“How was it possible to miss something you no longer wanted?” (Adichie, 7-8) asks our protagonist, Ifemelu, of herself in the opening pages of the (brilliant) Americanah by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie (also author of the brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun). In asking the question Ifemelu sets up the parallel plot threads that cycle through the story: love lost-found-lost-found-lost and immigration arrival-settle-resettle-departure-arrival-settle-resettle. More specifically she’s asking the question about a recent breakup – a question that – for this reader at least – resonates. In any case, throughout the story we witness Ifemelu grapple with determining what she wants, where she wants to be, what she wants to be doing, who she wants to be – and the ways she can, and cannot, make these decisions (and the ways these decisions are restricted by overt forces/characters or by the less direct, but no less powerful, figures (because they do often have personified characters) of race, class and gender.
As Ifemelu comes to explore and understand herself, her story is married to that of her childhood love, Obinez who remains (mostly) in Nigeria after she immigrates to the US. Their love story is interrupted by place, but also by the trajectory of coming-of-age that requires that Ifemelu leave him (and Nigeria) in order to return. While away she has serious relationships with other men and in each of these sections of the novel presents the reader with rich and complex representations of romantic love, but also filiative love and love of nations. Ifemelu notes at one point, “It puzzled her, the ability of romantic love to mutate, how quickly a loved one could become a stranger. Where did the love go? Perhaps real love was familial, somehow, linked to blood, since love for children did not die as romantic love did.” This idea of a hierarchy of love gets pulled apart and examined from many different angles, allowing the reader to ask what kinds of love matter most – and when – and how these loves come into conflict.
If it is a novel at once about love and its limits, possibilities and realities it is as much a novel about race in America. Much of the novel is pointed on race, but this particular metafictional scene gave me a turn (and a smile) as one of Ifemelu’s friends notes:
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you 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” (Adichie, 337).
This book doesn’t bury its exploration of race under lyricism (though it is beautiful written) (or a bright cover for that matter). It tackles race directly, but through a genius structural device of a blog-within-a-novel. So as Ifemelu writes her blog posts “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” that does the work of educating the blog readers about race, the novel reader is similarly introduced to ideas of race as performative, Africa as a continent, African-Americans as different from Non-American Blacks, differences among blackness that are nuanced rather than categorical, affirmative action and… But the novel reader is protected from feeling the shame that these are ideas that should already be known – and for many readers are already known and experienced directly – because the blog is not really speaking to them, it’s speaking to the fictional readers within the novel itself.
And, of course, there are the many scenes of Ifemelu embodying a racialized body in America and how she works to make sense of this experience to herself, to her lovers, to her family in Nigeria. These scenes, taken together, offer the reader a vision of race in America that is at once nuanced and singular and a synecdoche for precisely the singularity of experiences of blackness that cannot be represented in the novel.
It is, simply put, an irresistibly readable story. And for what it’s worth: I highly recommend it.