At its simplest, this is a love story: Ifemelu and Obinze meet in grade school in Lagos, and have an essential connection thereafter, though they go to different continents, have other lovers, take on new personas. But while the love-story aspect remains right to the end of this long and intricate novel, this is really Ifemelu’s story, and Adichie has admitted that much of it is based on her own life.
I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels as I read this. Ifemelu and Obinze are children of relatively affluent and well-educated parents when Nigeria is under a military dictatorship, and while they both desire to go the the U.S., it is not primarily for economic reasons. Obinze dreams of studying literature at Princeton; Ifemelu is less romantic in her views of the U.S., and much less certain of wanting to leave her country and her family. Ironically, and due to the politics of the times, it is she who gets the visa, and ends up at Princeton. He is unable to get a travel visa, and finally enters England illegally.
When the reader first meets Ifemelu, she has been in the States for thirteen years, and she has already decided to return to Nigeria, not because she is particularly unhappy, but simply because she wants to go home. Much of the novel, like the blogs, is critical not only of American racism, but of Americanahs, Nigerians who return to Nigeria only to judge it by their learned American tastes. Everywhere she turns her eyes, Ifemelu is analytic and usually critical, but with an underlying empathy. To note a few of her observations, “She did not understand grunge, the idea of looking shabby because you could afford not to be shabby, it mocked true shabbiness.”
… it was absurd how women’s magazines forced images of small-boned, small-breasted white women on the rest of the multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women to emulate.
There are a wealth of one-liners in this novel that would give you a real taste of its essence, but since the blogs play such an important part in the novel, I want to quote one longish blog to give you an idea of how the author is allowed to step back in some way, even from her lead-character, and adopt a cool, critical voice while reflecting on what it is for a foreign born black person to live in the U.S.‘But I keep reading them,’ she said. ‘It’s like smoking, it’s bad for you but you do it anyway.’
Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.
Efemilu does return to Nigeria, to Lagos. Once there, she starts a new blog, one critical of Americanahs. As in her American blog, there is humor, but also insight and a social-surgeon’s eye. She also, although not immediately, takes up with Obinze again, who is now wealthy as a land-speculator and married with children. While there are several short sections of the book dealing with Obinze’s life, his illegal entry into England and his deportation, it is really only in the final section that his inner life is fleshed out a bit,his agony over his love for Efemilu and what that means for his wife, his children. The readers believes his inner turmoil. And while the blogs take aim at the sexism rife in Nigeria, Adichie makes it clear that Obinze is genuinely conflicted—loves his wife and family in spite of being unable to put Efemilu and their love behind him. I won’t tell you how the love-story ends except to say that is not idealized.Second ideology. Liberal and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third region. The North and the South. The two sides fought in a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes; if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing . I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see in America’s ladder of races. Jewish is white, but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish, because they wouldn’t accept Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell. From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.
The lead-character in this novel is remarkably well drawn, complex, with contradictory desires and values. I confess to knowing next to nothing about Nigeria nor its political history, but Adichie certainly does her best to give us a long look at Nigeria as well as England and America. This was actually her fourth book, and I intend to read everything she has written. She is a wonderful writer with a rich global view.