A part of me wishes that Ifemelu’s first blog was real, that I could find Raceteenth on WordPress, just to get a healthy, regular dose of the exciting, witty commentaries that scare off any remaining hope that if you move to America, good things will come to you. After writing the previous sentence, I looked up The Small Redemptions of Lagos and discovered that Adichie herself has crafted in Ifemelu’s persona, making the blog something of a mini-sequel to Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel without having to sacrifice the original tone and character of the blog as it appeared in the book. This is great and already I anticipate the next installment on my feed. However, to be frank, I would have preferred to read all of Ifemelu’s blog posts on a proper blog than in the book, where they only served to chop the narrative up and lose my attention in the plot. (Let this post be an invitation to consider the novel for itself first, disregarding the blog posts as supplementary material.) Taking this complaint further, I feel like this is my main qualm with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel (the first of hers that I’ve read): most of the novel’s parts seem out-of-place. She spends so much time on building up the circumstances that when we reach the present, there is hardly any space left to resolve the things that got me hooked on the book in the first place.
We first meet Ifemelu on the verge of the next great change in her life, the imminent move back to her home country of Nigeria after studying and working for several years in the United States. It is immediately clear to the reader, as is typical in most diaspora novels, that the Ifemelu returning to Lagos has been affected by the sort of people she finds herself surrounded by in America. As a result, she becomes conscious of her becoming an American (or Americanah, as her friends back home often say in jest) despite her efforts to resist cultural assimilation. When we step into Ifemelu’s past, we witness her attempts to assert her natural Nigerian accent, comment on the assimilation of other black people to American society, and assess each of her relationships the context of the one great love of her life, Obinze, with whom she has long since broken off. Since the dissolution of her their relationship, Obinze has remained in Ifemelu’s mind and heart so strongly that it is the knowledge that he has settled down with someone else in Nigeria that haunts her and even cause her to reconsider going home. It is one desire strongly tugging against another: she must face him (and the brand new Nigeria) or drown in an alien world that will forever mark her alien as well.
Many of the present day plot threads are fun to read through. Ifemelu’s experience at the braiding parlor, which frames her flashbacks, is mostly what I expected the book to be like. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Ifemelu’s contrast with Aisha, who spends an entire afternoon working on Ifemelu’s hair, could have framed the whole novel. Though while I grant that the novel intends to be about Obinze just as much as it is about Ifemelu, which is why the novel spends its latter third bringing the two back together, I want to point out that the book makes it easy to forget this. Just as I was settling into the story of Obinze’s time as an undocumented immigrant in England, I turned the page and found myself back in Ifemelu’s extended flashback. At the same time, many plot threads begin and are left unresolved; I got the sense that the novel never goes in the direction I want, and so I felt a bit cheated. Does the disillusioned Ifemelu ever remember her promise to help out Aisha, having failed to disillusion her? You never see it. Even Ifemelu’s final interactions with her nephew Dike when he visits Lagos, which supposedly resolves his psychological problems, felt rushed. I would have liked to see him discover Lagos and his parentage a little more, and then I would have liked to see him confront his mother Aunty Uju about it, or at least to tie up that end by letting us know what happens to them in the end. You never find out. And then Ifemelu’s epic novel-spanning romance with Obinze? Well, obviously that gets resolved. But I get the sense that the decisions the characters make in the novel’s final pages are miscalculated, Obinze in particular. The real repercussions of his actions are left ambiguous to the reader. You never learn the consequences.
My gut feel is that the hype surrounding this book stems from its relative newness and significance. Its two central themes are undoubtedly cultural differences and the various types of racism that permeate a culture that has historically triumphed racism but has yet to fully eradicate it. Yet, what makes it relevant is that it situates these themes in the post-9/11 America that evolves into the Obama-led America. It suggests that while America has come a long way from the rampant racism that has plagued most of American history (to the point of collectively selecting a leader who is described in the book as having been the result of the intersection of many cultures), one need only rely on social media to see that many immigrants still feel unwelcome in America and that some of the hostility comes, surprisingly, from people of the same racial ancestry. What I liked about this point is that it seemed like something you could say of all diaspora who find themselves in America, not just African; in Philippine Literature for instance, I recognized this as the concern being raised in Bienvenido N. Santos’s What the hell for you left your heart in San Francisco. Perhaps where Americanah takes the next step is to present the ways in which foreign culture subverts one’s effort to keep cultural identity intact. At some point in the novel, Ifemelu notes that it was when she came to America from Nigeria for the first time that she came black, a statement that when carefully reflected upon requires no further explanation. It brings to mind that Americanah is in some way a coming-into story, but a very specific type that does not so much mark Ifemelu’s growth into adulthood but her permanent change into the Americanah, who finds herself looked down upon by those who have adopted the American identity wholeheartedly and yet subconsciously looks down upon those who have never really left home, even when they are already there.