“Why is it that people ask, “what was it about?” as if a novel had to only be about one thing?” a question asked in the pages of Chimamanda’s third novel which came out in 2013 unknowingly describing the novel itself.
Americanah was an experience. I had been given so many expectations about the book that I was scared it wouldn’t live up to them and it would be a disappointment. So I postponed reading it for as long as I could, and that is the one single thing I regret about my experience with Americanah. It did not live up to my expectations it surpassed them by bringing me into the pages of the book and in a sense shifting the way I saw the world. This book became mainstream for good reason. It is not just a work of fiction but a cracked mirror reflection of a broken reality.
Americanah starts by introducing us to Ifemelu, a black Nigerian woman with the most interesting personality and perspective on everything. When we meet her she is entering a salon on the streets of America to braid her hair before her long flight back to Nigeria after fifteen years of living in this ‘land of the free’.
For most of the book her story is told through flashback scenes from the chair of the little African salon. Her experience being so much packed into the last eighteen or so years of her life. The story delves into her high school romance with a boy named Obinze, whose calm demeanor and perceptive spirit captured her heart. It then goes on to explain how she ended up in America, her college experience, and the realization that in this country she was not just her but she was black. Black was her. A constant part of her identity that was as clear in every interaction a constant stain. As she says, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” And when having a conversation with a white friend she went on to say, ““The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters…”
Needing a place to rant about her experiences and observations Ifemelu starts a blog she names, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” Chimamanda incorporates Ifemelu’s posts into the novel which for me are probably the most interesting parts of the book. They are witty, honest to God, straight to the point antidotes that leave an impactful message. Ifem’s straightforward way of getting a point that resonates with the black woman/person across gains her several followers, allowing her to make the blog her life after trying and quitting the corporate world.
Of course besides the charged topics covered, Ifem’s life is filled with steamy romances and love stories which she also reminisces as her hair is braided. She talks about the men in her life on her blog referring to them with names such as “The Hot white ex” and “Professor Hunk”. Then there is the one man she doesn’t talk about, the one man she tried to forget but couldn’t.
On the other side of the world we meet him. Obinze, who is now a successful land developer, and married with one daughter also has a story to tell. His experiences revealed to us also in flashback form of the last eighteen or so years. He ends up in England at one point and we get to see the subject of race in England also unfold before our eyes, different yet similar to Ifem’s American adventures. That of an outsider looking in, longing to be accepted as one’s own yet fearful of what that might do to their identity. Obinze’s experience is not as smooth sailing as Ifemelu’s, however, and is cut short by his deportation back to his country.
Both stories build up to the anticipation of Ifemelu’s return back to Nigeria and what their relationship will be afterwards. It seems after having experienced each other every other romantic partner to both was less than. A compromise if you will. Knowing whether they could possibly move forward together or separately after Ifemelu’s return, keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Thus Chimamanda’s book captures the ability to be both a love story and a book that challenges societal present day norms. Any African going abroad must read this book. Scratch that. Every African, woman, black person should read this book, as it tells an African story from an African perspective without chills which is something we sorely lack.