Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
June 26, 2013 § 5 Comments
If I had a pound for every time someone in North America told me that there was no such thing as class, I’d be able to buy myself a cottage on a lake. (Or perhaps just the bottle of Dom Pérignon I’d need to celebrate the purchase of this cottage.) It’s a deeply mysterious thing, this denial, especially when literary novels and many films are made up of the noticing and capturing of the tiny little details that make us part of our different (and multiple) tribes, which very often overlap with micro-classes.
So I love coming across novels that are all about class in America, whether observing a single class, watching the conflicts that arise in relationships where the two parties are (no longer) in the same class, or seeing different authors deal with the Great Divide (and indeed the myth of the Myth of the Great Divide). This particular novel is also about race, and class within race, class across race and, finally, the bizarre notion of race itself.
A lot of novels I’ve read lately have been structured in what might seem an uneven way, with a framing scene that takes up perhaps half of the novel or more (in Americanah it’s Ifemelu, the main character, going to a hair salon to have her hair braided before she goes back to Nigeria) that encompasses a great deal of back story of both recent and distant past, followed by a move, once enough information has been given, into the present and future of the story with only an occasional look back. This literary fiction genre is a tricky one. Other genres place less emphasis on knowing why people act as they do, on understanding their motivation and what made them who they are today. Some novels do pretty much everything as back story within a framing device (for example Ghana Must Go), and others move mostly forward through a person’s life, as Meg Wolitzer does in The Interestings. Americanah stays at the hair salon (and it is genuinely a very long appointment) until we know enough about Ifemelu to travel back to Nigeria with her, armed with enough knowledge to not to go haring off in the wrong direction.
Ifemelu grows up in Nigeria, middle class but, as a scholarship girl, not as wealthy as her friends. She meets Obinze towards the end of her time at school, and they became a serious couple. After strikes shut down the Nigerian universities, lots of their friends try to leave to finish their studies elsewhere, and Ifemelu eventually gets a visa to study in Philadelphia just as the strike has ended. America is an eye-opening experience for Ifemelu in so many ways, not least because of the poverty she finds herself in once arrived. After a few years she gets a fellowship at Princeton and starts a blog called Raceteenth, on which she posts observations about race, from the point of view of a non-American black. The blog is a great way for Adichie to make some of her more pointed remarks, and the way she combines Ifemelu’s scathing commentary on hypocrisy and intolerance in both America and Nigeria with the broader novel’s sharp yet uncondescending critique of society is very successful.
Ifemelu’s reasons for returning to Nigeria are murky, even to her. She is leaving behind her long-term boyfriend, Blaine, and possibly thinking a little too much about Obinze, now married with a child, and much romanticised by distance. She is leaving an academic career and her blog for an uncertain future. Ultimately, she is leaving somewhere that has never quite felt like home for somewhere that she thinks will, despite its many and obvious flaws, at least be home—only to find that both she and Nigeria have changed. Ifemelu’s return provokes as much soul-searching as her departure as she starts over.
Americanah is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
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