Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the many authors of African descent who have succeeded in challenging the literary canon through their narrations. She has been described as one of the leading Nigerian diaspora authors of her generation (Murphy, 2017). Adichie discovered her vocation as a storyteller while living in America, but in many of her texts – short stories and novels mainly – she focuses on life in Nigeria. Americanah (2013) is the author’s first extended work of fiction in which she tackles the complexity of being a Nigerian in America. In it, she highlights racism as a difficult social issue and tackles 'blackness' as an living experience sharing common features whether it is lived in Britain, Nigeria or the USA.
In the year Americanah was published, Adichie also became the Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was listed among the New York Times Book Review’s “Ten Best Books of 2013”. She won The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction, also in 2013 for Americanah which subsequently became an NPR “Great Reads” Book, a Washington Post Notable Book, a Seattle Times Best Book, an Entertainment Weekly Top Fiction Book, a Newsday Top 10 Book, and a Goodreads Best of the Year pick. In 2017, Adichie won the “One Book, One New York” campaign.
Americanah is a good example of postcolonial writing, a form of writing which has been “influenced by the imperial process from colonization era to the present day” (Ashcroft et al., 1989: 2). Postcoloniality studies the “ideological forces that forced the colonized to adopt the colonizers' values, on the one hand, and promoted the resistance of colonized peoples against their oppressors, on the other hand” (Tyson, 2006: 418). Nigeria’s cultural changes described by Adichie are caused in large measure by colonialism and its after-effects.
Identity is an important theme in the novel. The reader learns about the two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they grow up and find their place in the world. As a teenager Ifemelu is already smart and outspoken while Obinze is calm and thoughtful. Once she arrives in America, Ifemelu must struggle with her identity as an American-African, an outsider. Among her strategies of coping are her use of an American accent when she speaks and her straightening her hair. Later on in the novel, she gains confidence and embraces her Nigerian identity by giving up her American accent and letting her hair grow naturally, while at the same time dating a rich white man and winning a fellowship to Princeton. The mixture of cultural identities described in the novel seems acceptable for Ifemelu: she inhabits a kind of in-between or hybrid place, where she is neither fully American nor fully Nigerian -- she has become an “Americanah”.
For Obinze adapting to a new cultural identity in England is more difficult than for Ifemelu. His visa expires and he is forced to take on other people’s identities to find work. Obinze feels invisible and worthless, and is finally caught and deported back to Nigeria where he has to build a whole new identity for himself. This new Obinze makes money and ends up marrying a beautiful but uninteresting woman. As a Nigerian “big man”, he is admired by his peers, but feels like an imposter. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the two characters reconnect and try to reconcile the differing identities they have constructed while separated from each other.
Americanah offers readers some form of a critique of race and racism in America, England, and Nigeria. Even though racism exists in her home country Nigeria, Ifemelu first truly discovers race and racism when she is forced to adapt to America’s complex racial politics. Ifemelu then starts a blog about race, entitled “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”, after her enthusiastically received post on happilykinkynappy.com (devoted to natural African hair). In the novel the main discussion on race involves pointing out racism and humanizing both the victims and the perpetrators. However, Adichie also gives examples of people overcoming racism through close friendship and romantic love, which remains the central plot of the novel. Ifemelu and Obinze live a kind of idealized teenage love as they find each other in school and become incredibly close, but they are then separated when Ifemelu goes to America. Separation and connection are metaphorically speaking important themes as the novel includes personal misunderstandings, physical distances, and cultural and racial divides.
Tragi-comic scenes observing and critiquing the cultures of the various locations form part of the novel’s approach to life. When depicting Lagos, Nigeria, Adichie focuses on the culture of corruption and materialism, where people become wealthy through fraud or corruption, officials expect bribes, and women date or marry a man based on his wealth and prestige. In America, racial hierarchy and prejudices are described more obliquely, as well as the prevalence of depression and anxiety in American society. Apart from family, a central role is played by America itself as a symbol of hope, wealth, social and economic mobility, but, ultimately, disappointment as well.
Americanah has been widely read, analysed and criticized. The novel has been acclaimed for the author’s “ability to lambaste society without sneering or patronizing or polemicizing” (Peed, 2013), the realistic feel of her writing (as Ikhide notes: “Many of the characters in Adichie’s Americanah live in my part of America”), her convincing characters and her honesty in describing what she sees, hears or feels (to the point of it being equated to an autofiction). However, others have criticized its length, the amount of anecdotes dotten in, the book’s “pseudo-intellectual over-analysis” which “grates on the weary reader” (Ikhide), her inclusion of too many issues (including New Christianity, clans, men/women relationships). This leads to some only being handled superficially; race, for example, is limited to the binary black/white, while hardly any mention is made of Hispanics and Asians, and none at all about Native Americans. The novel’s caricatural style, lack of authenticity and not-so-innovative structure have also be criticised. For example, with regard to structure, using the blog was seen as innovative by Adichie’s first readers, but later it was noted that this is similar to the use of letters or emails in novels which is not new at all, and some critics view the blog posts as a distraction: “As much as Adichie overreaches herself to make the blogging tone distinct, it really disturbs the reading. Ifemelu can still be a good blogger in the book without including her blog posts (most of which are inchoate) in the book” (http://criticalliteraturereview.blogspot.com/2013/07/americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie.html)). Adichie, having written herself about the importance of authenticity when it comes to writing about Africans (“African “Authenticity” and the Biafran Experience.” Transition 99 (2008):42-53), is careful not to deprive her characters of authenticity. However, once in a while, she fails. For example, Aunty Uju develops an “immigrant insecurity” and seeks affirmation from Caucasian Americans (Americanah 119) because, for her, an American accent is her currency into society. She becomes overzealous and full of pretence, neglecting her own ethnic language, Igbo. Her behaviour robs her of authenticity. As for caricature, Ikhide notes that the Nigerian/African men are all described as “relationship-averse, overweight butt-scratching, belching cave-men, usually absent (at least emotionally) from their kids, pathetic shadows of what they should be”.
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--- Rev. of Americanah by Anthony Cummins. The Spectator. London (04 May 2013). Web. 8 April, 2017.
--- Rev. of Americanah by Anthony Cummins. The Spectator. London (04 May 2013). Web. 8 April, 2017.
--- Rev. of Americanah by Chitra Ramaswamy. The Scotsman. Edinburgh (April 2013). Web. 8 April, 2017.
--- Rev. of Americanah by Christina Lamb. Sunday Times. London (5 March 2017). Web. 8 April, 2017.
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Ikhide, Pa, “Americanah: Through a looking glass glumly”, 26 June 2013, https://xokigbo.com/2013/06/26/americanah-through-a-looking-glass-glumly/.
Murphy, E. (2017). New Transatlantic African Writing: Translation, Transculturation and Diasporic Images in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah, Prague Journal of English Studies, 6(1), 93-104. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/pjes-2017-0006.
Peed, Mike, “Realities of Race - ‘Americanah,’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”, 7 June 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/books/review/americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie.html.
Torkornoo, Edem, “When a Book Feels too Familiar: A Review of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah”, Ayiba Magazine, http://issues.ayibamagazine.com/when-a-book-feels-too-familiar-a-review-of-chimamanda-adichies-americanah/. Online (last accessed August 25, 2014).
Citation: Ferreira-Meyers, Karen. "Americanah". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 01 November 2018 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=35020, accessed 01 June 2023.]