These are the questions that Ifemelu, a young Nigerian student asks herself after she moves to the United States on an university scholarship. The product of a typical, middle class family in Nigeria in the 1990s, her move is almost expected, practical. She has already seen many of her friends move away, to England mainly but also to America. When her turn comes, during a long teachers’ strike at her university, she assumes her destiny with curiosity and aplomb, even if it means leaving her quiet, supportive boyfriend Obinze. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, traces the parallel stories of Ifemelu and Obinze as they try to answer these questions, far away from each other but forever linked through an unbreakable bond to their country and the memories of their youth.
Spanning at least two decades in the life of Ifemelu and Obinze, the scope of Americanah is deep, not only in time but in the way it explores ideas about immigration, identity, Nigerian and American (and British to some extent) culture and race. Told in an unpretentious but richly detailed tone, Americanah is observational, funny, upfront, satisfyingly erudite. Adichie gives these same characteristics to Ifemelu, an uncomplicated but deeply engaged young woman who after some difficult initial struggles finally emerges as a talented blogger and student of American culture and race.
As a character, Ifemelu seems to ease into this culture almost effortlessly, leaving the real struggles and experiences to her blog, where her true voice comes through with full force. Like Ifemelu, Adichie truly shines as well in the decoding and classification of types: the academic elites, the artistic left, the white liberal and privileged, the intellectual, but also the immigrants looking in, and the “non-American blacks” who suddenly become aware of their race in America. Thanks to the success of her blog, and through her own relationships, Ifemelu finds herself living within these circles, her life made of dinner parties and gatherings that become more opportunities to further analyse race and politics in America, and the stance that each of these types has in them.
Ifemelu’s narrative is highly charged intellectually and it stands in contrasts with Obinze’ side of the story, which is more emotional and humane. Although he eventually also becomes an immigrant, his experience is quite different from that of Ifemelu and in telling his story Adichie’s voice becomes quieter and more compassionate, resonating with a love of her culture and of her land. It also resonates with the frustration Nigerians feel with some of the more materialistic and superficial aspects of their culture and their desire to see their country fulfill its political, economic, and cultural potential.
What are we made of? I asked myself when reading Ifemelu’s and Obinze’ story. There is history, culture, beliefs, values and memories. Still, in the end, regardless of where we come from, of what we are perceived to be or what we ourselves believe to be, maybe what we all made of is love. Love is the answer. Love is what we are all made of.