I recently read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, for my Black Novel class here at Rutgers with Professor Cheryl Wall. It is, by at least 35 years, the most contemporary book I have ever read for an actual academic class, including all the books I read for my classes in high school. Not only was it unexpectedly refreshing to read something younger than I am, but the novel proved that you don’t have to go back generations to find a book worth discussing.
Americanah is a coming of age novel about the challenges of immigration, the notion of race, and the search for one’s own identity in today’s world, which includes the complications of online media. Ifemelu, the main character, immigrates to America as a college student, determined to escape the constant strikes that interrupt her studies in Nigeria. The novel follows her as she struggles to navigate the United States, with passages from familiar places such as Philadelphia, Trenton, and Princeton. My personal knowledge of some of the places Ifemelu experiences made the novel come alive.
Another fascinating aspect of Americanah is the way in which Adichie uses digital media to tell the story. Ifemelu starts a blog when she is in America, and through these blog posts, the reader comes to understand her struggles with race and identity in a new place. She is not used to being seen as a black woman, her identity defined solely by her physical characteristics. In America, she has her first white boyfriend, who seems to “collect” foreign women; she is asked to give the “black perspective” in her classes by professors that assume her life experiences based on the color of her skin, and she becomes invested in the election of Barack Obama and the importance his leadership as a black man holds for many of her close friends.
The novel moves through time and space, not only charting Ifemelu’s experiences in the United States in a non-chronological manner, but following the life of her old college boyfriend from Nigeria as well. Obinze and Ifemelu seem to be meant for one another, but after she moves to America, they cannot help but to grow apart. Obinze has always wanted to go to America–he idolizes the culture of the country, only reading American books, only watching American films, and staying up-to-date in current political and social issues there. However, when he is given the opportunity to leave Nigeria, he has no choice but to go the England. His experiences there are very different from Ifemelu’s in America, and the contrast between the two is striking.
The transnational scope of the novel gives the reader the unique chance to read about the issues of immigration, race, and class from several different perspectives. Americanah is a book that addresses the issues of race and identity in American, questioning the notion of belonging. It truly is one of the most unique novels I have ever read, following the characters and they cross borders and deal with the challenges of finding out who they are in a completely unfamiliar space.
If you are looking for a great novel for the next few weeks of winter break, I cannot stress enough how fulfilling of a read Americanah is. Though it is long (almost 600 pages!) it reads quickly and easily, and is definitely worth it. Check it out!