Americanah is a tale of two countries, Nigeria and the USA. The protagonist, Ifemelu invites the reader to sit with her at a braiding salon in Newark, New Jersey as she prepares to return to Nigeria after ten years in the USA. She chats candidly with the stylists and other customers—mostly Africans and West Indians. They poke fun at the American accent, argue that public education in Africa is better than in the USA, and bemoan the institution of racism.
At home, Ifemelu is an Igbo, a Nigerian, and an African. It’s only when she visits America that she becomes “Black.” Four hundred years of race-related baggage instantly burdens her. She reveals the subtle racial slights and prejudicial mindsets that she never experienced at home. They shape her interactions with whites and African-Americans. In the US, she could be herself only with a foreign student—national origins didn’t matter as long as they hail from somewhere else—Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America.
Ifemelu speaks her mind, earning rebukes and slaps. Her safest soapbox is her anonymous blog on “race, from the Non-American Black” point of view. As a homage to blogging, the novel appears as a series of blog posts. Between her opinion pieces and narrations, she reveals the secrets of her successful and eventually profitable blog.
With seemingly unconnected essays and short stories, the novel follows a loose plot line. Like a hidden electrical wire connecting a string of lights, the blog bulbs glow, but they derive their power from the story cord hiding in the background.
It’s a love story, but it is not necessarily a romance. Passion and tragedy abound. Denied an American visa, Obinze, Ifemelu’s college crush travels instead, to England where he ekes out an existence with the aid of a “rented identity.” He hopes that a sham marriage will allow him to stay. Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s partial scholarship barely covers her tuition. She desperately struggles to pay rent and feed herself in an America where she cannot legally earn money. Isolated and stressed, both Obinze and Ifemelu explore desperate alleyways to survival. Ifemelu’s shame and desolation lead to depression. The reader wonders if Obinze and Ifemelu have jaded too much to find happiness with each other.
The novel compares Nigeria and America, but focuses on Africa’s most populous and wealthy nation. Nigeria’s wealth, controlled by the few, temps the poor and middle class to cash in. Money becomes a religion to those who read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity. Both the church-going and secular aspirants to wealth use flattery and other enticements to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and powerful.
Americanah introduces Nigerians and American to each other as Nigeria’s star rises. Readers in both nations benefit from Adichie’s articulate if blunt description of how the values and mindsets in each country affect the understanding and appreciation required for fellowship and cooperation.