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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.
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
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