Americanah is a glorious spread of a novel which defies categorisation. It’s a love story, an investigation of racial identity,a coming of age novel, but first and foremost the story of Efemelu, a young woman who leaves her home country of Nigeria to study in the US.
The novel’s opening plunges us straight into the dilemmas for Efemelu as she is waiting for the train from Princeton to Trenton to get her hair done at Mariama African Hair Braiding. She has been in the States for 13 years, is reflecting on all she has going for her – the author of a successful blog on race issues, she has a fellowship at Princeton and a good relationship with Blaine- yet of late she’s been thinking much more deeply about Nigeria and, feeling a ‘piercing homesickness’, has decided to throw it all in and go back to Nigeria. Her inner musings are accompanied by sharp observations about the America around her- the infinite variety of eateries in Princeton, the ice cream shop with 50 flavours, the easy familiarity of the ice- cream eating man on the train and the down at heel hair salon staffed by women from Senegal and Mali. Her reflections on the meaning of the word ‘fat’ for Americans tell us that she is now up to speed with American codes: she understands the culture and has a handle on the language. Yet her refusal to have her hair relaxed or coloured before braiding, negotiating this while reading Jean Toomer’s Cane, gives us a sense of a strong individual at ease with her own identity as a black African woman in America. There’s a lot going on here just in this opening chapter- inner reflections, acute observation of people and place, the spirited and witty dialogue in the hair salon- all of which tell us where Efemelu is at right now and arouse our curiosity about her past.
The narrative then goes back to Efemelu’s childhood and upbringing in Lagos. She is the only child of aspiring but not very affluent parents and is a bright girl who attends a good high school. Like her contemporaries, she works hard and dreams of studying abroad, in the States or England. The dreams become more urgent as political tensions fuel crackdowns and arrests, leading to strikes at the university and months with no teaching. Efemelu decides to leave Nigeria to study in the States- her beloved Aunty Uju has gone out before her, so she has the security of one family member already there- but this means leaving her boyfriend Obinze behind. Efemelu’s story is then one of learning to survive in America. She finds it impossible to find a job, which she desperately needs to finance her studies. She is disconcerted by the different attitudes of American students- their sloppy grammar, their insouciant participation in class debates given their scant knowledge, the slovenly behaviour of her room mates. She witnesses Aunty Uju’s struggles- a qualified doctor, she has difficulties finding work and, desperately lonely, ends up forming relationships with Nigerian men not worthy of her.
Efemelu passes through many stages on her road to becoming the mature woman in the hairdressing salon, from eagerly embracing all things American in her keenness to fit in, to gradually discarding her American accent and finding her own voice. The people she meets in this process allows the writer the full vent of her acute observational powers and we see a range of American characters and attitudes towards black Africans through Efemelu’s eyes.Not least is the depiction of her lovers, the American Curt- I found this interlude one of the least convincing- and the more plausible black American academic, Blaine. The account of the Princeton and Harvard milieu around Blaine is cleverly described, Efemelu’s admiration of the healthy, body conscious, socially aware and serious minded Blaine gently undermined by the slightly mocking tone with which she describes him.
And it is through her blog that Efemelu definitively finds her voice- an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks ( Those formerly known as Negroes ) by a Non- American Black. In her blog posts Efemelu shares her observations about race, racial identity and racism in the US. The blog quickly becomes hugely popular and through advertising becomes a decent source of income for Efemelu, buying her independence, some celebrity and then other platforms, such as speaking engagements, for her ideas. In terms of the novel, the blog posts also give us, the readers, another perspective, a different kind of text on everyday racism. As a white woman, I have to say that I found these very powerful. In particular the test for White Privilege in What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non- White.
The final section deals with Efemelu’s return to Nigeria. The city of Lagos has changed beyond recognition in the 13 years she has been away. She finds the bright girlfriends she left behind now married, or obsessed with finding a husband. She finds work writing for the magazine Zoe but the proprieter doesn’t want her opinions in the pieces profiling prominent women in Lagos society but rather a sycophantic account of their wealth and success. So Efemelu leaves and returns to blogging. She calls this blog The Small Redemptions of Lagos and will explore this time the experience of returning to Nigeria from the States. Efemelu is now herself an ‘Americanah’ ; she too misses some aspects of life in the States- the salads, the fresh green veg- but unlike many Nigerian women, has her own source of income, can afford her own flat and has the independence and autonomy of an American. We feel she has forged her own identity, both as a black woman and more generally as an autonomous individual: she has come of age.
But what of love? In the early part of the novel Efemelu’s love affair with Obinze is an essential part of her growing up- not only do they discover a physical passion but they also share ideas, humour, friendship. We are told after the introductory chapter that Obinze is now married with a child and living in Lagos, successfully working in real estate. So he’s not available then, though very excited to get an email from his old girlfriend, after many years’ silence. This is flagged up but then left hanging till Efemelu’s return to Nigeria. (In the meantime a whole section of the novel deals with Obinze’s experiences in England working illegally, and though not integral to the plot in any way, we are given a window onto the experiences of Nigerians in the alternative land of milk and honey).
Now the generous sweep of this ambitious novel does mean that it is somewhat episodic, as is often the way with coming of age novels. Characters come and go in Efemelu’s life without necessarily interacting with each other. Though the episodes are well told and can be seen to contribute to Efemelu’s experience, I did find her relationship with Curt implausible and wondered why it had been included. But this was the only example in a wealth of experiences which were well observed and wittily told and which helped to mould Efemelu into the mature black African woman, at ease with her own identity, whom we find at the end of the novel. Do read this novel. You will love it. And I’m about to reread the blog posts.