Americanah: the process of becoming Americanised, and therefore alienated from the place and person you have previously inhabited. Before leaving Nigeria’s strangled university system for the US, Ifemelu (Adichie’s beautiful, plucky and reluctantly Americanised heroine) can’t envisage her Lagos life becoming unfamiliar, but as she is forced to survive in a foreign environment that looks nothing like the shiny pretty place she’s been led to dream of, her adaptation to a new environment mean an alienation from all that was once home.
It is only when she leaves Nigeria that she starts to be identified by the colour of her skin, where the world becomes divided into black and non-black and she begins to unravel, or at least spotlight, the matted morass of American Black, Non-American Black, other minorities and white race relations in her blog, Raceteenth, or Curious Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.
Having left her friends, her parents and her soulmate, Obinze, behind her, time and Nigeria’s infant democracy carry them down lonely rapids of their own as the fragile web linking them to her across the world becomes stretched to breaking point. The novel begins as Ifemelu is subjected to the pain of tight braiding in a salon. Hair – natural, weaved, relaxed – is woven (pun intended) throughout the novel as a developing sign of emerging identity and sense of self-acceptance encapsulated in pithy, political reflections: “When you DO have natural Negro hair, people think you “did” something to your hair… Imagine if Michelle Obama got tired of all the heat and decided to go natural…she would totally rock but poor Obama would certainly lose the independent vote….”
Novel chapters are interspersed with blog posts about observations of race in America such as whether race really is an invention, the simplest solution to the problem of race (Ifemelu’s answer? Romantic love) and an open letter beginning “Dear American Non-Black”.
With a mature voice that has evolved significantly since her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, Americanah novel both overflows with and pokes fun of self-aware academese – its 477 pages would perhaps benefit from a more thorough edit. However, Adichie cleverly broaches the problematic question of what happens when you return home – as the other. Her nail-on-head observations about the other, the expat and the self give us a glimpse into a fascinatingly paradoxical Nigerian culture and will resonate with many South African readers of all cultures – so much so that it should perhaps be prescribed reading.
Americanah is published by Fourth Estate, R210.