Last year I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is a brilliant fictionalized portrayal of Nigeria before and during the civil war, and was blown away by both the story and her writing. Once I heard she had this new book out, I put myself on the 70-person wait list for Americanah and finally picked it up last Friday.
Americanah is about a young woman named Ifemelu who grows up in Nigeria and due to the multiple strikes at her university decides to move to America. In the United States, she goes to college in Philadelphia and eventually starts a blog about the Non-American Black perspective on race and racism. After thirteen years in America, she decides to move back to Nigeria. At the same time, although to a slightly lesser extent, we follow Obinze, Ifemelu’s teenage love who is unable to get a visa to America due to post-9/11 paranoia and instead moves to England for a period of time. Americanah follows both of them abroad and as they both return to Nigeria at different times.
Interestingly, I recently read another book about Nigeria by a British author (Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson), which is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl but has long passages that lapse into near-essays to explain to the reader: This is how the government is in Nigeria, this is how women are treated in Nigeria. In contrast, Adichie is a wonderful storyteller, able to write fully developed and nuanced characters, to follow their stories and to blend in social and politic atmospheres at the same time.
There are many open discussions about race, often through Ifemelu’s blog but also layered into her life in America, including black hair, white privilege, Obama as a candidate for president (and why his wife rocks), interracial dating, racial profiling, and so on. It may sound heavy-handed but it’s really more exploring the intricacies of racial dynamics. Adichie acknowledges that racism is complex but instead of leaving it at that, she dives into what makes it so complex and why it is so hard to talk about but why it is so important that we talk about it anyway.
In case that isn’t enough, Americanah also tackles immigration and the subtleties of different cultures, the sense of always being different, and then trying to return home after time abroad. Although the blurb on the inside of the book up-sells the star-crossed lovers relationship of Ifemelu and Obinze, the love story comes second to each character’s complicated relationship with the countries and cultures in which they live.
Americanah was well worth the 70-person wait list. (If you are more interested in historical fiction, I also highly recommend Half of a Yellow Sun.)