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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie chronicles the lives and relationships of two young Nigerians named Ifemelu and Obinze, and explores the culture of the United States from an African perspective. The novel considers issues of race and the complexities of love, family, friendship, and romantic relationships in the United States.
Ifemelu was raised by her parents in Lagos, a city in Nigeria. Her mother is a religious fanatic and her religiously indifferent father has strong opinions about the United States. Ifemelu has a close relationship with her Aunty Uju, her father’s sister, who acted as a big sister or even motherly figure to Ifemelu throughout her younger years. Aunty Uju was the mistress of The General, a military official who impregnated her, but died after their son Dike turned one year old. After The General’s death, Aunty Uju moved to the United States to raise Dike and start a new life…
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” (3). 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 (223). 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” (120). 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 (128). 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” (152). 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 (157–58)? 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 (175). 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. Ifemelu 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” (299). Read the blog post “A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor” (299–300), 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” (406). She asks, “How many other people had become black in America?” (298). 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 (238); 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” (286). 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” (291–92). 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 (Chapter 24), 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” (408). 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
Life Across Borders: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talks About ‘Americanah’
June 6, 2013 10:50 am June 6, 2013 10:50 am
“Americanah,” the third novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States and finds a certain amount of fame as a blogger writing candidly about issues of race and nationality. In her review in The Times, Janet Maslin called the book’s first half “tough-minded and clear,” but expressed disappointment in the “simple romance” of what followed. In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Adichie discussed the state of American fiction, the tropes she wanted to avoid in writing about race and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Your first two novels were set in Nigeria, and this book takes place there and in the United States. Did you feel you had to live here a certain amount of time before you wanted to approach it in fiction?
I don’t believe in writing what I don’t know. So I feel, having lived in the U.S. off and on for a number of years, that I can tell a story partly about America. That said, the setting of my fiction isn’t a primary consideration for me. Character and story come first.
Ifemelu, one of the two protagonists in “Americanah,” is a Nigerian-born writer who moves to the U.S. and eventually receives a fellowship at Princeton. Aside from these details, is there a deeper autobiographical connection you feel with her?
Ifemelu spends 13 years in the U.S. before moving back to Nigeria. I spent only four years in the U.S. before I went back, and have since lived in both countries. That is a significant difference, as much of Ifemelu’s character is shaped by being disconnected from home for so long. I quite like that she is a female character who is not safe and easily likable, who is both strong and weak, both prickly and vulnerable.
Obinze, the other main character in the book, thinks that in contemporary American novels, “nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.” Is this an opinion you share with him?
I’m reading new novels by Elizabeth Strout, Elliott Holt and Claire Messud, and they dispute Obinze’s opinion. I do think there is a tendency in American fiction to celebrate work that fundamentally keeps people comfortable. There is also an obsession with “original” for the mere sake of it, as though original is automatically good, and original often involves some level of irony and gimmick.
The U.S. has been at war for many years now, and there is also an ongoing intense ideological war in the U.S., but you would hardly know that from American literature. But of course this is also about my own biases. I love fiction that has something to say and doesn’t “hide behind art,” novels that feel true, that are not self-conscious experiments. I read a lot of contemporary American fiction and find the writing admirable, but often it is about individuals caged in their individuality, it says nothing about American life, is more about style than it is about substance (style matters but I struggle to finish a novel that is all style and has nothing to say). “The Great Gatsby,” for example, says something about American life in a way that many contemporary novels no longer do.
Another character says that when black American authors write about race, they have to “make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.” Would you say that your book is in some ways a response to this, since race is a very clear theme throughout?
The character was talking about African-American, rather than African or American-African writers, and this distinction is also partly what the novel is about. I think “Americanah” is a response of sorts but it is complicated by my not being African-American. I could have done “Americanah” differently, in a way that was safer. I know the tropes. I know how race is supposed to be dealt with in fiction (you can do a “novel of ideas” about baseball, but not about race, because it becomes “hectoring”), but I wanted to write the kind of novel about race that I wanted to read.
Still, there is a certain privilege in my position as somebody who is not an American, who is looking in from the outside. When I came to the U.S., I became fascinated by the many permutations of race, especially of blackness, the identity I was assigned in America. I still am fascinated.
You began your college career in Nigeria studying medicine. When and why did you decide to make writing your career?
Writing has always been what I loved and wanted to do. But I didn’t think I could earn a living from writing. So I planned to be a psychiatrist, have a regular salary and use my patients’ stories for my fiction. But then I left medical school because I was bored and thought I would then get a job in media to earn a living. Now I am doing what I love and earning a living from it, and I feel ridiculously lucky.
Do you see any differences in how your work is reviewed in the U.S. compared to in Nigeria?
I’m very pleased that more Americans than I thought are reading it in a way I hoped it would be read. Still, it seems it is mostly American readers who most miss the fact that “Americanah” is supposed to be funny. I laughed a lot when writing it (although it is a bit worrying to be so amused by one’s own humor). But I suppose race when bluntly dealt with does not blend well with that wonderful, famed American earnestness.
You teach writing in your home country. What are two or three principles you think it’s important to instill in young writers?
This is what I tell my students: read widely, read what you don’t like and read what you like, and try not to consciously write like either. And writing has to matter in a deep way. You have to make the time to actually write — seems obvious enough, but I often hear from people who say they want to write but have no time. And finally I tell them not to think of family and relatives and friends when they write, otherwise they will censor themselves without even knowing it.
Can you imagine writing a novel set entirely in the U.S.? Have you started another project, and can you share anything about it?
I never say never to anything. My next work will be a novel of ideas about baseball. More seriously, I have many ideas, I am reading and absorbing and watching. I am also, deep down, a superstitious Igbo woman, and so don’t like to talk about future work lest the spirits desert me.