This article was first published in the Written Word supplement of the Irish Independent in January 2019.
“Why did people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
Her first novel Purple Hibiscus has featured on the Leaving Cert list of texts on and off since 2009. It is a coming-of-age story of narrator Kambili growing up in a wealthy family dominated by a strictly religious father in post-colonial Nigeria. Americanah is partly set in contemporary Nigeria but also in the United States. It explores the experiences of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the US to attend university. She experiences racism for the first time in America and negotiates her place there as a non-American black person.
Americanah features a rich array of well-developed characters. The protagonist Ifemelu is intelligent and successful academically. Her homelife is difficult with her father losing his government job and her mother’s involvement with an evangelical church. Her first love, Obinze, is her match intellectually and they share a passionate relationship before Ifemelu moves to America and Obinze migrates to the UK where he works illegally. Eventually Obinze is deported back to Nigeria but becomes a successful business man and the two characters reconnect later in life.
The novel explores themes of love, identity, racism, sexism and migration. Ifemelu shares a deep loving connection with Obinze that subsequent relationships fail to match: “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease: her skin felt as though it was her right size.” She also witnesses others in damaging or controlling relationships like that of her Aunt Uju with the General. Relationships are depicted as complex and challenging, even the loving ones.
Both Ifemelu and Obinze face racism in their respective countries of migration and Ifemelu chooses to write a blog about the issues she observes in America called: “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She examines the overt racism of conservatives and the subtle, in-denial racism of liberals: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
She explores topics such as how race effects relationships, race in the workplace and the ever-complicated issue of hair for African women. Go natural and face being described as ‘jungle’ or attempt to emulate white hair with toxic relaxing chemicals?
“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do.”
Ifemelu eventually gives in to the draw of home: “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.” When she returns, she is called ‘Americanah’, a term which is used by Nigerians to refer to returning migrants who have developed American affectations; American accents or ways of doing things. Adichie poses many interesting questions about the experience of migration for people and the position of the returned migrant in society, something very relevant to the experience of 21st century Irish people.
Unsurprisingly Barack Obama has repeatedly listed Americanah among his favourite books and it has topped best seller lists all over the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is clearly a voice to be reckoned with globally, both now and in the future.