In an interview with NPR Chimamanda Adichie defines Americanah (M) as a Nigerian word that playfully describes a person who has spent some time in the United States and returns unable to understand her first language, or whose palate has so changed that the local food is no longer acceptable, or for whom the lack of air conditioning is suddenly a problem.
In Adichie’s novel of the same name, Ifemelu is the Americanah who returns to Lagos after thirteen years away to find both herself and her country changed. The central characters, Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze, are intelligent, well-educated, middle-class Nigerians whose desire to leave their country is attributed to an “overwhelming lethargy of choicelessness”. Obinze, throughout his life, has admired the United States, but finds he is unable to secure a visa so he ends up in England. Ifemelu has an aunt already in the US and her entry is smoother. They share the same dream of an education and well-paying jobs, but each fare differently. Obinze finds that he must take increasingly lower paid jobs until finally his visa runs out. He attempts various schemes to work under another’s name and even planning a sham marriage, only to find himself deported back to Nigeria. There, success comes suddenly to him and his is disoriented by his immediate wealth, so he marries a beautiful and conventional woman to bring order to his life.
Ifemelu, whose story takes up the majority of the book, finds success as a blogger and a public speaker. She is a woman of great confidence who is well aware that she is intelligent and beautiful and that men are attracted to her. She also discovers for the first time that she is black.
In Nigeria she was defined by her ethnicity, Igbo, not by the colour of her skin. Her confidence wavers for a bit while she masters an American accent and straightens her hair in order to make herself more employable. This disguise does not last long, and she resumes her natural hair and her Nigerian accent, feeling free once again. Ifemelu’s blog is a series of observations and blunt opinions of the difference between being an African-American and an American-African. She translates North American culture through the eyes of an immigrant pointing out things that she finds absurd that sometimes makes others feel uncomfortable. She describes the United States as a country that has a hierarchy based on skin colour, while at the same time must pretend not to notice skin colour.
Americanah is many things – social satire and commentary on issues of race and class, an immigrant’s story, and a love story. The characters are richly described and have a gentleness and morality about them that makes me think of novels by Alexander McCall Smith. This is also an issues based book that is both private thought-provoking and would be an excellent candidate for group discussion.
Another choice might be White Teeth (M) by Zadie Smith. “The book’s home base is a scrubby North London borough, where we encounter Smith’s unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal, who served together in the so-called Buggered Battalion during World War II. In the ensuing decades, both have gone forth and multiplied: Archie marries beautiful, bucktoothed Clara–who’s on the run from her Jehovah’s Witness mother–and fathers a daughter. Samad marries stroppy Alsana, who gives birth to twin sons. Here is multiculturalism in its most elemental form: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.” Big questions demand boldly drawn characters. Zadie Smith’s aren’t heroic, just real: warm, funny, misguided, and entirely familiar. Reading their conversations is like eavesdropping. Even a simple exchange between Alsana and Clara about their pregnancies has a comical ring of truth.” Discover