“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither no one knows what to do with you.”
Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu is living in America (where she’s been for thirteen years). She writes a blog called Raceteen or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, which has been successful enough for her to make part of her living from public speaking. She also has a fellowship at Princeton and is in a relationship with a professor, Blaine, from the same university. However,
…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into piercing homesickness.
As the novel begins Ifemelu’s fellowship has ended, she’s written her last post on Raceteen and ended her relationship with Blane; she’s moving back to Lagos.
Obinze lives in Lagos and has become rich through his association with ‘the Chief’ whom he fronted a deal for undervaluing properties, buying them and selling them on at their actual market price.
Obinze looked at the tan colonnaded house. Inside was his furniture imported from Italy, his wife, his two-year-old daughter, Buchi, the nanny Christiana, his wife’s sister Chioma, who was on a forced holiday because university lecturers were on strike yet again, and the new housegirl Marie, who had been brought from Benin Republic after his wife decided that Nigerian housegirls were unsuitable. The rooms would all be cool, air-conditioner vents swaying quietly, and the kitchen would be fragrant with curry and thyme, and CNN would be on downstairs while the television upstairs would be turned to Cartoon Network, and pervading it all would be the undisturbed air of well-being. He climbed out of the car. His gait was stiff his legs difficult to lift. He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the houses, the cars, the bank accounts – and would, from time to time, be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.
Ifemelu and Obinze were childhood sweethearts, separated when Ifemelu chose to join her auntie in America and attend graduate school. Obinze should have joined her but he was denied a visa. Eventually, Obinze ended up in England but Ifemelu remained unaware of this, events in America having led to her ignoring any attempts by Obinze to contact her.
Adichie uses Ifemelu’s time in America and, to a lesser extent, Obinze’s time in England to explore the West’s attitude to race. Indeed, the fact we have an attitude to race is the main issue, as Ifemelu states at a dinner party she attends with Blaine:
“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.”
Adichie has much to say on the issue, her exploration of it demonstrating the complexities we have created around race and the lengths to which we will go to avoid the discussion. There are several perceptive examples of this but the one that occurs not long after Ifemelu’s arrival in America best highlights the ridiculousness of the situation: Ifemelu is shopping with her friend Ginika. When they reach the checkout, the sales assistant asks who helped them with their purchases to ensure they receive their commission. After a number of questions which fail to establish the identity of the woman, Ifemelu and Ginika leave:
As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, “I was waiting for her to ask ‘Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?’ Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?’ ”
Ginika laughed, “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”
In Americanah, Adichie moves the discussion into territory I haven’t seen in a novel before (This may be a fault on my part, please leave suggestions in the comments if there’s others that explore similar ideas). She looks at race via the educated immigrant experience, using Ifemelu’s blog and discussions with both her and Obinze’s family, friends and employers to highlight the West’s ignorance and the impact that has on the behaviour of black African migrants and the appearance of black women, in particular.
However, what makes Americanah an exceptional, rather than a great, novel is the way Adichie marries her key theme with the story of Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship. The book could have fallen into the ‘pretentious’ category but it is driven by Ifemelu’s return to Lagos and the will-they-won’t-they scenario this presents for her and Obinze. This kept me turning the pages, emotionally invested in the pair’s fate. (I might have had something in my eye when I reached the final page.)
The more you read and the older you become, the more difficult it is to discover books that floor you; books that change your perspective of the world and books you become emotionally attached to. Americanah gripped my head and my heart; it altered my view of the world and made me invest in the love story at its core. It’s a wonderful book.
Thanks to Harper Collins/Fourth Estate for the review copy.