I live in a small town in Minnesota and for the past few months I have started to get my weekly groceries from a different store. My Indian friend who gives me a ride in her car loves to self-check-out the products much to my annoyance since it takes too much time. I stand near her in mild amusement and irritation. I have noticed that whenever she starts working on the monitor, one of the store employees comes near her and starts looking closely at the display and the things she has picked up from her cart. The employee pretends as if she is busy observing other things in the store, but her eyes furtively look at the screen and the products my friend is scanning. One day, I asked her, “Do you notice how the employees of the store hover around you when you self-check-out?” “Really?” My friend looked at me surprised. She was oblivious to it. I teased her saying that she is so engrossed she fails to notice it. I told her that the store employees don’t hover around white customers and don’t repeatedly come near them asking "How are you doing today," "Do you need any help?" in their Minnesota Nice Behaviour.
I asked my friend what she thought about that. “Hmmm”, she said. “Maybe they have had bad experiences with South Asians?” She narrated an incident in Ohio where one of her Indian friends would scan the cheaper items and walk out paying a lot less than what he was supposed to. If he bought Thai pepper, he would scan the cheaper jalapeno pepper. If he bought organic chicken legs, he would run his finger on the image of the inorganic chicken legs. So instead, we talked about how corrupt Indians are and how we should be embarrassed of being Indians due to people like that. Later, in my apartment, I couldn’t stop thinking about the incident. Would the worker in her uniform hover around a Hispanic lady who preferred to self-check-out? What if my sixteen or seventeen year old Somali student who works as a cashier in a different store who has to listen to ‘get the fuck of this country’ in soft, indistinct voices, from expressionless customers as they hand over their credit cards?
When I was reading the blog posts by Ifemelu – the protagonist of Americanah—I wondered what she would consider writing if she went through a similar experience. Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant, runs a popular blog on race in America. When the novel opens, despite having an independent and financially safe career as a popular blogger in the United States, she has decided to go back. In the opening chapter, she goes to a hair salon near Princeton University (where she is on a fellowship). At the salon, she recollects her journey from her days in Nigeria where she had grown up until she decided to leave the country for a better career, leaving her teenaged lover, Obinze, behind.
If I told Ifemelu about my experience at the grocery store, she would probably write something satirical, in the funny, ironic tone in which most of her blog posts appear throughout the book – just like Ugwu’s ‘book’ in Half of a Yellow Sun. Ugwu’s status as a houseboy and his experience as a soldier in Adichie’s novel on the Biafran war enables him to look at things from below. In Americanah, enriched by her experience as a young teenage student who comes of age in America after being toughened by economic hardships in the new country, enabled by her outsider-eye, her questioning vision and embittered after finding “blackness”, Ifemelu would be able to underline eloquently what my Indian friend and I couldn’t put our fingers on. Americanah is an urgent and important political novel mainly because it is able to articulate issues that a lot of non-whites would overlook, issues that a lot of white people (liberal and conservative, mean and generous) wouldn’t consider as important. In one of the blog posts, Ifemelu narrates an incident, “He said to Professor Hunk: Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can't we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied — that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that.''
At the hair salon, Ifemelu meets a woman, Kelsey, who asks her what she was reading. Ifemelu doesn’t want to have a conversation with her and assumes in Kelsey “the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.” All of Ifemelu’s assumptions may not be right, but with remarks such as these, her voice strikes a chord with people who face everyday subtle racism in the US. Kelsey or the student who refuses to talk about racism: all these cameos become instantly recognizable because we all have met them somewhere—at a hair salon or at a grocery store. This is what makes Americanah a special novel for the non-white person who lives in the States: for the immigrants who have come from a developing country to study, to work or after marriage; for the immigrants who didn’t move to America because their house was burnt down or their relatives massacred. This class of immigrants came because their alert, middle-class upbringing enabled them to think about better choices that were absent in their respective countries.
Ifemelu isn’t a very pleasant and likeable character. But she is extremely interesting and whatever she writes, she writes with great authority. At times it may be populist, but the posts always hit a raw nerve. The reason behind this surefootedness is because Adichie has written about these issues previously. Concerns in the book are a nearly direct expansion of themes and plots from her previously published work. There are several instances in the novel where an episode would emerge that I could recognize as a part of the Chimamanda Adichie Universe of Tales.
Among these, Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt is the most recognizable. After she has broken up with him, she wonders if race must have been one of the reasons behind her constant discomfit while she dated him. Ostensibly, there was nothing wrong in the relationship; he seemed perfect – liberal, caring, open-minded and whom she refers to as a “Hot White Ex” on her popular blog. But she always felt protected by his white privilege when she was with him. Their relationship, which unfolds in Baltimore, is reminiscent of Adichie’s short story from 2007, “My American Jon”, where Amaka, the Nigerian protagonist breaks up with her liberal, white, Yale-educated boyfriend and later wonders if it was race that created the rift(s) between them: “And who says that race did not play a role in our break-up? Who says we were not lying all those times we clung to the comforting idea of complexity? It wasn’t about race, we would say, it was complex – Jon speaking first and me promptly agreeing.” After the break-up with Curt in Americanah, Ifemelu wonders, “It was not that they avoided race, she and Curt. They talked about it in the slippery way that admitted nothing and engaged nothing and ended with the word “crazy”, like a curious nugget to be examined and then put aside. Or as jokes that left her with a small and numb discomfort that she never admitted to him.”
In this long novel, the love plot is not the only familiar strand from Adichie’s previous publications. In “My American Jon”, a Punjabi driver tells Amaka that she doesn’t look African because her blouse is too tight – a situation that is reproduced exactly in the novel with Ifemelu. Later in the novel, when Blaine – Ifemelu’s African-American boyfriend – organizes a protest after a racist incident at Yale, it reminds us of Adichie’s essay “The Sad and Amusing State of Race in America". Americanah, in many ways is a re-visitation of sorts for Adichie. Here, she is on firm ground with the themes because she has written about them before in essays such as ‘The Color of an Awkward Conversation’, where she describes how she resented discovering her ‘blackness’ after moving to America; in ‘African Authenticity and the Biafran Experience’, where she questions the west’s tendency to locate an ‘authentic’ African story; in her famous speech, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, where she critiques popular stereotypes in the west associated with Africans.
When I read “My American Jon”, I was filled with awe, for asking such courageous questions through fiction. Now, for Americanah, I am grateful to Adichie for illustrating micro-aggressiveness with numerous examples. In the future, Adichie’s novel will be cherished as a book that started a conversation about issues such as these – issues that even people of color in the United States overlook because they may be made to seem trivial, perhaps petty; because people would laugh at you for being “too sensitive”. This is the reason I ended up loving Americanah: engrossing, topical, questioning and sometimes even combative. Some readers would find Ifemelu too dissatisfied, too critical, but Adichie had to take the risk of alienating readers such as these (mostly white or righteously liberal). It is very clear she wanted to create a relentlessly questioning character such as Ifemelu who challenges the culture of political correctness and tokenism that is so rampant in America, especially with regards to matters of race. A self-conscious culture that simulates conversation like the “like” button on Facebook through conversation-stopping phrases such as “probably it is cultural” or “it is complex”, just as Amaka’s boyfriend speaks in “My American Jon”. These are things that Ifemelu dissects with unforgiving preciseness through various anecdotes in the entire novel.
The nucleus of Americanah – literary and figuratively – is Ifemelu’s experience in the United States. Sandwiched between the events that happen in Nigeria – before Ifemelu leaves for the States, and after she returns to Nigeria thirteen years later – the novel feels most well-done when Adichie is describing Ifemelu’s American experience: when she first arrives and fries a hotdog, instead of steaming it in hot water, when she doesn’t know when to use words such as “cool” and “exciting” during conversations because too many things are considered cool and too many things seems to be exciting for her American friends, when after a bad experience at a hair salon she decides not to relax her natural hair, and then begins writing a blog that becomes so popular that she starts earning a living off the revenue its high traffic generates. But there are many portions of the book that felt undercooked – a flaw that Adichie’s readers must be so alien to - that left me surprised and disappointed. In all her previous works, whether short stories or novels or non-fiction, Adichie has always told us extremely satisfying tales where all questions about the plot may not be answered but everything is plausible with vivid descriptions, with such strong psychological insight into her characters that we believe all the twists in the tales and we believe when her characters make choices that should surprise us.
For example, after Obinze suggests she must go to the United States for higher studies, events unfold breezily. Ifemelu takes the tests, one of her friends in America (Ginika) sends applications on her behalf to different universities, she gets an admission offer and we see her in the United States in no time. The visa application process, which seems like an important hurdle for many characters in the novel (also a theme that Adichie has visited previously in her non-fiction and short-fiction), is curiously skipped. But when Obinze applies for a visa, he is denied one just as randomly as expected. As a reader, I wanted to see Ifemelu go through this situation, a situation that would have probably anticipated what she was going to face in the US. In “The Line of No Return”, an op-ed by Adichie published in The New York Times, we are provided with a satirical description of situations at a United States Embassy in Nigeria. Adichie describes the director of the visa section with comical precision, “She is wearing a multicolored caftan with jagged edges - the sort of thing a foreigner will wear to look African but an African will never wear.” Why is it so easy for Ifemelu to move to the States, while it is not for many other Nigerians?
One of the most important obstacles of the American education system is the refusal of its government to invest in the country’s human resources. A wealthy country like USA forces its citizens to graduate saddled with hefty loans that take half a lifetime to pay off. For most people in India, the prohibitively expensive tuition fee sounds like science fiction because most of us have studied under a subsidized education system. The most well-known colleges in India are supported by the government, where a billionaire’s son as well as the lower-middle class family’s daughter goes to study only on the basis of merit. For a student who goes to America from a developing nation, tuition fee is a major concern. Before accepting an offer, prolonged calculations are done – how much is covered by the tuition waiver, how much money would be needed for living expenses. Ifemelu’s father had to accept money from her aunt Uju to pay the pending house rent. Why wasn’t finance a major concern for her? For a girl whose family is struggling with financial hardships from the beginning of the novel, it is odd that she takes the next flight to America after her admission offer that comes with a “partial” scholarship. Adichie, who is able to vividly describe the lives of her characters by celebrating the small details, doesn’t give us much here, making this episode (among several in the novel) hazy. Ifemelu’s decision to go to an American university for further studies is the most important decision in Obinze and Ifemelu’s life. Her relationship with Obinze is intense. Adichie has created the character of this young man with so much affection that it is difficult not to love Obinze. He is mature, farsighted, respects his girlfriend, widely read for his age and is a good friend of his liberal minded mother who tells Ifemelu that when Obinze and Ifemelu start having sex, they should be responsible. Yet, the most important event in the plot is condensed within a span of a couple of pages. Before it sinks in that Ifemelu has made the decision to leave Nigeria, she is already in the US.
Another implausible event in the plot is Ifemelu’s rise as a blogger. I use the word “implausible” not because it can’t happen, but because she becomes a famous blogger, who earns a living by blogging and gets invited as a paid speaker within a span of two pages. The blog is a central presence in Ifemelu and the book’s universe. Obinze reads her blog to look for cues about her previous boyfriends and Ifemelu earns a fellowship to Princeton because of the success of her blog, but it happened too quickly in a novel that otherwise beautifully and affectionately describes and celebrates details of Lagos, of Philadelphia, of parties, of conversations, of the hurdles Obinze faces in London as an illegal immigrant, of making braids in a salon and Obama’s elections. I wish Adichie spent time dwelling on the step-by-step growth of the blog, which would have made the novel even more interesting, more convincing. In a way, Ifemelu’s rise from relative obscurity into a famous blogger and back to relative obscurity in Lagos happens just like the dime novels of one of the authors Ifemelu loved to read as a teenager. But unlike Ifemelu’s ascent, Sidney Sheldon’s female characters go through many twists and turn before attaining name and fame and then sinking into obscurity. Despite enjoying the novel thoroughly, I found myself questioning these events that drive the plot, which are so important to the novel.
After thirteen years in the US, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria because of reasons not specified in the book. May be because she is dissatisfied and yearns for home like any immigrant or may be because (in her own words) she stops being “black” after stepping down from the flight at the Lagos airport. By now, she has also become somewhat an Americanah – a word used for Nigerians who return with American traits after living in the US. She rents an apartment, reconnects with friends and curiously, doesn’t visit her parents. But the story takes a new turn when she bonds with Obinze and they reignite their romantic passion for each other. Obinze, who is married with a child, is now provided with difficult choices to make. The unfinished love plot that was abandoned is refreshed, and Ifemelu finds great solace and support in this relationship. She seems to find serenity in her relationship with Obinze that she had never found in her relationships with other men in America. This is the most beautiful aspect of Americanah – at its heart, despite all its social critique, it is a passionate, unapologetic love story. After finishing the novel, you want to read it again because you wonder if the reason behind Ifemelu’s rugged romantic life in the US was because she was always yearning for Obinze – her first love, who was so perfect; you want to go back and find whether Adihchie sprinkled cues about this throughout the book.