About America, but Not From It
On Adichie's Americanah
By Emily Burns Morgan
Skin color and ethnicity are much-discussed issues in this book. I almost wrote that they are of “great importance,” and they are, but not in the way I think most Americans would expect. That is because Americanah is not an American book. It is about America, but from an outsider’s perspective, a point Adichie makes most clear through Ifemelu’s posts for her blog, titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” Through Ifemelu, we gain insight into American attitudes about race from someone who both is and is not immediately affected by them. This creates an unusual and enlightening opportunity for American readers to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes.
Ifemelu moves to the United States in order to pursue her education after constant strikes in Nigeria have delayed her coursework there indefinitely. Her high school sweetheart, Obinze, stays behind, although the two at first plan to resume their relationship after graduation. After a particularly traumatic experience in America, however, Ifemelu cuts off all contact with Obinze. Though he continues to call and write and has no idea what went wrong, Ifemelu stops responding to his messages, and even changes her contact information so that he can’t reach her. Although the particulars are unique, many of us, in all walks of life, can recall the experience of a relationship ending in silence, with no explanation. I related to this particular episode quite strongly, and felt an intense connection to Obinze—though our situations are different, I sympathized deeply with a young person cut off suddenly and completely from someone he cares about. The fact that I’m a white, female American made no difference to my identification with Obinze, a black, male Nigerian, in this regard.
Adichie, I think, intends this alignment; by occasionally allowing us into Obinze’s thoughts, we get to know the man, and that knowledge both increases our sympathy and complicates our reaction to his later, less-than-admirable behavior. In this way Adichie’s text resists simplistic boxes—for characters and for readers. Switching between Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s views, Adichie suggests that regardless of appearances, inside we are all made up of the same stuff. In other words, to reference Hurston again, we are like “bag[s] of miscellany propped against a wall. …In company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless.” That mixture of “priceless” and “worthless”—of societies as well as individuals—is very much at play in Americanah.
Another way Adichie brings complexity to her narrative is by having Ifemelu engage in a series of relationships. Zadie Smith, in a recent conversation with Adichie on Between the Lines, compares the structure of Americanah to Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The similarity did not occur to me while I was reading (I was too caught up in the story), but it makes perfect sense. Like Hurston’s Janie, Ifemelu learns something from each of her relationships, first with Obinze (an Igbo Nigerian), then Curt (a white American), and then Blaine (a black American). I won’t tell you which man she ends up with, as the book ultimately ends up a love story.
Of course, the most important complicating factor here is Ifemelu herself. Her cruel treatment of Obinze notwithstanding (her reasons are both illogical and understandable), Ifemelu is a highly sympathetic and appealing character. She’s “strong”—something she points out that black women in America are both admired and feared for being—and she’s often funny, which takes some of the sting out of her anger, an emotion she convincingly claims is viewed as dangerous when displayed in black women in this country. Ifemelu makes these prescriptions in her blog, mostly, though now and then they pop out at inappropriate times, like dinner parties or during brunch with her rich white boyfriend’s mother. I liked the blog posts and thought they worked well for what Adichie is trying to do here, which is not, I think, to make definite statements about how people should be, but rather to observe how they are, how they think they are, and how they think they think they are. A careful reader should not automatically accept all characters’ comments about race as “true.” Instead, we are meant to decide on a case-by-case basis if we can trust the characters’ judgments. Though it’s tempting to read much of what’s expressed as the author’s opinions, doing so is too simplistic. Although her prose is, to quote Smith again, quite “lucid,” Adichie resists simplicity in the ways I mentioned above, and by having her characters express convincing but contradictory views on many things, including but by no means limited to race relations. The reader is left to sort out prejudice from analysis, thereby exploring her own attitudes and behaviors regarding differences of many kinds.
Adichie straddles multiple genres, modes, and perspectives in this novel, moving seamlessly between “serious” subjects like race, ethnicity, and post-colonialism and more “sentimental” ones, like romantic and familial relationships. But as Smith, too, points out, what, after all, is more important than who you choose to make your life with? And what contributes more to where you feel at home than those relationships? To separate the personal from the political is a false dichotomy. Adichie is too smart to make such a mistake.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.