Americanah: To Feel Always Out of Place

americanah

Americanah is a novel with great deal of vitally important things to say about the role of race and gender in America juxtaposed with class and gender in Nigeria. What is Americanah? It is the way of being that Nigerians bring back to Nigeria after being in America for a prolonged period of time. In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s character Ifemelu, it is a personal feeling of loneliness and the suspicion that one no longer belongs or fits in either place. Americanah, like most of the novel, is multifaceted, and it is to Adichie’s credit that the novel carries such a firm grasp of dimensions in not only people, but ideas. Yet, it is this very dimension of the novel that is most interesting, as Ifemelu’s feelings of being trapped within what society expects of her or at the very least what she can do within society without truly upsetting the rigid structure that upholds systemic racism are what makes the novel devastating in reflection, as it is a nagging thought as to whether or not Ifemelu accomplishes her goals.

Americanah, to be clear, is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze- though Ifemelu is the major focus of the story- two young lovers in Nigeria who are separated from one another when Ifemelu begins going to school in America and Obinze must stay behind. When silence begins to grow between them due to Ifemelu’s inability to talk to Obinze about taking a small job as an escort when she was at the end of her rope financially, they each begin two distinctly different lives, Ifemelu becoming obsessed with the idea of race in America and Obinze moving to England and simply attempting to stay afloat above poverty and keep his residency legal. What is shared between them, even when they do not speak, is a shared experience of all humans: the feeling of not belonging. Both highly intelligent characters, Ifem and Obinze see through people and struggle to stay happy in a world that they cannot truly identify to people as who they truly are: Obinze due to his need to take a fake name to work in England, and Ifem, after finding a job in which she did not have to have a fake name, living a life in which she is surrounded by people who do not tell the truth as she understands it. She begins to see race as this thing that haunts every interaction Americans have.

This haunting is strange to her as a Nigerian, as she never felt her skin color beyond beauty standards until she arrived in America. As her observations and interactions with people begin to mount, she begins a blog in which she describes race relations in America from a “non-American Black’s” perspective. The posts she writes are sprinkled throughout the novel, usually at the end of chapters, with the occasional one in the middle of a chapter if it directly relates to the situation Ifem was most recently dealing with. These posts are incredibly interesting, written without jargon and with clear meaning and challenging intent. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the structure in which they are present could be used more effectively. Often they simply appear, as from thin air, at the end of a chapter. At times they directly relate to the situation at hand, but other moments, despite how interesting they are, a read may find themselves puzzled as to why the post is necessarily here or there.

And in the end, this is perhaps the main issue I kept having with Americanah, that I did not understand the structure of it. It did not read much like a novel as much as it did a collection of happenings to someone. Ifemelu was a great character to be around and learn from, but when the novel left her for Obinze, even for a just a chapter or two, it undeniably lost some of its steam. Obinze really maintained his interest only around Ifemelu, who was truly the electric character of the novel. While I appreciated the actual love story of Ifem and Obinze, I also think it was irrelevant. That if Obinze did not exist in the novel, I’m not sure the novel changes that much. If anything it becomes better. But, this is essentially the point of Americanah, what is Ifem to do when the only place she has ever belonged whatsoever was in the company of Obinze? Americanah, once one has adopted it, is nearly a perpetual state of being an outsider, whether it be around American people of color or Nigerian.

Americanah, while having its faults in my eyes, is most importantly a challenging novel. Not in the way that the novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses are, but in what it is about. In a way few writings do, it cuts to the heart of the matter on American racism and class structure in a way that many will not only find upsetting, but will likely cause real, tangible anger. In that sense, it does exactly what art is supposed to be doing: challenging and changing us, provoking some sort of response to a call we may or may not be ready to hear.

Recommended to: Those with real interest in racism in America. Do not step into Americanah expecting a story that will sweep you away, if anything the novel has no plot whatsoever while maintaining the aesthetic of having one. Instead, step into it expecting vignettes and meditations that can change the way you think.

Avoid as if it is a Facebook argument about the nature of the Bible: If I told anyone to avoid this I would be angry with myself. This is truly an important read that goes beyond any grumblings I have about structure of novels. What could be more irrelevant?

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