The BookBrowse Review

Got a question? Click here!

The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

printable version
You are viewing a sample edition of The BookBrowse Review for members. To learn more about membership, click here.
Back    Next

Contents

In This Edition of
The BookBrowse Review

Highlighting indicates debut books

Editor's Introduction
Reviews
Hardcovers Paperbacks
First Impressions
Recommended for Book Clubs
Publishing Soon

Novels


Historical Fiction


Short Stories/Essays


Mysteries


Thrillers


Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History


Biographies/Memoirs


History, Science & Current Affairs


Young Adults

Novels


Romance


Extras
  • Blog:
    Give Your Old Books A New Lease on Life
  • Notable:
    @RailBookClub
  • Wordplay:
    O H Die H
  • Quote:
    A library is thought in cold storage
Americanah
Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Paperback (11 Mar 2014), 608 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9780307455925
BookBrowse:
Critics:
mail to a friend   

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu - beautiful, self-assured - departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze - the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor - had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion - for their homeland and for each other - they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today's globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed courtesy and parked their latest model cars outside the organic grocery store on Nassau Street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the ice cream shop that had fifty different flavors including red pepper or outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed, in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked, most of all, that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty.

But she did not like that she had to go to Trenton to braid her hair. It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton—the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids—and yet as she waited at Princeton Junction station for the train, on an afternoon ablaze with heat, she wondered why there was no place where she could braid her hair. The chocolate bar in her handbag had melted. A few other people were waiting on the platform, all of them white and lean, in short, flimsy clothes. The man standing closest to her was eating an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. He turned to her and said, "About time," when the train finally creaked in, with the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service. She smiled at him. The graying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like chemistry, maybe. Before, she would have said, "I know," that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge, and then she would have started a conversation with him, to see if he would say something she could use in her blog. People were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill silences. If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, "I write a lifestyle blog," because saying "I write an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black" would make them uncomfortable. She had said it, though, a few times. Once to a dreadlocked white man who sat next to her on the train, his hair like old twine ropes that ended in a blond fuzz, his tattered shirt worn with enough piety to convince her that he was a social warrior and might make a good guest blogger. "Race is totally overhyped these days, black people need to get over themselves, it's all about class now, the haves and the have-nots," he told her evenly, and she used it as the opening sentence of a post titled "Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down." Then there was the man from Ohio, who was squeezed next to her on a flight. A middle manager, she was sure, from his boxy suit and contrast collar. He wanted to know what she meant by "lifestyle blog," and she told him, expecting him to become reserved, or to end the conversation by saying something defensively bland like "The only race that matters is the human race." But he said, "Ever write about adoption? Nobody wants black babies in this country, and I don't mean biracial, I mean black. Even the black families don't want them."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright © 2013 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Print Article

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The first part of Ifemelu's story is told in flashback while she is having her hair braided at a salon before she returns to Nigeria. Why might Adichie have chosen this structure for storytelling? What happens when the narrator shifts to Obinze's story? How conscious are you as a reader about the switches in narrative perspective?
  2. The novel opens in the Ivy League enclave of Princeton, New Jersey. Ifemelu likes living there because "she could pretend to be someone else,...someone adorned with certainty". But she has to go to the largely black city of Trenton, nearby, to have her hair braided. Does this movement between cities indicate a similar split within Ifemelu? Why does she decide to return to Nigeria after thirteen years in America?
  3. How much does your own race affect the experience of reading this or any novel? Does race affect a reader's ability to identify or empathize with the struggles of Ifemelu and Obinze? Ifemelu writes in her blog that "black people are not supposed to be angry about racism" because their anger makes whites uncomfortable. Do you agree?
  4. Aunty Uju's relationship with the General serves as an example of one mode of economic survival for a single woman: she attaches herself to a married man who supports her in return for sexual access. But Uju runs into a serious problem when the General dies and political power shifts. Why, given what you learn of Uju's intelligence and capabilities later, do you think she chose to engage in this relationship with the General instead of remaining independent?
  5. Ifemelu feels that Aunty Uju is too eager to capitulate to the demands of fitting in. Uju says, "You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed". Is Uju right in compromising her own identity to a certain extent? How is Dike affected by his mother's struggles?
  6. In the clothing shop she visits with her friend Ginika, Ifemelu notices that the clerk, when asking which of the salespeople helped her, won't say, "Was it the black girl or the white girl?" because that would be considered a racist way to identify people. "You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things," Ginika tells her. In your opinion and experience, is this a good example of American political correctness about race? Why does Ifemelu find it curious? Do you think these attitudes differ across the United States?
  7. For a time, Ifemelu is a babysitter for Kimberly, a white woman who works for a charity in Africa. Adichie writes that "for a moment Ifemelu was sorry to have come from Africa, to be the reason that this beautiful woman, with her bleached teeth and bounteous hair, would have to dig deep to feel such pity, such hopelessness. She smiled brightly, hoping to make Kimberly feel better". How well does Kimberly exemplify the liberal guilt that many white Americans feel toward Africa and Africans?
  8. Ifemelu's experience with the tennis coach is a low point in her life. Why does she avoid being in touch with Obinze afterward? Why doesn't she read his letters? How do you interpret her behavior?
  9. In her effort to feel less like an outsider, Ifemelu begins faking an American accent. She feels triumphant when she can do it, and then feels ashamed and resolves to stop. Which aspects of her becoming an American are most difficult for Ifemelu as she struggles to figure out how much she will give up of her Nigerian self?
  10. femelu realizes that naturally kinky hair is a subject worth blogging about. She notices that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé never appear in public with natural hair. Why not? "Because, you see, it's not professional, sophisticated, whatever, it's just not damn normal". Read the blog post "A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor", and discuss why hair is a useful way of examining race and culture.
  11. What does Ifemelu find satisfying about her relationships with Curt and Blaine? Why does she, eventually, abandon each relationship? Is it possible that she needs to be with someone Nigerian, or does she simply need to be with Obinze?
  12. Ifemelu's blog is a venue for expressing her experience as an African immigrant and for provoking a conversation about race and migration. She says, "I discovered race in America and it fascinated me." She asks, "How many other people had become black in America?". Why is the blog so successful? Are there any real-life examples that you know of similar to this?
  13. Obinze goes to London, and when his visa expires he is reduced to cleaning toilets; eventually he is deported. On his return home, "a new sadness blanketed him, the sadness of his coming days, when he would feel the world slightly off-kilter, his vision unfocused." How does his experience in London affect the decisions he makes when he gets back to Lagos? Why does he marry Kosi? How do these choices and feelings compare to Ifemelu's?
  14. While she is involved with Curt, Ifemelu sleeps with a younger man in her building, out of curiosity. "There was something wrong with her. She did not know what it was but there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself. The sense of something farther away, beyond her reach." Is this a common feeling among young women in a universal sense, or is there something more significant in Ifemelu's restlessness? What makes hers particular, if you feel it is?
  15. When reading Obinze's conversations with Ojiugo, his now-wealthy friend who has married an EU citizen, did you get the sense that those who emigrate lose something of themselves when they enter the competitive struggle in their new culture, or is it more of a struggle to maintain that former self? Does Adichie suggest that this is a necessary sacrifice? Are all of the characters who leave Nigeria (such as Emenike, Aunty Uju, Bartholomew, and Ginika) similarly compromised?
  16. Aunty Uju becomes a doctor in America but still feels the need to seek security through an alliance with Bartholomew, whom she doesn't seem to love. Why might this be? How well does she understand what her son, Dike, is experiencing as a displaced, fatherless teenager? Why might Dike have attempted suicide?
  17. Is the United States presented in generally positive or generally negative ways in Americanah?
  18. The term "Americanah" is used for Nigerians who have been changed by having lived in America. Like those in the novel's Nigerpolitan Club, they have become critical of their native land and culture: "They were sanctified, the returnees, back home with an extra gleaming layer." Is the book's title meant as a criticism of Ifemelu, or simply an accurate word for what she fears she will become (and others may think of her)?
  19. How would you describe the qualities that Ifemelu and Obinze admire in each other? How does Adichie sustain the suspense about whether Ifemelu and Obinze will be together until the very last page? What, other than narrative suspense, might be the reason for Adichie's choice in doing so? Would you consider their union the true homecoming, for both of them?
  20. Why is it important to have the perspective of an African writer on race in America? How does reading the story make you more alert to race, and to the cultural identifications within races and mixed races? Did this novel enlarge your own perspective, and if so, how?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Peppered with trenchant observations about race, Macarthur genius, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah explores the limitations of the American dream.

Print Article

When Ifemelu, a main character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, suggests that novels can be about "more than one thing," she could easily be describing the story in which she plays a primary part. Americanah is at once a romance, a coming-of-age journey, an immigrant's tale, and a searing social commentary. It is rich with life and abundant in precise detail about the human experience. Adiche's first two novels unfold in Nigeria (the second novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize in 2007) but Americanah cuts new ground. Set in America, England, and Nigeria, it is broad in scope and analysis. Adichie's power of descriptive detail and character development are on full display. Though the novel occasionally unfurls into raw social commentary, the primary story of Ifemelu's quest for self is beautiful and captivating.

The story opens with Ifemelu at the brink of leaving America to return to Nigeria. She has little explanation for wanting to leave America, except for the fact that she must return home. After years in the States, during which she has graduated from college, repeatedly fallen in love, started a prosperous Internet blog that examines American race matters from the perspective of a "Non-American Black," and attained an American passport, her choice to return to Nigeria appears somewhat incongruous. Though Ifemelu has gained great success in America, the persistent and creeping fear that something is missing, plagues her. There is little job opportunity in Nigeria, and she is not close to her parents, but the sense that America has nothing more for her weighs on her heart like "concrete." It almost seems necessary for her to return to Nigeria.

In contrast to Ifemelu's experience in America, her friend Obinze, whom she dated in high school and college, has had his own challenges outside of Nigeria. After attempting to find success in England, he, too, has returned to his birthplace. As a result of investing in real estate, Obinze has made a fortune. Nigeria is notorious for corruption, and it is unclear how much Obinze took advantage of this, but unlike Ifemelu who has deviated from the course she charted for herself as a teenager, Obinze is a natural evolution of what he was when he was younger. Despite the great distances, both physical and emotional, Ifemelu and Obinze still think of each other. A key expository moment in the opening chapters is when Obinze receives an email from Ifemelu after years of estrangement.

Though Obinze is a primary character, and his experiences as an immigrant in England, are fascinating, he does not receive the penetrating observation and development that Adichie gives to Ifemelu. Ifemelu is the "Americanah" that the novel's title describes, and it is her journey that powers the story. Ifemelu's immigrant tale is a familiar one: she arrives in America as a young woman with a dream of improving her life, realizes that dream will be difficult, if not impossible to attain, hits rock bottom, and builds herself up. The "America" Ifemelu discovers is a divided one. Ifemelu describes the different "tribes" to which Americans subscribe – among them race and wealth – with a troubled hauteur. She sees herself as outside of American race because she is not an American black, but she feels forced into a mold of what it means to be black in the U.S. As she herself quips, she was never "black" before she moved to America.

Ifemelu's responses to race in America are catalogued in her popular Internet blog Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. The blog's style is saucy and in-your-face, but it feels out of step with Ifemelu's character. Though blogs are expected to be provocative, there is little similarity between the Ifemelu at dinner parties and the Ifemelu of the blog. At points, quotations from Raceteenth are so frequent that the narrative takes a back seat and Ifemelu recedes to the background. Though the excerpts from the blog do little to advance the story or expand Ifemelu's character, Adiche's observations - from why black women must read black glamour magazines to what diversity really means - are provocative. The story reignites when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, but her character feels different here, as though the novel has started anew.

Perhaps this new beginning in Nigeria, however, is precisely the point. As T.S. Eliot said "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive [at the start] and to know the place for the first time." In the final stage of Ifemelu's journey, she has returned to a Nigeria shinier and wealthier than the one she left, but she is the one who has really changed. Her blog has given her confidence, and she begins to chart her own course, rather than falling into the same rut as her school friends. It is as if she would not have been able to achieve success in Nigeria without her experiences in America. It is as if, America made Nigeria possible for Ifemelu. America has always been seen (to some at least) as the land of dream fulfillment. Ifemelu's experience suggests that America can aid in this process but not always provide the final step. Returning to the country of origin after a period of seasoning in America might be the right progression. With this in mind, the title of Adichie's book becomes ironic. Ifemelu is not an Americanah, but a Nigerian who has learned to accept her homeland.

Adichie's story is large, full of details, characters, and places. The robustness of it feels like a Victorian novel. Though some critics have observed that the plot takes second place to the occasionally judgmental social criticism, this interpretation misses the larger point of the book. There are indeed moments when the lens leaves Ifemelu and the story threatens to unspool in favor of pointing out issues with American society, but this is only a small aspect of the novel. To miss reading Americanah for this reason would be a great miss indeed.

Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker

New York Observer
Adichie’s style of writing is familiar and personal, and her depiction of the African diaspora scathingly casts many of her main characters as a particularly loathsome type of East Coast intellectual. . . . Her success comes at the level of sentences, the way she can bring a character to life on the strength of a few words . . . This book is absolutely essential.

Vogue
Superb . . . Americanah is that rare thing in contemporary literary fiction: a lush, bighearted love story that also happens to be a piercingly funny social critique. . . . Adichie writes with insight. A scene in a braiding salon, which unfolds over the course of the book, has more to say about the politics of self-image than any novel in recent memory . . . A love story for our time.

Elle
Glorious . . . a saga of a young couple’s efforts to escape their troubled homeland and seek their fortune abroad that bears comparison to the classical canon of the social novel. . . . Americanah provides Adichie with a fictional vehicle for pithy, sharply sensible commentary on race and culture—and us with a symphonic, polyphonic, full-immersion opportunity to think outside the American box and commune with the wholly global sensibility of Adichie, an author who truly contains multitudes.

Kirkus Reviews
...[T]hink of Adichie's elegantly written, emotionally believable novel as a kind of update of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Her compelling and important new novel follows the lives of that country's postwar generation as they suffer endemic corruption and poverty under a military dictatorship.

Booklist
Starred Review. Americanah is a courageous, world-class novel about independence, integrity, community, and love and what it takes to become a "full human being.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Witty, wry, and observant, Adichie is a marvelous storyteller who writes passionately about the difficulty of assimilation and the love that binds a man, a woman, and their homeland.

Author Blurb Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King
An incredibly readable and rich tapestry of Nigerian and American life, and the ways a handful of vivid characters - so vivid they feel like family - try to live in both worlds simultaneously. As she did so masterfully with Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie paints on a grand canvas, boldly and confidently, equally adept at conveying the complicated political backdrop of Lagos as she is in bringing us into the day-to-day lives of her many new Americans - a single mom, a student, a hairdresser. This is a very funny, very warm and moving intergenerational epic that confirms Adichie's virtuosity, boundless empathy and searing social acuity.

Author Blurb Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin
Adichie's great gift is that she has always brought us into the territory of the previously unexplored. She writes about that which others have kept silent. Americanah is no exception. This is not just a story that unfolds across three different continents, it is also a keenly observed examination of race, identity and belonging in the global landscapes of Africans and Americans. If Joyce had silence, exile and cunning for his defense, Adichie has flair, loss and longing. And Adichie is brave enough to allow the story to unfold with a distinct straightforward simplicity that never loses its edgy intellect.

Print Article

African American Hair Styles Over the Years

Ifemelu remarks that there is no better metaphor for race in America than black women's hairstyles, and the history of Afro-textured hair would seem to support her observation. In Africa, especially prior to the slave trade, hairstyles were used to communicate a variety of messages from status to identity to fertility. Dense, thick, clean and neatly groomed hair was highly prized. Hair stylists were well-versed in a variety of hair designs that helped them to create styles that would conform to the local standards of their villages or tribes. Braiding, which is a multi-million dollar industry in America and Europe today, was, during this time, a free and communal affair, an opportunity for female bonding. Braiding sessions included shampooing, oiling, combing, braiding, and accessorizing. Palm oil and palm kernel oil were used to moisturize the scalp, while shea butter and North African argan oil were used to protect the scalp and/or hair from intense sun and heat. These sessions could last hours or even days, depending upon the skill required. There was great pride taken in Afro-textured hairstyles and experimentation in hairstyles and ornamentation was common.

With the onset of the slave trade, and with Africans leaving their native villages, the pride in Afro-textured hair among these displaced people slowly began to change out of necessity. Many slaves were young, between 10-24 years old, and lacked the skill and expertise to maintain hairstyles that were considered appropriate in their home villages. The elaborate hairstyles also took hours to maintain. The harsh regimen inflicted by the slavery system – 12-15 hour work days, 7 days a week – left little time for grooming. African slaves were forced to wear matted locks, a sharp contrast to the hairstyles maintained in Africa. To combat this, slaves began to use sheep carding tools, but this often resulted in lice and dandruff. Many would be forced to use kerosene or cornmeal mixtures applied directly on their scalps to cure these ailments.

In the 19th century, laws were passed that enabled slaves to have Sunday as a day of rest. Sundays involved attending church and, for some, tending their hair. Women began to wear their hair in cotton rollers during the week and styled their hair on Sunday, sometimes with a hot butter knife to set curls. Men used axle grease to straighten and dye their hair.

A 1964 advertisement for Posner Ebonaire hair care products Because white culture predominated during this period, the notion that "lighter and straighter" was better reigned. (Natural Afro-textured hair was described as "wool.") Both men and women began to experiment with ways to relax the tight curls in their hair to get close to the white ideal. One solution used a mixture of lye and potato, which burned the scalp on contact. Many women chose simply to cover their hair with a scarf while in public.

After the end of slavery, many men and women continued to straighten their hair. Many women chose to wear wigs or hot comb their hair, but some men, like Malcolm X, who describes the painful procedure in his The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chose to "conk" their hair (Incidentally, Thirsty Roots has a concise visual history of black hair that is worth checking out). The term "conk" comes from congolene, the name of a hair straightener made with lye that would allow the hair to be straightened and easily styled. This concoction was not dissimilar from the homemade straightener that slaves used during the 19th century. In the early 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker developed a range of haircare products for African Americans. In 1910 Walker was featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the first self-made American woman millionaire.

Haircare product developed by Madam C.J. Walker The advent of the Civil Rights, black power, and black pride movements saw the reclamation of pride in Afro-textured hair. These movements encouraged black people to embrace their natural hair and have pride in themselves, separate from white culture. This gave rise to the "Afro" hairstyle that communicated the idea that "black is beautiful" and rejected Eurocentric standards of beauty. The popularity of natural Afro-textured hair has gone up and down over the years. Today, many black women use some kind of heat or chemical process to straighten their hair. As of 2006, black hair care was a billion dollar industry.

Picture of poster from vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com
Picture of product from madamcjwalker.com
.

By Sarah Sacha Dollacker

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.