Unlike Half of a Yellow Sun, which is a historical novel, Americanah is a more literary offering. Adichie examines how where we live—where we grow up, where we work, where we find relationships—affects how we relate to other people. In particular, this is a book about race and Blackness as a construct of American society.
Trigger warnings in this book for anti-Black racism, anti-Semitism, suicide, infidelity, sexual harrassment.
Ifemelu and Obinze grow up together in Nigeria, each other’s first loves. She moves to the United States; he moves to England. They struggle to adapt to their new countries—or rather, their new countries try to adapt them. Ifemelu meets with more success, albeit perhaps at greater cost. She becomes, in the eyes of some of her fellow Nigerians, an eponymous Americanah: someone who adapts too well to her American setting, so that she isn’t fully Nigerian any more. Obinze has a rougher time with his immigration status, eventually returning to Nigeria years before Ifemelu finds her way back there. Adichie tells the bulk of the story in a flashback mode—we begin with Ifemelu leaving the United States for Nigeria, and then we flash back to hers and Obinze’s childhood together. We watch them grow and grow apart and see the trials they face before they are reunited. But even then, finding happiness is far from assured.
There’s a lot about this novel that isn’t my thing. The on/off romance, the relationships between the characters … this is why I usually prefer genre fiction, which offers more to its plot than a narrator telling me why a character is unhappy at this point in their life. But what makes Americanah a little more interesting, of course, is the way Adichie weaves nuances of race throughout the story.
While in the United States, Ifemelu writes a blog called Raceteenth, where she teaches non-American Blacks about life in America. In this way, Adichie creates a distinction that many non-Black Americans (or Canadians, in my case) might not think about: Black people who grew up in the United States are quite different from Black people who immigrate from elsewhere. Ifemelu points out that, until she came to the United States, she didn’t have any conception of race or of Blackness. What Adichie is doing here is gently explaining to readers this idea of racialization. Someone is racialized when their race, as determined by our society, is the minority in a given place. Consider how race versus ethnicity functions: in the United States, Ifemelu is seen as Black—she identifies more closely with other African Black people more so than African Americans—and her ethnicity as Igbo is largely irrelevant. In contrast, when she returns to Nigeria, her Blackness is entirely unremarkable, and her status as Igbo matters more.
So, I obviously can’t speak for how Black people of various origins would interpret this novel. As I white woman in Canada, I wanted to observe the way Adichie discusses race, and particularly Ifemelu’s experience of race in Nigeria. There are two white characters who caught my attention: Kimberly and Laura. Kimberly hires Ifemelu to be a babysitter/nanny for her two children. She does charity/NGO work related to Africa, and she is one portrait of a well-meaning, progressive white person: she always tries to say the right thing, try to be respectful of Ifemelu as a person—but as Ifemelu observes, she is anxious to please in this way. Laura, Kimberly’s friend, is another portrayal of a progressive white person: she’s too confident of her own wokeness, too ready to make pronouncements that Ifemelu can belie from her own experiences, offending Laura’s white fragility in the process. I like how Adichie carefully shapes these distinctive white women to show us various ways that white women treat Black women (and in particular, African women) in the United States.
This richness of the interactions of characters of various races and racializations is what makes Americanah so interesting, at least to me. There are many other examples: Ifemelu’s interactions with the other African women who work at the salon she visits; Obinze’s relationships to other Nigerians who go to England to make their fortune; Aunty Uju’s tenuous attempts to find another husband, to raise her son well in the United States. And so on. I wasn’t all that bothered by the underlying romance between Ifemelu and Obinze, but I was very happy to explore all these nuances of race.
A little long and drags a little in parts, Americanah is nevertheless thoughtful and quite successful at what it sets out to do. It showcases Adichie’s endearing talent at creating characters who move beyond the single story, as she cautions against in her TED talk. And it remains relevant in a post-Obama America, which is not a post-racial America like some hoped or pretended. As we challenge and dismantle white supremacy, it’s worth remembering that race (and in particular, Blackness) is not a universal, monolithic idea. Like any social construct, it is real, but its meanings and barriers and boundaries are fluid, and that must be taken into account.