Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51mSJNECGyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

I read this novel on the heels of Things Fall Apart, which is set in late nineteenth century Nigeria.  Americanah is set in both modern-day Nigeria and America, and it was interesting to read something else about Nigeria, written by a native Nigerian.

Americanah is about Ifemelu and Obinze, a young woman and man who grow up in Nigeria, meet and fall in love in high school there.  They both begin college, and Ifemelu has an opportunity to emigrate to America to finish college.  The two plan for Obinze to follow her to America in a year or two, but political turmoil in Nigeria ultimately prevents him from doing so.

Upon her arrival in America, Ifemelu is bewildered.  For the first time in her life, she must confront what it means to be black in a white nation.  She has great difficulty finding a job, and resorts to making money by sordid means to pay her rent and college tuition.  Although it is a single incident, that and her feelings of homesickness and alienation result in depression and in her cutting ties with Obinze back in Nigeria.  He is heartbroken and mystified by Ifemelu’s sudden silence, which ends up spanning many years.  Eventually, Ifemelu secures a position as a nanny to a white family and begins to find her way in this strange country.  She starts a blog the centers around her observations of what it means to be a black American from her perspective as a black non-American.

Meanwhile, Obinze tries unsuccessfully to get to America.  He spends some time in England, arranging for a sham marriage to an English citizen in order to gain citizenship for himself, but is deported back to Nigeria, where he eventually marries and begins to accumulate wealth through questionable means.  Through all of this – which spans about fifteen years – Ifemelu and Obinze are never far from each other’s thoughts.

A lot of the novel takes place in a hair salon specializing in black hair, as Ifemelu recounts her time in American and plans to return to Nigeria.  I never realized how much a part of black culture black hair is until I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair several years back, and a lot of the hair salon scenes in this book called to mind that documentary.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It’s very well written and tells an interesting story, as well as offering a slew of observations about race and racism in America.  The only criticism I have is that there were a number of holes in the story – relationships and incidents that seemed important but suddenly evaporated without resolution.

Still, a very good book.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

image Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

This novel, considered a classic and an important social commentary of the time, was originally published in 1958, during a time of political turmoil in Nigeria.  The story takes place in late nineteenth century Nigeria, and centers around Okwonko, an affluent and respected man in his Ibo tribe.  Okwonko is driven by a desire to be nothing like his own father, a hapless lay about who died deeply in debt, and in his determination to be the man his father never was, tends towards harshness and even cruelty towards his three wives and numerous children.  After years of hard work and determination, Okwonko has achieved and accumulated almost more than he dreamed of, and is on the verge of becoming a titled member of the tribe, when a terrible accident occurs, sending him and his family into exile for seven years.  During that time, European missionaries arrive in Nigeria and bring with them Christianity and their own form of government, which they are determined to see adopted by the barbarian natives.  By the time Okwonko comes out of exile, everything in his village has changed – and most alarming, his eldest son has converted to Christianity.

Achebe unflinchingly describes tribal life at the time, and it’s easy to see it as archaic and barbaric, its superstitious beliefs and rituals ridiculous.  But that’s the way it was, and they held their beliefs as dearly and as sacred as any Christian (and can we really fail to see many Christian rituals and beliefs as superstitious and ridiculous?).  At its heart, the novel is about a man who unwittingly drives his own downfall, and its a harsh criticism of European colonialism.

Very readable.  It’s not a book that I would have chosen on my own to read, but it was chosen by my book club.  My oldest son was assigned this novel in his senior high school English class this past year, so he and I had some good discussions about it.