Love and Power: The Art of Americanah

Scarlet Rowe 24 October 2020
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Image Credit: Chris Boland)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah is a very thoughtful book. It is raw and honest and does not pretend to be what it is not. At its heart, it is the threading together of multiple power inequalities. The thread of race: how Ifemelu is singled out for it, how low social mobility is in America, and how race becomes a defining part of Ifemelu’s identity when it never seemed to matter in quite the same way in Nigeria. The thread of sex: how women are used for their bodies, like Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju who is the mistress of a General in the Nigerian government. The thread of nationality, too: Obinze struggles to get jobs in England because of his visa status and his non-transferable qualifications; Aunty Uju has to start her medical career all over again in America, facing a series of gruelling exams before she is allowed to work. The thread of class: Ifemelu grows up in a poor neighbourhood where electricity is constantly cutting out, and later ends up jet-setting off to different European cities every weekend with her boyfriend Curt. She moves from one life to another, somehow existing as many people at once. Adichie is unafraid to broach difficult topics, presenting them in a way that allows the reader to understand and empathise, no matter their experiences.

Ifemelu’s cousin Dike is an interesting example of the conflicts wrought by power inequalities in the book. He is born in Nigeria, but raised in America after his father, Aunty Uju’s lover, is killed in a plane crash. He is often accused in school of things he hasn’t done, and at one point it is suggested that he should attend a special needs school. Over time, Dike becomes popular in a predominantly white school, and achieves good grades. Despite this, he sinks into despair. He questions who he is and why he is different. At one point, he tries to commit suicide. On paper Dike has everything going for him and yet he feels empty and lost. Ifemelu thinks this is partly due to his broken identity; that he does not know who he really is. Perhaps there is some resolution in the end when Dike visits Ifemelu in Lagos, and despite his reservations, feels a singular bond with the place. Adichie doesn’t pretend that everything is solved for him, however. Dike’s future is uncertain and Adichie, much like in real life, can’t magically fix that for him.

Adichie refuses to romanticise or glorify either American, British or Nigerian cultures. Ultimately, Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria; there, she comes across Obinze, and they wade their way through the tangle of the past fifteen years. It isn’t a simple love story, however, as Obinze is married and has a daughter. Nevertheless, there is a sense that their reunion is inevitable. The two are filled with life and exuberance again; they do not have to try with one another. They can just simply be.