“Americanah” Depicts Realities of Race, Immigration, and Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian-born author and well-known feminist. She was featured in Beyonce’s 2013 song “***Flawless,” her talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is featured on TED’s list of the most popular talks of all time, and her TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists” was later turned into a book.

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

I discovered her latest novel, “Americanah,” this summer, and it has haunted me ever since; it’s one of those books that, months after finishing, you find yourself staring off into space and reliving, or re-reading sections late at night simply because they’re written so smoothly and bring the world into sharper focus. Published in 2013, “Americanah” is a love story and an exploration of American and Nigerian culture, a chronicle of immigration and a wry commentary on race.

The novel follows Ifemelu and Obinze, young lovers in military-ruled Nigeria who lose touch with each other when Ifemelu leaves for college in the United States, and Obinze, denied entry into post 9/11 America, departs instead for a dangerous life as an illegal immigrant in Britain.   

In the U.S., Ifemelu struggles with money and the unfamiliar customs of America; she thinks of herself as black for the first time and has to navigate the charged racial hierarchy in the U.S. Eventually, she begins writing a hilariously irreverent race blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which post titles range from “Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys are Down” to “A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor.”

This is a book about race; in Nigeria, Ifemelu is Nigerian, but in America, she is black. She has African friends, white friends, and African-American friends; she is shunned for her skin color, praised for it, and lumped in with starving African villagers. She can’t find a decent hair-braiding salon. “The simplest solution to race in America?” Ifemelu finally concludes. “Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable.”

This is a book about immigration. Not about immigrants from centuries ago, but about immigrants in a world of airplanes,  Facebook, and phones, where immigration is not just about destitute refugees fleeing across the border. There are characters throughout the book who are sympathetic to immigrants and refugees: they travel to starving African villages on missions and support more open borders; but, Obinze realizes, “They would not understand why people like him … were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as not to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.” “Americanah” challenges what it means to be an immigrant.

This is a book about feminism. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at women, at the choices they make and at those which are already made for them. “At some point I was a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes Lip Gloss And Who Wears High Heels For Herself And Not For Men,” Adichie said in her TEDx talk. This is an attitude Ifemelu embodies: she is not perfect. And the characters in “Americanah” are not perfect, but that is a large part of the appeal.

The book, and the characters in it, feel real. They are people, and they are flawed: they have affairs, lose their tempers, question themselves, and fall into lives they intended to avoid. “I don’t like reading fiction that is very ideologically consistent and where everybody does the right thing all the time,” Adichie said in an interview for “Vulture.” “Life isn’t like that and fiction has to be about the real texture of life.”

“Americanah” remains true to this, and the little moments that make people and places real are masterfully woven in with the larger narrative. Events take place not in linear order but in a pattern determined by memory; scenes trigger one another, and the result is that even though the book is told in third person, the reader has a unique insight into the characters’ minds. The flow of scenes and ideas feels organic instead of contrived. In another book it might be confusing, but Adichie weaves scenes, characters, and ideas together so seamlessly that it seems like the only way this novel could have been written.

Perhaps my very favorite line, near the beginning of the book and originally why I kept reading, is an aside the author makes about fatness and femininity. “She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts,” Ifemelu says, “— it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved — but the fat woman’s act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself.” “Americanah” is about moments like these, everyday moments where assumptions are made or broken that, over time, develop into a larger narrative. It is well worth reading, both for those who wish to see the world with greater clarity and for those who simply enjoy a well-crafted and beautifully written story.

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