A young Nigerian woman obtains a student visa and begins a new life in the United States in Americanah, providing an insightful account of family, work, and racism in America and beyond.
Ifemelu, our narrator, discusses her early life in her native Nigeria, where her hot-stuff high school boyfriend Obinze internalized all of the American literature available and dreams of life in the United States. He doesn’t get a visa to study there, though. She does. Ifemelu travels to the U.S. and plans to live with her beloved Aunty, who relocated a few years before. She studies and lives on the East Coast, in Princeton and Philadelphia. Ifemelu struggles to find work, to fit in with other black people, and to acclimatize to many other aspects of life in the United States. She finally finds solace in writing about race on a blog that becomes her source of income.
As Ifemelu has all of these adventures, the book at first shows us what’s going on with Obinze, too. He goes to London, where he works illegally and attempts to get a work permit by buying into a scam-marriage plot. That’s how the immigrants manage to obtain legal work permits. But the plan backfires, and Obinze gets deported and returns to Nigeria full of shame and regret. In the meantime, Ifemelu has frozen Obinze out of her life. She embarks on new relationships, forms bonds (romantic and otherwise) and eventually finds her way back home to Nigeria, where she realizes she has changed too much to belong.
I thought I would gain a better insight into culture, race, and the value of education… but most of this novel was about Ifemelu’s relationships. After Obinze she dates a white businessman (the cousin of her employer when she is a nanny) and then a black American professor. She struggles to deal with the friends of each boyfriend, and the social circle interactions provide some interesting commentary. But really this is a well-written love story set over a few borders and a span of a few decades.
The most valuable insight into Ifemelu occurs when her blog entries are included in the text. At one point she tackles how Nigerian women are motivated either a) to marry or b) to have their married lovers provide them with a lavish life style. In fact that is what happens to Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, who gets pregnant in Nigeria by her high-ranking, married lover who then dies, so she is chased by his legal family to the U.S. with their infant son. Once in the U.S. Uju goes to school and supports the baby, working three jobs and eventually finding another man to put her faith in, who disappoints them in turn.
While Ifemelu is either the intellectual equal (or superior) in her relationships, she shows no strength in them. She allows herself to conform to the men she pairs up with, and it’s frustrating. While she does not use them outright like some other females in the book she certainly does not stand apart from them.
Overall I found the book interesting, but not as educational as I think it could be. The identity question is reflected in the title: Americanah is a derogatory term used by Nigerians to describe their countrymen who travel to America and then forget how to be Nigerian. Ifemelu works hard not to lose her accent, for which she is made fun of by her young cousin (Uju’s son). It does behoove her when she returns to Nigeria, though. One of her best blog entries pokes fun at a club meeting she attends for those Nigerians that have lived abroad, and how she is both comforted by those who voice her concerns with the terrible food options (including lack of sandwiches for lunch) and the deplorable living conditions and turned off that she has become such a snob. Give it a read, if only to explore some complicated relationships in the context of culture.