I first read Americanah years ago, in early April, while studying for the final exam in my elective course in my fourth year of university. The days had become warm again and the smell of freshly cut grass wafted in the warm breeze as I curled up in the library with a cup of coffee and this book. It was probably the most enjoyable academic experience I had in university. I had passed in my final essays for my other courses and this was the only exam I had that semester. I had done well in everything else for the course and knew that if I simply wrote my name on the exam, I would still pass and be able to graduate. I decided that this was a sign, that it meant I had the privilege of enjoying the book, of simply reading it the way I wanted and not worrying about searching for the themes the professor would want me to highlight in a two hour essay.
That exam was four years ago. I still read Americanah in the spring each year. I think it’s a slightly meditative experience for me, the opportunity to soak up the excellent writing found in this book. As one of my friends from high school once said to me, Adichie “writes prose the way it is meant to be written.” I couldn’t agree more.
At first glance, Americanah is a love story. Adichie tells the story of Nigerian teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze falling deeply in love in secondary school. Ifemelu, strong-willed and sharp-tongued, catches the eye of cool-guy Obinze at a high school house party and they quickly form a relationship. My favourite sections in the book feature dialogue between Ifemelu and Obinze. Adichie has crafted such a beautiful and insightful shared language between the lovers that it makes me want to read and reread each passage dozens of times. Ifemelu’s entry into Obinze’s world introduces her to her first mentor: Obinze’s mother. She’s a single mother, a university professor and a lover of Graham Greene. Her influence on Ifemelu changes the course of her life.
Americanah is also book about Nigeria and the Nigerian diasporic experience in America and the UK. Obinze dreams of going to America after graduation, to chase the life he’s fallen in love with through reading Mark Twain and watching the Cosby Show. Ifemelu is less interested in America, but as fate would have it, she is approved for a visa and Obinze is repeatedly denied. They go their separate ways; Ifemelu to school in America and Obinze to look for work in England.
Ifemelu learns what it means to be Black in America and begins a successful blog about it, which eventually leads to a Princeton fellowship. She enters into two major relationships in America: one with a wealthy white man who just so happens to be her employer’s brother and one with a Black American who has a pain-in-the-ass sister. Obinze is unable to get work and his marriage to gain citizenship is stopped at the last moment, leading to his deportation. He becomes a successful businessman in Lagos, with a gorgeous wife and child. They should be content, but they keep longing for something more. Spoiler: it’s each other.
Americanah is ambitious. Adichie takes on a lot of topics at once: immigration, race, love, money, power and natural hair. She also tackles interracial relationships, privilege and the life changing experiences of leaving home and returning home. I think that everyone agrees that we inevitably change once we leave home. I think the jury is still out on what happens to us when we try to return home, and what happens when home has changed while we were gone.
Americanah is an important book, maybe now more than ever. Reading it is like the feeling of the sun warming your skin on a Saturday morning, or a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years, or the first sip of coffee on a busy day. It just feels right.
Pairs well with: breakfast in the park before the crowds come, jazz music softly playing while you cook.