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Americanah [Book Review]

Summary

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is about immigrants leaving and coming home but also finding fulfillment as well as romantic, familial, and platonic relationships. It’s a whole bunch of different stuff that somehow all fits together. Ifemelu is a young woman who immigrated to America where she’s lived for several years and looks back over her life while preparing to return to Nigeria.

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Show Notes

Spending her childhood in Nigeria and then her early adulthood in America and more mature years back in Nigeria allow Ifemelu to provide commentary on life and social norms in both countries. Leaving everything and everyone behind in Nigeria for a chance at a better life, she then leaves her life of relative comfort behind in hopes of finding what’s missing, probably fulfillment.

When Americanah opens, Ifemelu is mere days away from leaving her life in Princeton, NJ to return to Nigeria. She’s in a contemplative mood and reflects on her time in America as well as her future in Nigeria. A major part of that is looking back at her time as a teen when she dated a young man from secondary school through early college. Usually, I pay puppy love no mind but this is one of those few relationships that had the potential to be something special and long-term.

Ifemelu is returning to Nigeria to find a job and build a life but doesn’t have plans for the grand lifestyle that has come to be expected for returning “Americanah”. Thus people have this question as to why with seemingly everything going well for her and having a bright future in Princeton she would choose to move back to Nigeria without a solid plan for her life there. With that, we have some exploration of her current life in America, but then also what her life was like before she left Nigeria.

Obinze (Zed), the young man she was dating, remained behind in Nigeria and built a life of his own. In the years since he’s gotten married, had a daughter, and has achieved a great deal of success. He went abroad as well but to England and after returning to Nigeria was able to use family connections to get started in the business world. Through successful deals and investments in real estate, Obinze is now doing quite well for himself financially and living a comfortable life.

Yet, there’s this question of if this is the life that he wants for himself or does he live this life because it’s what everyone expects him to have. He lives in a nice house, drives a nice car, and has a lot of material possessions that other people would want for themselves. But there’s a disconnect. Outwardly, he displays the expected image of what success should look like but he doesn’t fully enjoy it because it’s not what he values. His material possessions don’t carry the same weight with him as they do with other people. So although he has all of these things there’s a feeling within him that something is missing.

People comment on what they regard as Obinze’s humbleness. The fact that although he’s achieved this success he doesn’t feel the need to show off. A lot of other people in his circle base their self-worth on their material possessions, career, etc. so feel a need to flaunt. They allow their success to affect the way that they treat others. It’s not enough for them to have these things. They want other people to know that they have them. And it’s not enough for them to be comfortable, wealthy, or otherwise well off. A major part of them feeling successful is having what other people don’t have and seeing themselves as being above others.

Because he doesn’t base his identity on his possessions, Obinze has these things without letting them change him as a person. He still treats people the same rather than being rude or snotty. Obinze has things that other people might like or desire but he doesn’t feel the need to brag or rub it in anyone’s face.

Unlike a lot of other people, with Obinze it’s not false modesty. It strikes him as being weird when people comment on his humbleness in part because it’s just who he just is. But it also points to an issue with celebrating what should be the norm.

There’s this expectation that with success or wealth it becomes acceptable, and even expected for people to be rude and arrogant towards others. That they should show off and otherwise lord their possessions over others. Obinze takes issue with that as he believes the expectation should be for people to be decent, regardless of what they have or don’t have.

It’s stated from the beginning that Ifemelu and Obinze were in love but are no longer together and there isn’t an immediate explanation as to why. You sense that there’s a bit of unfinished business between these two. With Ifemelu’s journey back home, there’s a sense of foreshadowing that they will cross paths and have some type of interaction. But before we can get there the story takes a step back to explain how they got to where they currently are.

Ifemelu had been running a blog which she decided to end before moving. The blog offered observations, commentary, and analysis of America and Americans from the perspective of a Black immigrant. One of the ways I try to learn about cultures across the Black diaspora is by reading books, both fiction and nonfiction. To balance my reading, I seek out books by African authors, especially if they take place in Africa. Unfortunately, in reading some of these books I’ve noticed there tend to be stereotypes about Black Americans.

Given the nature of Ifemelu’s blog, there’s some discussion and comparison between Black Americans and Nigerians but it feels fair and balanced. It felt like everyone could get that work so she wasn’t picking on anyone. Some of the observations about Black America felt familiar so were less interesting for me.

But I enjoyed the bits of insight into Nigerian society concerning social norms and structures. I’d be the first one to admit that I have some but overall limited knowledge of Nigerian culture. With the author being Nigerian, I assume that while this is a work of fiction, to a degree it borrows from how things work in Nigeria but with a bit of creative license. I wouldn’t want to deal with this stuff in real life but it is entertaining to read about the scheming and conniving of the business and social world that Ifemelu and Obinze come across as adults.

There’s a lot of jockeying for position as people try to hustle and scheme their way into making money. Some of the characters are a bit shady and there are some underhanded dealings but this happens in some business environments regardless of the country. But then there’s also shade from older women giving backhanded comments or otherwise being passive-aggressive when speaking to or about people. This results in some rather comical moments.

Quite a few people in Obinze’s circle are rich or more accurately nouveau riche. The story serves as a guide offering a little bit of history of how various people made their money. We see how once they financially elevate themselves, they recreate their image. They shape, mold, and otherwise reimagine their history to better fit how they’d like to be perceived by other people.

Some wrap themselves in religion as a way of masking their true ambitions. They do dastardly things but then hide their unsavory character and true feelings behind a dubious religious explanation. Some schemes are morally or ethically questionable, if not illegal, so the details aren’t shared in the open. Instead, a nice little shine will be put on to make things more palatable and fitting for their image.

We see Obinze being comfortable with himself and thus not overly impressed by his things. But in looking back at Ifemelu, we see that from a very young age she was most comfortable with going against the norm of what was expected of young girls. She was very straightforward and spoke her mind to the point where she would get in trouble.

Growing up Ifemelu is surrounded by all of these other characters who are pretentious and have false images they’re fighting to uphold. There’s so much picking and choosing your words and stepping around people while ignoring the glaringly obvious. People pretend to be one way by presenting an acceptable public face when they’re completely someone else. Ifemelu cuts through all of the nonsense and calls things as she sees them.

Even as a preschooler she possessed a sense of self-confidence. Everyone else is pretending to be something that they’re not but there is a driving force to be honest about who she is when interacting with the people around her. The flip side is that sometimes she says things that don’t need to be said. But she was refreshing in this sea of characters who are constantly posturing and pretending. Her honesty isn’t intended to be mean-spirited but rather to be straightforward. It’s just who she is.

In school, most of the guys were chasing her friend who was beautiful and easygoing. But Ifemelu and Obinze hit it off, because, unlike the other guys, he was looking for someone who wasn’t malleable. He wanted someone honest and straightforward who would say what they think rather than just going along to get along. And with them getting together began a sweet teenage relationship.

Obinze’s father passed away when he was young so at the time he meets Ifemelu, it’s just him and his mom. She doesn’t feature heavily in Americanah but turned out to be my favorite character because she sounded like such a cool person. His mom is a college professor and a highly educated woman but also very open-minded and down-to-earth. She’s refreshing in the sea of problematic adults early in the story.

Meeting her helped explain Obinze’s character in contrast to some of the other people around him. Her lack of pretension and straightforwardness is very reminiscent of Ifemelu. With teenagers, a lot of parents erroneously ignore or don’t give the right kind of energy to their kids’ early relationships. Or the parents of a boy wouldn’t pay much attention to the kind of girl that he’s dating and/or if he’s treating her the right way but are the complete opposite with their daughters.

Obinze’s mom takes it upon herself to have him invite Ifemelu over for lunch so they can get to know each other. It was interesting and refreshing to read about Obinze’s life at home with his mother. And the exchange between Ifemelu and Obinze’s mother is quite sweet and comes across as a mother-daughter-type conversation. It’s something that Ifemelu needs but doesn’t get at home as a result of her mother being ultra-religious and focused on traditions while ignoring the realities of life.

In movies and literature, mothers are often portrayed as being overly protective of their sons which leads to meddling and being insecure about a new woman coming into their child’s life. But here Obinze’s mother goes out of her way to meet, welcome, and form a relationship with this young woman. She doesn’t interrogate Ifemelu but treats her with the same concern and care that I would hope a woman would treat her own daughter.

There’s some insight into and analysis of the male characters. But we also see a lot of Ifemelu’s interactions with the other women that surround her. Many seem to have it all together and are enjoying success or at least privilege but the image that they present to the world is not the real them. Obinze’s mom doesn’t attempt to display a trumped-up image and is the most put-together of the bunch.

In understanding how Ifemelu and Zed came together it becomes clear that they had a really sweet connection as kids. But it also helps to explain why it is that all of these years later, they’ve both moved on to a degree with their lives, but still think of each other and where things went wrong. They truly found in each other something that they valued. Someone else that got them and allowed them to be themselves when so many of the people around them were pretending to be something else. They gave each other the space and the freedom to be their true selves.

Despite Obinze being an americanophile consumed by everything American, Ifemelu was the one to move to America. Upon arriving, naturally, there was an adjustment period because it’s a new place. There are cultural norms to learn as well as figuring out how to physically navigate and get around.

Ifemelu arrives in the summer, with plans to attend college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but stays with Aunty Uju, her older cousin, in Brooklyn until classes begin in the fall. Aunty Uju has had to make some life adjustments since leaving Nigeria a few years before. She was a doctor back in Nigeria but dealt with issues there because of a lack of available jobs and the difficulty of getting paid once employed. When Ifemelu arrives, Aunty Uju has several jobs and is working on the required training and testing required to become a doctor.

Back in Nigeria, Aunty Uju was the person that answered her questions and helped her fill in the blanks on womanhood. They had a very intimate relationship back in Nigeria, sort of like a younger and older sister dynamic. This was the person that she could talk to about any and everything when she couldn’t talk to her mom. But upon arriving in America, it’s surprising to find that there’s some distance between them. Aunty Uju has been in America for a few years but seems a bit exasperated with Ifemelu. Because her life is busy, Aunty Uju doesn’t have the patience to help Ifemelu adjust.

Moving to America from a country where everyone speaks the same language and share similar cultures is a culture shock. There’s quite a bit of ignorance in the way that people deal with Ifemelu as they hear her accent and make assumptions about her intelligence and ability to comprehend English.

Fortunately, Ifemelu has a school friend from back in Nigeria who moved to America in high school. Because she moved at a younger age, she was a bit more flexible which helped her fit in. In contrast, Ifemelu has a harder time adjusting but learns with help from her friend and Aunty Uju’s son, Dike.

I know a lot of people that were broke college students, I was one of them. Depending on your major, the academics aren’t necessarily difficult but all of this is taking place when most are transitioning into adulthood. Figuring out housing, feeding yourself, and covering utilities can cause a lot of stress.

Ifemelu’s situation is complicated by her being in the country on a student visa which doesn’t allow her to work. Her college is in Philly but her aunt with whom she can stay lives in Brooklyn which is at least a 2 to 3-hour commute each way. The distance is too long for a daily commute and would also be quite expensive.

Immediately upon being out on her own, there are all of these problems to try and figure out. I know the difficulty of being in college and trying to find a job that would accommodate classes but also have decent pay so you can take care of your expenses. Going on interview after interview and hearing “we’ll call you” and then either not hearing anything else or being told that they chose a different candidate. It’s a stressful time that leads to desperation on her part.

A major theme of Americanah is immigration and returning home. Dreaming of a better life or just the experience of living in a faraway dreamland. And once there, adjusting to the reality of this new place. Ifemelu and Obinze have to deal with not having money in relatively expensive cities. There are also new societal expectations and cultural norms. The grind of trying to establish oneself in a new place while not having a job. Leaving everything you know and love behind for a shot at a better life.

Because of their unwillingness to be vulnerable, the friends and family that have gone ahead don’t tell Ifemelu and Obinze about their struggles during calls back home. Sure, there’s the opportunity for success but there’s also a lot of new problems that you might face. In Ifemelu’s case, race and stereotypes are huge examples of this

.

Having the story unfold between Ifemelu and Obinze was entertaining, enrapturing is probably more accurate. Having them come together, and then seeing the things that play a role in them falling apart. Combined with the different trials and tribulations that they go through in their individual lives? I was wrapped up in the story.

Yet, while I wouldn’t say that I disliked Ifemelu’s character, I couldn’t understand some of her actions. Some of her decisions felt a little far-fetched which left me scratching my head at points. But her initial honesty and seeming inability to lie resulted in her being a very complex character. Her very human opposing needs and wants make her feel kind of all over the place. She didn’t come across as ditzy but rather a bit lost and trying to figure herself out.

While in America, Ifemelu dates a White guy named Curt. His family is well-connected and he’s financially privileged. He uses his contacts to pull some strings which is a tremendous help to Ifemelu. From the outside looking in, things seem like they’re going well. And she even convinces herself of this while they’re together. But there’s still this nagging feeling like something’s not quite right.

Between the two of them, race doesn’t seem to be an issue until they break up. It’s at that point when Ifemelu takes some time to sort her feelings and assess what went wrong. Reviewing the failures and shortcomings of that relationship she sees the role that she played in its demise. It becomes apparent that she likely wasn’t as happy as she convinced herself she was.

Curt was a very decent man and a good partner for the most part. But Ifemelu tended to hold back in conversations and when speaking about certain topics. This is a tremendous shift for someone that has been known since childhood, as being that person that says whatever is on their mind. It’s not a matter of her being more mature and considerate with her words but rather not sharing her true thoughts with Curt. She closes off parts of herself and her ideas. How can you build a relationship with someone like that?

It’s telling that she feels as though she has to pull her punches and hide her feelings with Curt. She feels as though she can’t be as honest and open with him as she needs to be. That ends up bringing problems into the relationship. It doesn’t manifest as a racial problem between the two of them. But she realizes that she hasn’t been her true authentic self with this man. If a relationship is built on communication, honesty, trust, and openness but she’s been hiding bits and pieces of herself away that foreshadows that this relationship is going to have problems.

Meanwhile, Obinze finishes school in Nigeria where things are unstable due to the government. He struggles to establish himself but ends up having to move to England for a chance to improve his situation and life. But as with Ifemelu, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

What’s interesting is that to a degree, at least initially, he and Ifemelu’s experiences abroad are similar. Both of them have these hopes of improving their lives but then upon moving abroad, they experience depressing hardships. They have problems getting jobs because of the visa and green card processes. And then when they do find a job, they have to constantly look over their shoulders as you never know who you can trust.

These two are estranged by this point and struggling on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As the reader, it’s sad because they shared such a great connection and would be able to empathize with each other while also being a great comfort to each other. The other person might not be able to fix the situation but just having someone else who to a degree understands what you’re dealing with and going through would be incredibly helpful.

There’s a point in Americanah where Ifemelu and Obinze are discussing books as teens. They mention people’s tendency to ask you what a book is about as though books have to be about one specific thing. That point resonated with me. I like nonfiction but I also like fiction. I find the type of fiction that I enjoy most still manages to say something. Fiction for me doesn’t have to be just all make-believe. I like when it offers some kind of social commentary or is based to some degree on reality. That type of fiction just resonates a lot more with me.

There have been books and movies like this where people are childhood sweethearts, things go awry, they break up, and go on about their lives. And the story is what happens along the way and after the breakup. But in this case, I like that Americanah is not just a love story. Because even if you’re in a loving relationship, you still have responsibilities and bills to pay. Other things are going on in your life. Life is usually more complex than one topic at a time so I enjoyed the layers to the story.

You certainly have the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. But even when they were kids, there was also a complex story about the hardships their parents were dealing with and the problems in the broader Nigerian society around them. It’s not just the simple “I love you more than the moon and stars” business. There’s complexity here as they try to move on, grow up, and have other romantic partners. They live adult lives.

In books and movies, I enjoy male characters that are complex and human rather than emotionless robots. Obinze was my second favorite character and I got wrapped up in reading about his struggles back in Nigeria and then upon moving to England. I cheered for him when things started turning around and going his way. But I thought it was incredibly nice that later in Americanah when he’s already a grown man, he found an outlet for expressing himself, analyzing his experiences, and coming to terms with his feelings.

Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria was exciting and the details were so well described that I felt like I could picture Lagos in my mind. Her insights as a foreigner in America offered a different perspective though I didn’t agree with all of her views. But having lived abroad for several years and then coming back home she has a different perspective on Nigeria.

She left in her late teens or early 20s and is returning as a woman in her 30s. Ifemelu is now a full-fledged adult who has dated other people, seen a bit of the world, and interacted with people from different cultures. She’s had a wealth of experiences that have shaped and changed her into a new version of herself though not a different person.

Returning to Nigeria as an adult requires some adjustment because when she left aside from spending a bit of time at college, she had only lived in her parents’ house. Ifemelu was a student so she didn’t have a job and wasn’t moving in Nigeria’s adult circles. Now she’s able to see Lagos through the eyes of what could be considered a familiar stranger. Someone who knew the country back then but hasn’t been there to see it transition into what it is now. The people that she knew in school are now in different places in life, much like her. From this vantage point, she can offer a similar outsider’s view on Nigeria much as she was able to do in America.

Ifemelu reconnects with old friends based on their childhood relationships and they attempt to rekindle their friendships as adult women. With that comes all of the complexities and drama of adulthood. These would have been teenage girls talking about the boys that they liked and the things they wanted to do in life. And now as grown women, they’re in different places in their lives and still have similar conversations but with the added complexities of adulthood.

We’re privy to the internal dialogues of Ifemelu and Obinze and thus the feelings they don’t share with anyone else. I was holding out hope that they wouldn’t necessarily reunite but at least bump into each other. What would that mean for them as individuals and for these lives they’ve created for themselves? That’s why you have to read Americanah, right?

I couldn’t tell you my favorite part of Americanah as it was constantly changing. I still think Obinze’s mom is probably my favorite character and he’s a close second. I didn’t dislike Ifemelu but I didn’t love her either. At times she just rubbed me the wrong way as there were moments when I thought she was a little bit selfish. She’s not necessarily someone I’d want to be friends with but she is someone whose story I would read.

Even the characters that I didn’t necessarily like, I still enjoyed reading about. And characters that might just pop up on one or two occasions still managed to be interesting. The way that they’re described and the level of detail and backstory which included their mannerisms, ideologies, and just how they move through the world was so well described that you could envision it in your mind’s eye. I can’t think of a single character that struck me as being flat or uninteresting.

This is a relatively long book but I was so wrapped up in the story that I got through it rather fast. It was my first time reading a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I was pleasantly surprised that her writing lived up to and surpassed the hype. I have several of her other books on my list and look forward to working my way through them. The admiration and adulation she’s received as a writer is well deserved.

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