First things first: Can we talk about hair? Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a big knockout of a novel about immigration, American dreams, the power of first love, and the shifting meanings of skin color; but, as Adichie has said in interviews, she also knows that black women’s hair can speak volumes about racial politics. That’s why she opens her new novel, Americanah, with a scene in which her main character, a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, must take the commuter train from Princeton, where she’s living on a post-graduate fellowship, into Trenton just to get her hair done.
It will take Ifemelu six hours of sitting in a hot salon to get the medium kinky twist with extensions that she wants. During that time we’ll hear a fair amount about hair (including a painful flashback to the time that Ifemelu decided to relax her hair to get that “white-girl swing” and land her first white-collar job). Americanah may be the most hair-conscious contribution yet to the canon of contemporary immigrant literature. As Ifemelu tells us, in Nigeria, she was categorized, if at all, by tribe, not by race; but in America she “had become black.” Ifemelu’s cornrows and Afro puffs play a big part in her transformation from person to racial category.
Americanah is a sweeping story that derives its power as much from Adichie’s witty and fluid writing style as it does from keen social commentary. The plot, in brief, focuses on Ifemelu and her Nigerian boyfriend, Obinze. They meet in high school in a Nigeria falling apart under military rule, a place where the future is foreclosed, even for university graduates. Obinze is besotted with American culture, especially books, but he can’t get a visa to post-Sept. 11 America, so he scrabbles by for a time in London, cleaning toilets and falling into the netherworld of counterfeit documents and arranged visa marriages. In one of the most charged passages in Americanah, Obinze finds himself invited to a dinner party in London by an old Nigerian classmate who has made good. Amid all of the liberal guests, Obinze reflects on his curious position as a middle-class refugee:
“[All the guests] understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the ominous lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction … were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped … but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Unlike Obinze, Ifemelu does make it over to America on a student visa and, ultimately, she becomes a very successful blogger. Ifemelu’s blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. The name of her blog should give you a sense of the subjects as well as the tart smarts of her posts, many of which are included in this novel. But, before Ifemelu strikes the blogger bonanza, she must endure the new immigrant initiation rite of looking for work. Ifemelu answers ads for home health aides in apartments that stink of urine, and she works as “the nanny” in the Philadelphia suburbs. At one point, desperate for rent money, Ifemelu accepts a sexual job offer. She’s a tough girl, but after this sleazy encounter, Ifemelu is so humiliated, so lost to herself, that she stops emailing with Obinze and they drift apart.
Americanahworks in so many different genres — coming-of-age novel, romance, comic novel of social manners, up-to-the-minute meditation on race, as well as the aforementioned immigrant saga — that I’m shortchanging its bounty by only mentioning some of the main characters’ adventures here. Like Ifemelu’s hairdo, Adichie’s novel tightly braids together multiple ideas and storylines. It’s a marvel of skilled construction and imagination.