This month’s featured read from the Diversity Committee is “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Reviewed by Nicole Miyashiro, Pennsylvania Center for the Book
Also see: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s biography on the Pennsylvania Center for the Book website
While Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” has been most commonly dubbed a cross-continental love story, it may be more aptly labeled a journey of self-sufficiency through displacement. Ifemelu – an affluent daughter of academic professionals in Nigeria, Africa – has the opportunity, envied by friends, to study in America. Leaving the comforts of home and her reserved, passionate-minded boyfriend behind, Ifemelu finds herself alone, nearly destitute, and too proud to admit it in the sweltering, not as cold as she’d imagined, America. From the moment her aunty picks her up in a rundown Toyota amid a New York City heat wave, Ifemelu must find a way to make a decent living in a foreign place, and this is the crux of Ifemelu’s struggle for independence and self-affirmation. “[T]he real America, she felt, was just around the next corner she would turn.”
Throughout her journey, especially in the first quarter of the book, Ifemelu’s apprehension is expressed through critical observations of her new locale, e.g. “These Americans cannot speak English” and “She was disoriented by the blandness of fruit…” Eventually, she finds herself in a compromising situation that has her clawing in and out of depression and sorting through its consequences – this, for me, is the heart of the story and where Adichie shines in her ability to characterize the misunderstood behaviors of someone struggling through hard and lonely times.
It is also no surprise that Adichie, celebrated for her TED Talk on feminism, makes room for body-positive lines like, “She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts – it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved – but the fat woman’s act was about a quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see.” Ifemelu’s self-examination and personal journey are deeply informed by the women she observes throughout the story, whether it be her lover’s mother or her own, her Aunty Uju, whose life decisions both puzzle and amaze her, or even acquaintances in a beauty salon.
Adichie’s writing skill and style are well-demonstrated in the early beauty salon scene in the book (revisited much later). During a hair-braiding session, the author wraps present tension with cross-cultural elements right along with the brooding concerns of Ifemelu’s past – twining so much, both tactilely and introspectively, without knotting up the pace of the narrative.
Midway through the book, however, blog excerpts by the main character do slow the story’s pace. The blog posts boldly confront race issues and invite further thought, a welcomed and worthy feat, but these topics seem disconnected from Ifemelu’s motivations and actions in the story. Rather, the blogging itself seems to hold value to the character in a more direct, self-sustaining way.
Towards the end of the book, the narrative regains momentum when Ifemelu’s convictions drive her actions and she is met with decisions of the heart, mind, and home. Overall, “Americanah” is a cross-cultural story far more rooted in a woman’s personal struggle to achieve a secure sense-of-self than in the love story bookending the tale. For some of Adichie’s best work, I highly recommend her short story collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck” – a rich, informative kaleidoscope of African culture told intimately through each character’s urgent and uniquely engaging story.