Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says her most recent novel, Americanah, is about hair. And it is. But as many readers have pointed out, it’s also about much, much more.
Ifemelu is a bright young woman living in Lagos, Nigeria, where she is happy with her boyfriend Obinze. Unlike most teenage romances, theirs is the real deal: deep, meaningful, and challenging. Things go well until her university is shut down by strikes, and she moves to America to study. Obinze is to follow soon after, but this country’s climate following 9/11 prevents his passage.
Fast forward to the present. Ifemelu is now a fellow at Princeton, a prominent race blogger and natural hair advocate. For some 15 years, she has not returned to Nigeria. Time, distance and a series of obstacles I won’t give away here contribute to her estrangement from Obinze. Over time, she dates various men—some black, some white—and while not forgetting Obinze, attempts to get over him.
Central to this layered novel is Ifemelu’s hair. As she navigates new avenues of her American life—as a student, a professional, a writer and speaker—her hair changes, and with it, so does her identity. As a minority woman living in the United States, I found Ifemelu’s exploration of the concept of race gripping. Like her, I was born in a country where most everyone looks like me and shares my basic identity. Unlike her, I grew up here, in the U.S. As such, Ifemelu’s shocking realization that blackness has meaning in America, that the color of her skin was more than an identifier, that that physical trait signaled to others what her life experience is supposed to be, is frank, fresh and fascinating.
In America, Ifemelu’s race takes on meaning for the first time. Her observations, via well-integrated blog posts, are witty, irreverent, intelligent and unabashed. The same holds true for the rest of the text, which showcases Adichie’s ability to draw humor and empathy from topics that can easily turn heavy.
The second half of the book takes Ifemelu back to Lagos, where she reunites with her family and reignites her relationship with Obinze. To me, latter portion is weaker than the beginning, more focused on Ifemelu’s desire for the married Obinze than her readjustment to home. Still, the novel ends strong, with writing that urges you forward, enticing you to sit down for comfortable hours of reading whenever you can.
If you do pick up this deft commentary on race and identity, be prepared to shut everything else out for a good long time.
Americanah may be a complex book, with layers upon layers of commentary and investigation. But underpinning the challenges facing Ifemelu and Obinze is their love story. Like grilled peaches, their love is sweet, sticky, messy, warm—and it burns.
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