America. When she arrives in America, she is in desperate need of a job so as to pay the chunk of her tuition fees not covered under her scholarship. One by one, trouble befalls this lovely girl from Nigeria who is suffering from diseases Americans have invented and is barely meeting ends in stark contrast to her hopes of having a better life in the US. Not only does Ifemulu find herself alone and alienated, she also has basic trouble such as maintaining her hair and adapting to the new culture full of quick fixes, and the language which trickles into a bunch of words which convey the whole gamut of human emotions. Ifemulu’s struggles get to the core of her and she finds herself in a situation which almost immediately takes away her sense of self-awareness. The gorgeous Ifemulu now pushes away her family and Obinze and picks up whatever she can to get on with the American way of life. The promises she made to her family and Obinze lay untended on the shelf, and after some time her old life stops gnawing into her conscience. But not entirely, because after 13 years she packs everything and decides to return home.
Meanwhile, Obinze fails to get himself a visa to study in America and has to stay back in Nigeria where education is constantly under threat. His well-meaning ambitions have to be buried, and Obinze moves to London to make a new life for himself. In London, he finds himself constantly under threat due to his immigrant status. He gets odd jobs, works under someone else’s name, and just when he’s finally about to see the crack of dawn Obinze is deported back to Nigeria – his spirit broken, his dreams shattered, and the desertion of Ifemulu stinging his soul. Making a fresh start in Nigeria, he then goes on to become a very successful, Rolls Royce-driving real estate caliph. Not only has Obinze built himself an influential professional life, his wife and child make for a perfect picture too. Until the day, he finally hears from Ifemulu saying that she is returning home.
What happens when Ifemulu and Obinze meet again after 13 years of silence and unexplained absence on Ifemulu’s part is for you to find out. But more than the decision, I have loved the story-telling of their lives while apart. Adichie has narrated this story so smoothly that it makes one wonder how did she think of all those things she’s talking about. Then again, the story seems to real that she could have picked all of it from real life. Her descriptions of Ifemulu’s life in America and the idiosyncrasies of American culture are vivid and even funny. Also, her narration of Obinze’s life in London is sympathetic. And of course, when the story is set in Nigeria you can almost taste the thickness of the air and see the sights of Nsukka and Lagos.
I think the quote that I opened with was written by Adichie for her own book. As much as I can easily summarize Americanah in one line, it’s about so many things. It’s about Ifemulu’s destructive side which hacks into every good relationship because somewhere she still wants to be with Obinze. It’s about the constant struggle about race and the dominance of the whites. It’s about alienation that snatches you in a foreign land and what it can do to you. And yes, it’s about hair. Ifemulu’s hair. You’d be amazed at how she has made her hair such an important element in the story.
In hindsight, I think Adichie wanted Ifemulu to get away with whatever she does in the story. I don’t know if I will ever meet a girl such as Ifemulu who dates some exceptional men and yet throws everything down the bin. Or a girl who gets everything that others want and is so oblivious to it that she is sometimes ungrateful. I think I am a little jealous of Ifemulu for having it all, and yet not recognizing it. The whole disregard of what she gets and her blatant entitlement to those things makes the self-abnegating person in me cringe a little. However, I think that’s how Adichie wants women to be, given that she is a proponent of feminism. At any point, I didn’t feel that Ifemulu was portrayed as a woman who would step back to let a man take over. She just didn’t seem the type. Maybe I could learn a lesson or two from her. I can’t say I love Ifemulu, but you can definitely not ignore her.
Above everything, I think this book has widened by horizon of how layered novels can be, and just how exhilarating all the same.