A sprawling tale of love and loss, Americanah tracks the immigrant experience of two Nigerians, childhood sweethearts who seek to improve their lives abroad. Most of the narrative focuses on Ifemelu, a young woman who attends college in the US and encounters a one-two punch of culture shock and severe economic hardship until she leaps from starving student to nanny to successful blogger and public speaker. Her long-time boyfriend Obinze is not so lucky. Denied entry to the US after the attacks of 9/11, he enters England illegally where he endures a humiliating, shadowy existence.
The book is densely populated and the story sometimes rambles on, more like a tale told aloud than one committed to the written page. But it remains overall a rich, warm novel about human struggle and the vagaries of love.
Award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie peppers her work with keen insights. In Nigeria, for example, race is not an issue. Only in America does Ifemelu grapple with what it means to be black, contrasting her life as a NAB – non-American Black – with that of her African American friends. When she blogs on race, she is both snarky and spot on. Re White Privilege: “When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed? When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race? When you use the ‘nude’ color of underwear and BandAids, do you already know that it will not match your skin?” If your answer is no, says Ifemelu, then you have WP.
Western literature bursts with stories of the immigrant experience, but most are told from the perspective of Europeans who crossed the ocean to America’s promised land. Americanah, a national bestseller, provides a different perspective and one well worth reading.