Americanah centers on a love story between Ifemelu, beautiful and outspoken, and Obinze, self-assured and thoughtful. They fall head over heals for each other as teenagers in troubled Nigeria, still under military dictatorship. Constant strikes put strain on the educational system so Ifemelu heads to college in the United States while Obinze stays in Africa. In the States, Ifemelu deals with culture shock, isolation, and depression. Eventually she starts a successful blog where she writes about race from the perspective of a non-American black person. Meanwhile, Obinze struggles to make a living in Nigeria, but with time, becomes rich and starts a family. Years later, Obinze and Ifemelu reconnect and find their attraction unchanged.
Some parts of this book resonated with me more than others. The writing was beautiful and Adichie is expert at crafting memorable, believable characters. I loved reading about both Ifemelu and Obinze’s professional and familial struggles. There are passages about race and culture that Ifemelu writes for her blog that are incredibly powerful and would absolutely have a place in today’s internet culture. Passages like this one:
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. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.
Unfortunately, the romance, the backbone of the novel, didn’t work for me. I felt like Ifemelu was holding me and every other character at arm’s length. It’s hard to feel emotionally invested in a character like that. I also wish there had been more from Obinze’s perspective. Cheering for someone to leave their bland, but perfectly nice wife for a former lover is a lot to ask of a reader, but it might have been easier if I’d had more insight into his thought process. The other complaint I had with this book was the length. I’m not opposed to long novels, but this one felt like it needed stronger editing.
Ultimately, I am glad I read Americanah. It was a fascinating look at Nigerian culture and a refreshingly realistic take on race relations in the United States. Definitely worth a read if you want to broaden your understanding of modern Africa and race in the US.