on 6 April 2014
Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu, an intelligent, strong willed, highly opinionated Nigerian who with her boyfriend, Obinze, grow up with a desire to live in America. They wish to live the American dream: the romanticized view of America they read about in books and see on television programmes like The Cosby Show.
During one of the many strikes at the university, Ifemelu decides to apply to finish her studies in America on a scholarship. Her application is successful and she leaves Nigeria to live with her Aunt Ujo who already lives in the USA having fled Nigeria after her married lover, a high ranking general, is killed in a helicopter crash. Obinze promises to join Ifemelu once he has finished his studies but when he is ready to apply for his visa the world has changed post 9/11 and Obinze’s application fails so he tries his luck as an illegal immigrant in Great Britain.
Where Obinze fails, Ifemelu thrives. After writing an enthusiastically received post on the website, happilylinkynappy.com (a website dedicated to natural African hair), Ifemelu starts her own blog to write about her experiences in America and in time it becomes a highly respected and successful blog.
Having spent some thirteen years in America and recently witnessed Barack Obama’s election victory, Ifemelu prepares to return to her home country of Nigeria. As part of that preparation she visits a hair salon in the town of Trenton to have her hair braided in what amounts to a six hour session. It is during her time at the hair salon that the novel is mostly related in flashback.
Americanah is about race, dislocation, and the culture clash of Africa meets Britain and America. Ifemelu and Obinze are not escaping a war zone or a life of deprivation but are instead looking for opportunities that don’t exist in their own country. While living in Great Britain and the USA the couple are made aware of their race, their colour, things that in their own country were not regarded as restrictive or a barrier to opportunities.
While Americanah is a superbly written book and the author has a turn of phrase and descriptive powers that other authors can only dream about it is for me let down by Ifemelu’s personality. Ifemelu’s observations, in particular via her blog, border on polemical, didactic tirades. Ifemelu dislikes and criticises almost everyone around her and her relentless unforgiving diatribes create a weariness in the reader, a battle or compassion fatigue if you will.
Many of Ifemelu’s criticisms and views are at times generalistic, contradictory and at times border on the racist. She refers to Michelle Obama’s children as “beautiful chocolate babes” but then later in the same blog criticizes those who base their views on sweeping assumptions in regard to ‘degrees of blackness’. I don’t believe that Ifemelu would have been happy at a white person using the phrase, “beautiful chocolate babes”.
I found it hard to read Ifemelu’s view that other racial groups that suffer from prejudices don’t matter as much because they are white or at the least nearer to being white.
“Dear American non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life...Don’t say it’s just like anti-Semitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews, there is also the possibility of envy – they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews – and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy.”
Yes, I’m sure the Nazis were full of respect and envy as they murdered, tortured, gassed and experimented on six million Jews.
Americanah dissects with scalpel like precision, the American and British view of race, colour and the differences of being an African in American against being an African-American. The author holds up the proverbial mirror to America and Britain and forces those countries to re-evaluate their thinking, politics and views on the subject of race and colour. Unfortunately, those who should read this book to re-evaluate their opinions, won’t, if for no other reason than it is written by a black women.
However, with the novels harsh, unrelenting negativity the reader can begin to feel punch-drunk. Couple this with the book being about 100 pages too long and its obvious and predictable ending the novel falls sadly short of being the classic it could so easily have been.
First Line – “Princeton in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet , abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
Memorable Line – “I’ve meet a lot of people here with white mothers and they are all so full of issues, eh. I didn’t know I was even supposed to have issues until I came to America. Honestly, if anybody wants to raise bi-racial kids, do it in Nigeria.”
Number of Pages – 477
Sex Scenes – None
Profanity – None
Genre – Fiction.