by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/US)
2013/ 496 pages
read by Adjoa Andoh- 17h 28m
rating: 9.5 / contemp. immigrant fiction
(read and listened)
A reading group decided to read this and although I’ve read it twice (back-to-back in 2013) I decided to try the Audible version as a reminder read. I’m glad I did – the narrator, Adjoa Andoh, is new to me and very good. And as with all really good books, I made several other “discoveries” on this 3rd reading so I have upped my rating to a 10 – holding up for 3 readings over a span of several years is incredible.
My prior review with no spoilers is at:
And there is a “Notes” section (with spoilers) at:
And as an off-site link in which there are spoilers as well as some dazzling braids:
Okay it’s about hair – women’s hair -black women’s hair and how that works as a symbol of social status or, more specific to the book, to symbolize the protagonist’s struggles with assimilation and success.
Because this reading is basically for a reminder of a great book read (and reread) years ago the review will be short. There were parts I really didn’t remember although I recalled them as the narrative went along – “Oh yeah, this part’s great,” and I knew exactly how the book ends. But as I said, there were a couple or three new insights:
- One kind of major surprise I don’t believe I really consciously noticed on prior readings is there is a frame story. This frame includes the braid salon where Ifemelu is getting her hair braided for her trip back to Nigeria. That story is only broached in Chapters 1, 3 and 9 and then skips to Chapter 41 after which it becomes the only story. The other chapters concern Ifemelu’s backstory – or the tale leading up to the current day in the braid salon and also includes Obinze in his current situation in Africa – Chapter 42 and on – there may be a couple other parts to it.
2. Another newish thing is the theme of “home.” I think one of the reasons Ifemelu doesn’t really ever “fit” in the US and never really feels at “home,” is that she has a home and it’s not here. Her home, where she brings her values from, is Nigeria. That’s a big reason behind the clash with Blaine and Shan. The question of who is more authentically Black gets quite mixed up and there is a huge difference between being raised in a place where the idea of race is quite important (see Between the World and Me by
Is the reason Ifemelu never really assimilates her problem, or is it the nature of the assimilation, the expectations of both Americans (of all colors) and her own?
3. It’s hard to make generalizations about immigrants – each is different. I think each immigrant experiences the change differently and even among those who return “home,” (Ifemelu and Obinze, both), there are more differences between the individuals than one can generalize about.
4. There are feminist aspects to the novel – Auntie Uju’s relationship with
the General is one kind of male/female association, Ifemelu’s relationship with her boyfriends, Curt and Blaine, is another – maybe similar? And then her relationship with Obinze is quite another male/female relationship.
On the other hand, Kosi’s relationship with Obinze has its own characteristics – she plays another kind of woman. It’s not limited to blacks – Kimberly is totally besotted with her husband and he’s besotted with himself as well. And the women in the braid salon show the many ways a woman’s role can be played out.
** Actually, the whole idea of hair as representative of social status vs nature and “what will you put yourself through to get it “right,” is the women’s issue of the book.
But I wonder if the bit about Obinze in London off-sets the hardest part of Ifemelu’s story – they both have to do what they do (or try to do) in order to survive an immigration process. It’s not just a female issue here.
Interestingly enough, I also recently (like in January!) reread the book Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2009) which features a young immigrant woman and her adventures in coming from Ireland in the 1950s. It’s about her homesickness and troubles and her desire to return to Ireland is intense. That’s the main issue, really. She does find a fit though – there were lots of Irish and other immigrants in New York in those days and she’s quite similar in terms of background. Ifemelu, on the other hand, is very different from others in her environment because of her skin color and education, as well as having Obinze at home and other things – like a herring in a sea of mackerel.
On one level these two books are both about finding a home. I should write a post about the similarities – both bright women – are they both strong? Do they make different choices? The time frames are different and that might make a huge difference. – Hmmmm…. This is opening up whole avenues of thought.
Back to Americanah – another thing I’m impressed with yet again is the depth and breadth of alienation immigrants from seriously different cultures feel. The salienation stretches from clothes to language and accents, how to behave in different social situations, and hairstyles.
If Ifemelu doesn’t know how to be assimilated, she feels diminished –
– she really wants to be acculturated immediately and when she’s successful she is buoyant – but accompanying that there is the loss of her home culture – because if you’re gone too long … – see Auntie Uju’s first US boyfriend.
The satire is never mean-spirited but it really pulls no punches and it’s hard to read, in part because it’s true, but also in part because the reader comes to care about Ifemulu – the sex for money scene is haunting – or it should be – it haunts her.
The book is still great or I wouldn’t be actually reading it yet again. I still put it in league with the best of Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and I felt like I was revisiting a good friend (as they say). I smiled a lot re-reading this.
“The best thing about America is that it gives you space. I like that. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Page 433
This is a really long book – and it really is, in large part, about hair.
There are many (!) book reviews around so I’m not going to even bother to put them here. The only criticism I saw was about the structure and although I didn’t see that as a flaw – what Adichie tried was perhaps too subtle. ? –
**** The movie – (which I likely won’t see):
Book trailer – (quite good) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylnproe4fwU
and there are interviews as links
Nigeria today 12/2015 – conversation with Adichie:
Because this book is read by a lot of college classes there are lots of questions on the internet – But these are good:
And even more: