I can’t imagine growing up in a country today where electricity is not guaranteed; where cockroaches in the kitchen don’t shock and where education is often missed due to the constant striking of teachers. It is difficult to comprehend having to live during a time of military rule, where they are continually trying to overthrow political regimes, causing people to flee their own country but that is exactly the Nigeria I began to read about in Americanah.
Americanah: The Story
Ifemelu and Obinze are teenagers growing up in Lagos when they fall head over heels in love. Not the kind of love that fizzles out with age, but the once-in-a-lifetime kind of love that continues to grow even when they are not together. Destined to remain together after school finishes they apply to head off to Nsukka University together and that unfortunately is where things start to go wrong.
With the seemingly unending strikes, the university closes down frequently causing students to worry about their education and whether they would ever receive a degree. It is therefore decided that Ifemelu would follow her Aunty Uju to the States in order to find her education there and then Obinze. Seems simple enough, however, no-one considered the implications on immigration post 9/11 and therefore while Ifemelu begins a new life in a modern Western country, Obinze struggles to gain a visa that will see him reunited with his one true love.
Instead, the only hope Obinze has is to first go to the UK, work there for a while and then move on to the US in the hope that he can rekindle his love with Ifemelu.
After gaining her visa and a sponsorship for study, Ifemelu heads off to what she hopes will replicate an episode of ‘The Crosby Show’ or ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ but is quick to realise that even in America things are not all rosy and while having to deal with cockroaches in Nigeria, she feels slightly disillusioned about the prospect of having to co-exist with them in The States. She also didn’t realise just how much everything would cost in the wonderful world of the free and therefore the most she can aim for is a small room in a shared apartment with people that clearly do not like her.
Mean while, Obinze’s luck in the UK is no better. His visa has run out so he cannot get a job as he doesn’t have a National Insurance number which means he has no money. Friends are supportive, offering him a room and money until he gets on his feet but perhaps a life in England just wasn’t meant to be. The final straw however comes when immigration pick him up at the registry office just before his ‘arranged marriage’ to a UK citizen. Deportation is the ultimate sacrifice, and he returns to Nigeria deflated and demoralised. The hardest part however, is the fact that he cannot talk to Ifemelu about his struggles because since moving to America she has cut off all contact with him, for a reason completely unknown to him.
Back in Nigeria Obinze becomes the successful business man, while Ifemelu remains in America, gains a fellowship at Princeton and begins a successful lifestyle blog focusing on the issues that she faces. Life continues for both of them. Both have relationships with others that seem quite meaningful but are they destined to last?
Is this is a story of a great love lost or will their paths collide once again?
How Americanah made me think about more than just the story
Reading Americanah I did start to question the struggles faced by those moving to a new country. Where do you fit in? How does the culture differ to one that you are so familiar with? How do other people see you? Is it often the case that you move somewhere thinking that life will become so much better only to be disappointed with the outcome? Is it worse for those of a different race?
Ifemelu highlights that back in Nigeria race is not even discussed and in fact, race never even became an issue until moving to America. Perhaps it is not even a race issue but the perceptions we form over the cause of time about a different nationality.
“I cannot marry a Nigerian and I won’t let anybody in my family marry a Nigerian… Not all but many of them do bad things, even killing for money”. (Page 207)
Surely any culture, race, nationality can do bad things, are known for killing others for petty rewards but to be on the receiving end of comments like this is unimaginable and yet I am sure that while this is a fictional work, Nigerians along with many others, encounter comments like this on a daily basis.
I began to think… do I actually know anything about Nigeria? Only one thing comes to mind. While working in banking I became increasingly aware of what is known as a 419 scam, which is a form of fraud commonly committed by Nigerians. Other than that my knowledge of this African country is non-exist. In fact, until reading Amercianah I was not even aware that they struggled with Military Coups. I didn’t know that the Nigerian Film Industry (termed Nollywood) existed or that Nigeria is home to more than 250 ethnic groups that seemingly live together quite well. I am sure that if I keep looking there will be more positive articles I could read about the country but influences that I have grown up with, just like everyone else, have impacted on my knowledge and my understanding.
I also started to think about how black women are portrayed to us.
“…in American pop culture, beautiful dark women are invisible… In movies, dark black women get to be the fat nice mommy, or the strong, sassy, sometimes scary sidekick standing by supportively. They get to dish out wisdom and attitude while the white woman finds love. But they never get to be the hot woman, beautiful and desired and all.” (Page 238)
I found myself pondering this for quite some time and realised that it is quite true and yet once again because of the society I have grown up in I never questioned it; never actually even thought about it.
Why I think others should read Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a powerful story which challenges how you think about the world. In my opinion, this was never going to simply be a love story; it was always going to be a thought-provoking novel. It is a book that causes you to think and makes you consciously aware of the prejudice views all around us (perhaps even our own). It is a book that should be read, digested and discussed with others, not simply placed on a shelf to gain dust.
Of course, everyone has preconceived ideas, including the author herself which she highlights during a TED talk called: The danger of a single story.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was first published in March 2017, but I stumbled upon it after signing up for the 2019 Travel Reading List Challenge. After reading the story synopsis I knew it would be ideal for the one-word title prompt.
Other books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie include:
Have you read any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels? Perhaps you have read a different thought-provoking book that you would like to share with others.