by Lucie Horáková
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, born in 1977 in Enugu, is one of Nigeria’s most prominent young authors. Thanks to her hard work, she gained a scholarship at Dexler University in Philadelphia, USA, where she studied communications and political science. She also has a degree in creative writing and African studies, the latter from the prestigious Yale University. In the present, she travels between the USA and Nigeria, teaching writing workshops and promoting the importance of literature.
Adichie’s first book, Purple Hibiscus, was written in 2003 and won several literary awards. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has continued her literary career with three more novels so far, all of them receiving enthusiastic general acclaim. Her recent novel, Americanah, charmed the famous Oscar-awarded actress Lupita Nyong’o so much that she purchased the pre-emptive rights for adapting Americanah on screen.
Apart from being an acclaimed scholar and writer, Adichie is also a great orator. She gave two TED Talks: “The Danger of a Single Story” deals with the topic of stereotypization and the title of her second talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”, speaks for itself. The topics of her talks also reflect the main themes of her novels – Adichie carefully observes the mechanisms of society, being it Nigerian or American, that shape the lives of individuals, especially women. And the same force and ardour she displays at her talks also drive her novels and enhance their message of equality and search for understanding.
The story of Americanah starts with Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in the United States, going to the hairdresser’s to have her hair done into braids. This simple enough scene foreshadows one of the main topics of the novel – the clash of different cultures, but also of social classes. The reader learns that Ifemelu is a successful independent blogger with university education, who managed to relocate herself from her native Nigera to the United States and who could consider herself to be a member of the higher class of Nigerian immigrants, unlike the hairdressers whom she encounters. But things have not always been so bright for Ifemelu. Merging the stories from Ifemelu’s past and present, Adichie shows that Ifemelu’s success and independence came only after years of hard work – and they came with a price. The price was her relationship with Obinze, the leading male character of the novel.
Once, back in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze were partners in every sense of the word – intellectually equal, sharing the same worldviews, and being madly in love. But the inhospitableness of the developing Nigeria in the late 1990s made them long for more than just the local university suffering under the repression of the military government regime. Both Ifemelu and Obinze tried to gain a scholarship abroad – and only Ifemelu succeeded. And in the US, being treated as an incompetent immigrant and lacking opportunities to provide for herself, Ifemelu stopped sharing her feelings with Obinze, which put the stop to their relationship. From that moment on, nothing has ever been the same.
Even thought the focus on Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship might suggest Americanah is just an empty love story, it is not the case. Acknowledging the power of love and its importance in the life of an individual, Adichie uses the love story as a backdrop for a close observation of racial, cultural and class clashes in the relationship of Nigeria and the western world. She uses several different perspectives from which she describes the process of assimilation and, in some cases, even the strive for livelihood. First of all, the reader sees the reality of the immigrant through the experience of young Ifemelu who was just accepted to American university. Her Nigerian education is treated as irrelevant and she is constantly being seen as “the other” – by the teachers, by her classmates, her flatmates and later by her boyfriend as well.
The immigrant experience is so strong for Ifemelu that she decides to ventilate it through writing and establishes a blog where she shares her observations about immigrant life in the USA. This feature makes Americanah quite a unique novel, providing the reader not only with extracts from the blogposts, but Adichie, under the name of Ifemelu, continues to write the blog in real life, adding articles even after publishing Americanah. The blogposts resemble mini-essays and they are inspired by Ifemelu’s everyday life in the USA. They are written non-apologetically, expressing strong opinions and exposing many not only racist, but purely ridiculous things immigrants in the USA have to deal with on a daily basis.
Obinze, on the other hand, has a very different experience as an immigrant. After not being admitted to American university, he illegally immigrates to the Great Britain. His experience is even harsher than Ifemelu’s in the USA. He has to step down to the lowest levels of human existence and forget about his aspirations and often even about his dignity. The comparison of the two immigrant experiences shows in how many different ways immigrants are being humiliated and exploited by the dominant culture.
In the end, Ifemelu and Obinze meet again in contemporary Nigeria. But this is not an invitation for Adichie to finish off her novel with a fairy-tale ending, claiming that everything gets alright back home. On the other hand, she is still the same sharp critic and does not idealize Nigeria at all. She poignantly points out the problems with the Nigerian attempt of establishing democracy, acclaiming the achievements, but also acknowledging the many ongoing issues that have not yet been resolved. Similarly to the tone of the whole novel, the end of Americanah is bittersweet – showing that progress is possible, but that the hard work of creating inclusive, globally accepting democratic societies, being it in Nigeria, the USA, Great Britain or anywhere else in the world, is by no means finished.
As mentioned in the opening of this review, Americanah was warmly received by the general readership. The publication rights were sold for more than 20 countries, the Czech Republic being one of them – Americanah will be published in 2015 by Host publishing house. But this complex novel also gained important critical acclaim – it was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and also The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction. With the film adaptation ahead, it is for sure that Americanah will continue to be in the centre attention, promoting its values among the worldwide audience.