Though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel maintains its vibrant discursiveness for nearly 500 pages, one of its pinnacles comes right at the start, when a visit to an African hair salon in a depressed part of New Jersey propels our Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, into a fascinating series of cultural exchanges.
For Aisha, the blank-faced Senegalese stylist who’ll be braiding her hair for the next six hours, Ifemelu feels both affinity and contempt. Yet initially it’s Aisha who holds the reins in their transaction. “It look dirty,” she says dismissively about the colour of hair extensions Ifemelu chooses. And when Ifemelu tells Aisha not to pull her braids so tight she pretends not to understand, though Ifemelu knows that she does.
The shift comes with the inevitable question: how long has Ifemelu been in America? After stretching 13 years into 15, Ifemelu takes “perverse pleasure” in intimidating Aisha with the fact that she just completed a fellowship at Princeton. She also tells her that, despite having US citizenship, she’s decided to move back to Nigeria. “Why?” asks Aisha incredulously. “Why? Why not?” Ifemelu retorts. It’s only when Ifemelu lies and says she’s going to see “her man” that something like understanding passes over Aisha’s face.
The irony is that Ifemelu is returning to Nigeria, in part, because she’s grown weary of the kind of smug American superiority she displays toward Aisha in the microcosm of the hair salon. And it’s this protean, grass-is-always greener aspect of identity that Americanah gets exactly right: our tendency to define ourselves as much by where we come from as in opposition to where we are.
Going to Nigeria means seeing Obinze, Ifemelu’s first love from her teen years, and the prospect of this fills her with anticipation and dread. When the two had their university studies interrupted by a series of nationwide strikes, Obinze, an Americanophile since childhood, had encouraged Ifemelu to apply for a scholarship in the US, the plan being that he’d finish his degree then join her for graduate school.
Ifemelu easily gets a student visa. And after a year of poverty and depression begins to settle into her role as an “Americanah”— the vaguely pejorative Nigerian term for an expat. Without asking herself why, she cuts off contact with Obinze and begins a series of other relationships. Curt is white, wealthy and relentlessly, almost infantilely, upbeat; Blaine an earnest, African-American intellectual. Both of them worship her.
Race in America, Ifemelu finds, is an exhausting minefield of heightened awareness, feigned obliviousness and political pieties. She begins writing an anonymous blog on the subject and its unexpected success leads to lucrative speaking engagements and the chance to attend an Ivy League graduate school. When she returns to Nigeria, where race isn’t an issue, she gives the blog up.
Meanwhile, after being turned down for a visa in the post-9/11 tightening of hatches, a heartbroken Obinze makes his way to the UK, where he works under false names while waiting for the sham marriage he’s paid thousands for. When the plan fails spectacularly, Obinze faces a humiliating deportation back to Nigeria, where he eventually finds material success working in real estate and marries a beautiful, unchallenging woman.
Long presided over by giants such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe (who died in March) and Ben Okri, Nigeria’s rich literary tradition is now making way for an exciting new wave of savvy, modern and outward-looking writers including Adichie, Igoni Barrett, Nnedi Okorafor and Teju Cole. Like Julius, who roams the streets of Manhattan in Cole’s novel Open City, Ifemelu is a character we respect but don’t always like. She’s perceptive and smart but also prone to intellectual arrogance and hypocrisy, a mix that propels her, and this novel, thrillingly forward.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor