America Through The Eyes of an Outsider
Let us all admit it. At least once in our life, most of us have dreamed of moving to the land of promise, the land of milk and honey, the United States of America in the hopes of making it big. This is particularly true for most denizens of underdeveloped nations and the proverbial third-world countries. They were raised to yearn for that American Dream, led to believe that making it through to America is synonymous to lifting their families from the quagmires of poverty. It was inculcated into their minds that in fulfilling the American Dream, they are bound to succeed in life, that in partaking of the abundance of milk “and honey”, their quality of life will exponentially improve. At a young age, many of us pledged allegiance with a foreign nation which we are never fully sure of would accept us.
In her powerful third novel, Americanah, renowned feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduces the readers to a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. Born and raised in the bustling city of Lagos, her young life changed when she met Obinze while studying in secondary school. The dashing and charming Obinze transferred from Nsukka where his mother used to be a prominent professor. Like star-crossed lovers, they instantly fell for each other’s great qualities. They quickly turned into each other’s best inspiration. Both were academically inclined, and loved reading. They also shared big dreams. Ifemelu and Obinze were like puzzle pieces who they fitted each other very well. Their peers and their families were cognizant that they were destined each other.
On the backdrop, the political and social landscape in Nigeria is drastically changing. Following several juntas which saw the overthrow of the government in succession, Nigerian society found itself on unstable grounds. Violence and death started to permeate the air. To let their sentiments be known and unite against the rise of these military governments, students and activists took to the streets. This resulted into the disruption of classes. The pandemonium surrounding them finally convinced Ifemelu to join her Aunt Uju in the United States. Her pregnant aunt previously fled to the US in fear of being persecuted by the government forces which were rounding up all its enemies. Uju was the mistress of a prominent general who was slain when the military junta was overthrown.
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
However, the America that Ifemelu discovers and witnesses is a far cry from the images of opulence she has conjured in her mind, as influenced by the flowery words of Obinze. Initially settling down with her aunt in Brooklyn, Ifemelu as like a fish out of the water. The foreignness of everything – the culture, the people, the society, the food – was a shock to her system. She thought she had an inkling on what to expect about America but there lies a stark dichotomy between imagination and reality. It was like being splashed with a cold bucket of water. Her first few weeks in America was a rollercoaster ride but was also a period of discovery. It took her some time to recover from the initial shock and find her voice. Once she did, she got her old groove back.
Through the lenses of Ifemelu, Americanah covers a vast ground. Adichie did a commendable job in painting a vivid image of the shock individuals experience upon entering a new country where the culture is starkly different from the culture one has gotten used to growing up. The challenges, the trials, and even the tribulations of reestablishing one’s self in a new country were finely woven into the lush narrative. To fit into her new environment, Ifemelu had to drastically adjust her expectations. She also had to make some personal sacrifices, such as tweaking her attitude and personality, to conform to the standards of America. As Aunt Uju advised Ifemelu: “I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.” What made Ifemelu keep her sanity was the support of her friends and family.
Her new experiences helped shaped Ifemelu’s personality. Apart from reconciling her idea of America with the reality set before her, she also had to grapple with the big question on identity. She already made some adjustments to meld into her new environment. As she would later on learn, it takes more than just tiny adjustments to be fully embraced by her new society. While applying for a corporate job, she decided to forego her braids and have her hair be straightened because she was cognizant that her chances of landing the job would rely on her appearance. She managed to win the job but her scalp started to itch. Hair was creatively and extensively used as an allegory in the narrative. At the start, readers meet Ifemelu as she enters a beauty salon to have her hair be braided. A line written by Ifemelu perfectly underscored the role of hair: “So is it me or is that the perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair.”
The irony of adapting in a new environment is the constant danger of forgetting one’s roots. Emenike, one of Obinze’s friends in Nigeria, married an English lawyer and was so immersed and absorbed in his new identity and his newfound reputation that he forgot who he really was: “There, it has been said: the man considered himself British.” This is a stark contrast to Aunt Uju and Ifemelu who, despite some temptations, opted to be bound by their blood. As they build new relationships with different people, they remained conscious of where they came from. The call of home resonated on them despite being away from Nigeria for fifteen years.
“Besides, humility had always seemed to him a specious ting, invented for the comfort of others; you were praised for humility by people because you did not make them feel any more lacking than they already did. It was honesty that he valued; he had always wished himself to be truly honest, and always feared that he may not.”~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
For non-Americans, settling in America was almost always synonymous to race and racism. It was another aspect of American society that perplexed Ifemelu at the start of her quest for the quintessence of the American Dream. The novel’s exploration of race was never ostentatious but its presence still reverberated all throughout the narrative. The different attitudes towards race were portrayed in different circumstances such as the sisters Kimberly and Laura When she was studying, Ifemelu was hired Kimberly to take care of her child. Kimberly tried to treat Ifemelu with utmost care, sensitive to her needs, avoiding any racial references so as not to offend Ifemelu. Her sister, Laura, however, was her antithesis. Laura was straightforward and adapted a brazen attitude towards Ifemelu; she was never afraid of presenting her opinions about Africa.
The novel also magnified on various facets of American culture and other seminal subjects. To earn money, Ifemelu must work illegally for her visa disallows her from being employed. Obinze experienced the same when he found himself stuck in London, rather than America which was supposed to be his final destination. Sexual abuse and discrimination were also explored in the text. The greatest manifestation of Ifemelu’s struggle came in the form of depression which hit her after experiencing the biggest shock of her life. She nearly cut off her world as she grapples with the intense emotions forming within her. She dismissed depression: “Depression was what happened to Americans, with their self-absolving need to turn everything into an illness. She was not suffering from depression, she was merely a little tired and a little slow.”
Ifemelu loomed large in the narrative but Obinze’s voice was also heard through the din. He had to grapple with his own personal struggles. He and Ifemelu dreamed of moving and living together in America to pursue that American Dream. However, the political landscape was drastically altered post-9/11 as restrictions made it a challenge for Obinze to migrate to America. In the end, he settled for London where he dealt with the challenges that mirror those that Ifemelu encountered in America. There were stark dichotomies in the experiences of Ifemelu and Obinze but both were vivid depictions of the struggles and challenges one had to withstand in order to make it in a land that is not one’s own, to chase those elusive dreams and stars.
Ifemelu’s growth and development was the mantle of the story. In her native Nigeria, she was a good daughter to her parents. She lived a convenient life until it was disrupted by the rise of military juntas that dominated most of Nigeria’s recent history. She fled to the United States with just dreams and aspirations to drive her. There were bumps on the road but she remained resolute and kept her head in the game. Accentuating her story are blog pieces Ifemelu wrote to document her experiences in the land of milk and honey. They are deep, insightful, and thought-provoking commentaries that can hold their own separately from the narrative. These blog pieces gave both Ifemelu and the story more character and complexion. They were also smartly woven into the narrative; they were powerful and insightful but never weighed above the narrative.
“They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
The romantic aspects of the novel were, uncharacteristically, watered down perhaps to emphasize on the deeper and complex subjects it has set out to underscore. The conclusion of Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story was one of the novel’s less than stellar facets. Nevertheless, Adichie regaled her readers with the vivid and memorable stories of both characters that one can’t begrudge Ifemelu and Obinze their own space. In Americanah, Adichie showcased the extent of her literary prowess, merging elements of both Nigerian and American culture in a rich and colorful tapestry. Her writing and storytelling was carefully measured. It held all the novel’s various elements together, from the onset to its conclusion.
In Americanah, Adichie is consolidating her rise to the global literary stage. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze, and their diagnosis of American, British, and Nigerian cultures made up for a powerful narrative that arouses the senses. With her powerful third novel, Adichie was demonstrating the versatility of her prose as she tackled seminal themes of identity, the African diaspora, the quintessence of the American Dream, and the implications of race with tinges of romance, discrimination. Parts-coming-of-age, parts-romance, parts-historical fiction, Americanah was an ambitious but an equally powerful, lyrical and well-thought narrative. It was rendered with a local voice and color but its message resonated on a universal scale. In one of the discussions on fiction and literature, Ifemelu mentioned: “So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.”
Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
Over two years ago, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie riveted me with her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. It was my first novel from the highly-acclaimed novelist who I’ve heard high regards of even before dipping into Half of a Yellow Sun. This wonderful experience made me resolve to read all of her works. Two years thence, I have lifted by second Adichie novel, Americanah. Whilst on the surface it was the story of young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, what reeled me into their story was Adichie’s flowing, deep, and insightful dissection of the contemporary American attitude towards race. This was further complimented by the equally lush portrayal of the plights immigrants and “American Dreamers” experience once they step into the land of milk and honey. Ifemelu’s part of the story was longer, deservedly so for it contains more tumult and crises. It was marketed as a romance novel but there was less romance and more social commentary. However, Adichie’s writing fund the perfect balance between literature and social commentary. The stark dichotomy between Half of a Yellow Sun, which grappled history and warfare, and Americanah, which explored the American dream, showcased Adichie’s versatility as a writer. This makes me look forward to more of her works.
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publishing Date: 2014
Number of Pages: 588
Genre: Romance, Bildungsroman
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. At once powerful and tender, Americanah is a remarkable novel of race, love, and identity by the award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
About the Author
To learn more about Nigerian rising literary superstar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, click here.
Great review. I loved how this book studied less overt instances of racism Andrew looked at unconscious bias. I did kind of want more of Obinze’s experience in London though
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Thanks for liking my review! I agree with you that Obinze’s experience was underexplored and I was wishing the same. I guess Ifemelu’s story was so extensive that Adichie deemed it unnecessary to elaborate on Obinze’s own experience. But I was still wishing more from Obinze’s end. 🙂
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This book sounds really interesting. Here in western Europe we don’t think of America as being foreign, but I think it must be truly foreign with a completely different culture. I have never been there. I was in Canada and loved it. I found the people charming, friendly and so polite, but I think it’s probably different in America.
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