Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's newest novel, Americanah, is an insightful meditation on how humans constantly establish identity through race, ethnicity, heritage, citizenship, education, interests, and love.
The observant and quick-witted protagonist, Ifemelu, emigrates from Nigeria to the United States during her college years, leaving behind her first love, Obinze. Ifemelu quickly learns that race and social standing are complex and entangled in the United States, leading strangers to make assumptions of her based on her skin color. As she struggles for financial and social security, Ifemelu is repeatedly challenged by questions of identity: What are the implications if she dates a white man? Should she have to straighten her hair for a job interview? Should she adopt an American accent?
Once established in the world of American academia, Ifemelu begins collecting her experiences as a "non-American black" in her blog and critically explores the peculiar (and pernicious) quirks of racial identity in America. Meanwhile, a highly-educated Obinze leaves Nigeria for the United Kingdom and struggles financially without proper documentation. Later, he returns to Nigeria and establishes himself as a wealthy man.
The novel begins with Ifemelu's decision to return to Nigeria after years in the United States. She reaches out to Obinze after years of estrangement and both must grapple with their identities as Nigerians who have spent years abroad and lovers who have spent years away from each other.
Adichie's strength is in her ability to write complex characters that are incredibly vivid. She clearly depicts the nuance of mannerisms, speech patterns, and thought processes without taking away from the forward motion of the plot. She draws from her own life experience as a dual citizen, peppering her writing with Igbo language and descriptions of Nsukka, illustrating the world of academia, and encouraging the reader to critically examine cultural norms.
Through Americanah, it becomes apparent that identity is shaped by many diverse factors, becoming flexible for the time, place, people, and circumstance. It makes a great counterpart to The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie's collection of short stories that also explores the theme of identity.
Shannon @ Center Street