Like most of the main characters in Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie’s novels, Ifemelu is a young Igbo, Nigerian and African woman. After a long stay in the USA, she thinks about going back to Lagos, the city where she spent her youth and went to primary and secondary school. In a dull hair salon where she gets her hair plaited, she remembers her early years, her departure from Nigeria thirteen years ago, and her arrival in the USA. She recalls how difficult migration has been for her and how her naive expectations about this dreamland were so different from the Eden that she was promised at the university in Nigeria.
Through these very precise images, the reader dives into the world of Nigerian migrants in America. The author also gives a strict and distant perspective on the people who run or go to Mariama’s hair salon. During the events of the day and by an association of ideas, we will witness her stay in America.
Why does the Nigerian youth leave ?
Ifemelu left Nigeria to study in the University of Philadelphia. She is from the Nigerian middle class and an only child. Her father is a civil servant and was fired for some untoward behaviour towards his superiors. Her mother, converted to evangelism, faces the circumstances of life with a mysticity that Ifemelu devours with ferocity and distance. This is a recurring theme in the other novels of the author, such as « Purple Hibiscus ». It is interesting to see the journey of her mother through the different religious movements in Nigeria. This journey sums up the incongruities of the believers. Adichie, like Achebe, precisely observes the influence of protestantism on Nigerian people.
Her perspective of the society through this character might seem a little too harsh, if compared to the more nuanced analysis of the father of Nigerian litterature in « Things fall apart » where he leaves room for the readers for their own interpretation. Ifemelu is a special character and particularly lucid and critical of the wrongs of the society she lives in. When her young aunt who is a doctor is financially supported by a high ranked official of the military, Ifemelu is the only one to criticise the « Mentor ».
These educated women are dependent on the financial power of these men. This situation is unbearable and will not cease to dictate Ifemelu life's choice. Why do they leave ? Obinze, who is Ifemelu's boyfriend, expresses very well the reasons why the African youth, fed by the Western culture, leaves the continent. The feeling of isolation and at the same time, the thirst to discover others and conviction that a better life is waiting in these fictitious worlds.
A difficult landing
For Ifemelu and Obinze, it will be very difficult to arrive in these lands of exile and asylum, such as the UK or the USA. Through these two perspectives, Adichie describes the life paths of the African youth confronted to these closed and idealised spaces. And the originality of this novel lies in the fact that it focuses on young people from the middle class leaving the continent. How do they survive in a constricted environment and confront the challenge of paying the rent when you do not even exist for the administration ? The love affair between Obinzé and Ifemelu will distend with the challenges of living in the West. Adichie beautifully describes this landing and attempt of immersion or evolution of the identity of the Nigerian migrants.
The issue of the identity
This issue is the main focus of the novel and the discourse of Adichie. How do we stay ourselves when others define us ? This question is analysed very powerfully before her departure to Nigeria and after the return to the home country through the USA and UK. The criteria of analysis will be the language, the hair, the race. Honest and haughty, Ifemelu wants to keep the African authenticity in the American land and does not want to be restricted to the « black » label, even though she fully understands the importance of this heritage in America. It is in America that she understands what it means to be Black. She accepts it because she has no other choice. She looks at America from a non-American African perspective. In her blog, she has a very sarcastic and ironic tone to describe Obama's America that is still scarred by the weight and suffering of the racial relationships. Americanah gives a good understanding of the Ferguson protests. Hollywood hides it well : the American dream has only one color. Ifemelu has an interesting opinion on the identity issues, and the tensions between African-American and Africans and the image of misery and compassion the white elite casts on the African continent.
The return to the home country
After giving it a lot of thought, Ifemelu decides to come back to Nigeria. But nobody understands her. The novel is organized in such a way that the reader has a global understanding of the challenges and realities facing the young woman at home. This decision is her own choice. The attitude toward the migrant is described precisely by the protagonist. Meeting with the long lost friends. Women's worries about the ideal marriage. The arrogance of Americanahs, i.e the young Nigerians who came back from the USA to make a fortune. The identity crisis is particularly striking when we observe the American references dictating the relationships between each one of them. Americanah ! Returning home also means being reunited with Obinze. This is a genuine novel where the characters are as important as the issues that are presented.
Due to the restricitions of a web article, this article is far from being exhaustive. Americanah is the reference for the African migration because it raises all the problems dealing with this issue. In my humble opinion, this is the best novel dealing with issues of migration. Chimamanda Ngoazi Adichie goes as far as rightfully criticizing a racial and often racist America. History weighs heavily on the society and ethnies. Obama is not enough to bring down the social constructs. Ifemelu has a thruthful perspective of the American society but she is also very critical of her own country. Feminism is also very present in the novel and is developped in a new form of public speaking. It is dealt with at the end in a subversive way. The author voices the opinion of the Nigerian middle class, like in her previous novels. I can see, without a doubt, that this book is brilliant, very well written and deals with deep issues. We had the opportunity to ponder on these issues at the Café des Livres, for the African Business Club.
Translated by Bushra Kadir