Friday, August 29, 2014


Title:  Americanah
Author:   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2013. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0307271080 / 978-0307271082

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Favorite Quote:  "She recognized in Kelsey that nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized American 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."

Americanah travels from Nigeria to the United States and back again. The story travels along three threads - the immigrant experience, the concept and understanding of race and culture, and a love story.

Ifemelu is Nigerian. She comes to the United States to study and becomes an American. She stays for about 15 years. Then, she returns back to Nigeria and becomes an "Americanah" - someone who left and came back different.

In Nigeria, Ifemelu is a young woman like so many others around the world - worried about school, loving towards her family yet embarrassed by them at times, and in love with her boyfriend Obinze. She grows up poor but is able to study at the university in Nigeria. From there, she is able to secure a scholarship to study in the United States.

In the United States, she finds it difficult to find a job and difficult to understand all the cultural differences and racial divides. "It was the commercials that captivated her. She ached for the lives they showed, lives full of bliss, where all problems had sparkling solutions in shampoos and cars and packaged foods, and in her mind they became the real America." She find life to be full of difficulty and obstacles.

She manages to find her way and create a life - a job, an education, a successful online blog, and loving relationships. Yet, she continues to feel herself different and sometimes unsure of who she is. "How can I just be myself? What does that even mean?" As a result, she abandons it all to return to Nigeria after living in the US for about fifteen years.

Upon her return to Nigeria, she reconnects with her old boyfriend, who is now married and with a family. She again finds herself a stranger - an Americanah in this new Nigeria.

To me, this book, more than anything else, is about fitting in and finding your place in the world. I don't think Ifemelu ever quite does that. She never quite commits to creating a fulfilling life in the situation in which she finds herself. Somewhere else and someone else always seems to hold more appeal to her. As such, I find myself getting frustrated with the character and wishing that she would let herself choose.

This theme of being "different" carries through the rest of the book. Her aunt's is a mistress of a general; this sets her apart and different. Ifemelu's mother is on a constant search for a church where she will fit in. Ifemelu's boyfriend Obinze sometimes feels as if her does not belong in his family. His sojourn in England continues that feeling of not belonging. In the United States, Ifemelu finds herself not fitting in with the immigrant population or the "American" population even after living here for over a decade. On her return to Nigeria, she finds herself labeled an "Americanah" and still not belonging.

Underlying this theme is the idea of immigration and of race and culture. Ifemelu's observations on the immigrant experience are enlightening. However, sometimes the kernels of truth get lost in the amount of detail in the book. For example, hair is a big part of her ethnic identity for her. The genetic differences in hair and the cultural importance of hair styles are a key for Ifemelu. Yet, does it really merit a description of several pages to make that point? I want to share in the experience but I don't want to wade through as much detail to find those "a-ha" moments.

The love story - Obinze and Ifemelu - to me is completely unnecessary to the book. The premise of the book is Ifemelu's journey. Obinze goes through his own journey, emigrating to England, being deported, and returning to Nigeria to create what he deems a successful life.

The immigrant experience and the experience of returning "back home" is sufficient to create a powerful story. The love story and particularly the focal point that it becomes towards the end of the book, muddles that main theme. I am still wondering why it is included at all.

In a nutshell, the book has an incredibly strong premise. I loved its observations on the immigrant experience. I did not care as much about the main character or her love story. This leaves my overall reaction somewhere in the middle.

Book Club side note:  This book ended up being a a great book club pick. It led to many discussions about race, cultural and the personal experiences of our very diverse group. We had a reading group guide, but really, the book served as a jumping off point for conversations that went well beyond the book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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