Early on in Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s big, moving, deeply provocative new novel, Ifemelu, a Nigerian attending college in Philadelphia, goes shopping. She is accompanied by a friend from childhood who has lived in the United States for several years. When she goes to pay, Ifemelu’s friend cannot remember the name of the saleswoman who assisted her. “Was it the one with long hair?” the cashier asks. Both saleswomen have long hair. “The one with dark hair?” Both have dark hair. Afterward Ifemelu wonders, “Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?’” Her friend laughs. “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”
Americanah is built out of these moments—each a tiny pinprick in the giant balloon of hot air that has swollen around the subject of race in post-civil-rights-era America, its shell constructed out of all the things we politely, absurdly evade. It is the third novel by Adichie, who was born in Nigeria and now divides her time between the United States and her home in Lagos. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set during the brutal Biafran war that tore Nigeria apart in the 1960s, was one of the most impressive works of fiction of the last decade: ambitious, convincingly researched, beautifully imagined. It is not a stretch to say that her finely observed new book, which combines perfectly calibrated social satire and heartfelt emotion, stands with Invisible Man and The Bluest Eye as a defining work about the experience of being black in America. More than race, Americanah is about all the ways people form their identities: what we put on and what we take off, the things we accumulate and those we discard along the way.
When we first encounter her, thirteen years after her arrival in America, Ifemelu has become a fish comfortably adapted to her new sea, with a successful blog on the subject of “Understanding America for the Non-American Black” and a professor boyfriend who eats tempeh. Adichie is as precise on the details of contemporary American life as Updike or Franzen, from the local ice-cream shop where the flavors include red pepper to the man on the train platform who addresses her “with the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service.” Yes, we recognize this; she knows her stuff. Yet as secure as Ifemelu appears to be, she is about to upend her comfortable American existence and move back to Nigeria. She feels that she is living a false life. Also, there is her old boyfriend, Obinze, for whom she carries a “small, still-burning light.”
The novel moves back and forth between the pair, starting with Ifemelu on the cusp of her return home and zigzagging back over the course of their lives, together and apart. As a child, Ifemelu admired the cool kids in school who traveled abroad on vacations, with their “air of away.” But it was Obinze who was certain that one day he would ride in the taxicabs of Manhattan. The son of college professors, he grows up “fluent in the knowledge of foreign things.” Their adolescent romance feels predestined: “With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” He remains her lifeline through her first bewildering months in America. Everything is confusing, from the food (the imported oranges and bananas seem pale replicas of the fruits she knows) to the other college students, who say “I’m not sure” when they mean “I don’t know” and insist on carefully untangling the dinner check to make sure that everyone pays for their own order. She feels so isolated that she is touched to discover a piece of junk mail with her name on it: “Somebody knew her.”
These bumps are fairly gentle, at least in hindsight. But Ifemelu has a bigger problem than navigating the social mores: She is turned down for job after job, for reasons she does not understand—her accent? her hair? (“You do what you have to do if you want to succeed,” a more seasoned arrival explains as she takes out her braids.) As financial stress threatens to overwhelm her, she does something desperate, and then cuts off Obinze, a decision she will regret for the next decade. America, a culture that fetishizes difference but is only comfortable with conformity, has unraveled them.
Soon Obinze has his own sojourn abroad, a three-year stay in England during which he scrubs toilets and attempts to arrange a green-card marriage. Like Ifemelu, he must work illegally, using an identity card borrowed from another Nigerian—“All of us look alike to white people”—so that he cannot even tell his coworkers his true name. In a particularly moving scene, he notices one morning that they are behaving strangely, secretively, and worries that someone has tipped off the authorities. It turns out they are concealing a surprise—it is his birthday, or rather the birthday of the man whose identity he has assumed. But then someone does betray him, and he is deported, humiliatingly, before the sham marriage can be finalized. Back in Lagos, he becomes a wealthy businessman, with a beautiful wife, a driver, a fancy house; but he, too, senses “a hollow space between himself and the person he was supposed to be.” To feel comfortable in one’s skin is not just a matter of nationality or social culture; it has equally (if not more) to do with living according to one’s own internal truth, whatever that might be.
Those who stand outside are in a good position to look in, and it is Adichie’s remarkable powers of observation that drive this novel. Every detail feels relevant, because they all work as markers of what the novel calls “costume”: the mannerisms and affectations that we use to create an image of ourselves in the eyes of others, and even ourselves. When Ifemelu, during a long afternoon in a hair-braiding parlor, eats her own granola bar rather than join the other immigrant women in ordering greasy takeout, it is part of her costume, a way of asserting her own assimilatedness. Likewise, when she gets back to Nigeria, her new tastes—a fondness for quinoa, for instance—are also a form of costume, separating her from those who have stayed put. To them, she is an “Americanah,” a person who pretends to no longer fit in as a way of asserting her difference, and her superiority. The problem is that Ifemelu’s years abroad truly have changed her. She can never quite fit in in America, but now she does not entirely belong in Nigeria, either.
Ifemelu uses all her accumulated observations on race and class as fodder for her blog posts, which are deployed throughout the novel like tiny mines. (She will explain, after returning to Nigeria, that she “discovered race in America.”) There is her white employer Kimberly, who calls every black woman she knows “beautiful.” The camp counselor who puts sunscreen on all the kids except the black one. Her white American boyfriend, whose family makes her worry that if they got married, his relatives would wonder why “the help was wearing the bride’s dress.” What Adichie is pointing out is less blatant racism (although the novel has its share of that) than a subtler, if similarly pernicious, problem: the mostly well-meaning white people who perpetuate separation between blacks and whites by insisting on the essential difference between the races, even if they believe they are doing so in a benevolent way.
Americanah is self-consciously skeptical about the ability of fiction—or at least a certain kind of fiction—to bring about understanding. In England, Obinze reads contemporary American novels in the hope of finding “a resonance, a shaping of his longings, a sense of the America that he had imagined himself a part of.” But the fiction lacks urgency; it feels ephemeral. Ifemelu, too, complains about the books her professor boyfriend gives her to read, “novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things . . . each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” What they are both objecting to is the emotion-deflecting irony that has trended over the last decade or so, which shies away from meaningful political or aesthetic engagement.
The book that Adichie seems to propose as a counterpoint is, astonishingly, The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene’s 1948 novel of colonialism in West Africa, which appears repeatedly throughout Americanah. It is a morality tale about adultery and Catholicism that plays out exclusively among the book’s white characters; the “natives” are virtually invisible. Greene doesn’t even name the country in which the novel takes place. And yet Obinze’s mother, a professor, presses the book upon Ifemelu: “It is a wise book. The human stories that matter are those that endure.” She responds to the book not as a black person or a white person, but simply as a human being, even if that means closing her eyes to its offensive racial dynamics. Like Greene’s novel, Americanah shrugs off pretense and speaks the truth about how hard it is to live a life divided, whether between two people or between two countries. “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country,” Ifemelu is lectured (by a particularly annoying character) at one point. By the time the line appears in this book, it has already been proved false.
It is rare to come upon a novel that genuinely alters one’s view of the world. For me, Americanah was one of those books, because it forced me to confront so many things that I myself have glossed over or pretended not to notice. There was a moment when I even saw myself as I might appear to one of the characters. As Obinze is led in handcuffs through the Manchester airport on his way back to Nigeria, he notices a white woman hurrying ahead of him, “hair flying behind her, knapsack hunched on her back. She would not understand his story, why he was now walking through the airport with metal clamped around his wrists.” I flinched when I read those lines, because that might have been me: a privileged white woman who does not notice another’s agony. But I think I can say that I do understand his story, and the others in this book, through the force of Adichie’s talent.
Ruth Franklin is a contributing editor at the New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2010), which is now out in paperback. She is at work on a biography of the American writer Shirley Jackson.