'Americanah' reminds us that every immigrant is an emigrant, too


By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every immigrant is an emigrant, too. We forget that sometimes. That’s the irony of telling them to “go back where they belong.” For if an immigrant is never truly at home in their new world, they don’t entirely belong in their old ones either, at least not anymore. Americanah—Nigerian slang for someone who goes abroad and comes back with airs—is a book about immigrants and emigrants, and about the in-between lives they lead. It’s also about the platforms they have to observe the rest of us, stumbling along, comfortable in our singular realities.

Adichie’s third novel, and first in seven years, Americanah is on the surface a fairly conventional love story. Ifemulu meets Obinze while in high school in Nigeria. They fall in love and plan to spend their lives together. Eventually, she leaves for university in the United States. He intends to follow but, after a humiliating setback, she cuts off contact and falls out of his life. After a stint in Britain, Obinze becomes a businessman in Nigeria, Ifemelu, a well-known blogger on the life of a “Non-American Black” in the United States. All the while they circle each other from a distance.

The love story, though, is the least interesting thing about this book. It’s a simple superstructure that hides a work of uncommon depth and incisive observation. Adichi, who splits her time between Nigeria and the United States, is arguing a lot of points here, about race (Ifemelu writes that she was never “black” until she moved to the United States), and class and, maybe most forcefully, about how a good story should be told. You might not always agree with the points Adichie is making. But in Americanah, at the very least, you’ll enjoy the way she makes them.

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