Illustration by Ben Beechener
cw; discussions of racism and teen suicide
I spend a lot of time thinking about the books I have read, of which there are many, and the impact that they have had on my development as a person. I enjoy reading, but very rarely can I say that a book truly touches me. Most books barely scratch the surface of my heart, let alone have a significant impact on my life. Sure, the plots are great, but they don’t make me truly look inwards at myself. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is the exception…
As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, born in Ireland and raised in Essex, my relationship with my national and ethnic identity has been turbulent. The question “Where are you from?”, has always confused me, I never know whether to say Nigeria, Ireland, or Essex. This dilemma is an affliction that many in the African diaspora experience, and never have I seen it so accurately portrayed and dissected as I have in Americanah.
The plot follows two Nigerian immigrants, Ifemelu in America and Obinze in the UK. Contrasting their immigrant experience with flashback scenes of their childhood together in Nigeria, Adichie accurately portrays the hardship of learning what it means to be ‘Black’ in a society where that’s not the norm. Three of the characters Adichie introduces resonated with me most: Ifemelu, Aunty Uju, and Dike.
Out of the three, Ifemelu’s story struck me the most. Learning to love and accept yourself is a journey that many young black women go through, and a feat that not many are able to accomplish. Ifemelu finds it difficult to find a job with her natural hair and her decision to relax it (the act of putting dangerous chemicals in your hair in order to straighten it) sparks a journey towards self-acceptance of her natural 4C curls. Reading this part of the story whilst I had just started my Oxford degree and was living in college, resonated with me deeply. If you’re not black, you may not have noticed the absence of black hair shops in Oxford city. When your hair isn’t seen as the ‘norm’ and you have limited resources to maintain it, it gets harder and harder to love the hair that grows out of your head. For the last two weeks in Michaelmas of first year, I was ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with my natural hair out, I felt as though I stuck out like a sore thumb, just like Ifemelu did living in America. Ifemelu’s struggles were relatable to me then, and even now. The pressure to fit in at Oxford is not so unlike the crushing pressure Ifemelu feels to fit into American society. Both societies are societies that aren’t built for people like us. Not being represented, and considered abnormal, means that we’re overlooked and disregarded. Adichie’s portrayal of Ifemelu’s struggle evoked a feeling in me to which I’m sure many black women in Oxford can relate.
Aunty Uju was another character who gave me a strong nostalgic feeling in relation to my own life and experiences as the daughter of an immigrant woman. Watching Aunty Uju lose herself to the prejudice of institutional racism was both infuriating and heart-breaking. An educated medical student from Nigeria trying to work in America, you’d think her medical degree would be enough to prove her intelligence but, as both Aunty Uju and my own mother found, something about degrees from third world countries are rendered useless when in the Western world. No matter how hard you have worked to gain that degree, surviving the aftermath of a Civil War, teacher strikes, none of those matters, your years toiling for a qualification end up amounting to nothing. Aunty Uju’s hope to qualify for a practising licence, even after slowly losing faith in herself, is dashed when her patients don’t want to be served by a black female immigrant. Though Aunty Uju didn’t get the privilege of being a main character in Americanah, it is undeniable that she was a powerful character. It speaks volumes for Adichie’s writing that a background character has such an impact on the experience of the reader. We, the readers, watch an adventurous and intelligent woman lose her sense of independence and belief in herself. It’s heart-breaking to witness, but even more heart-breaking to realise that this is the reality for many educated immigrants, many of which supported our NHS during the COVID crisis. It really puts their experience into perspective, how real these people are, how real people, like my mum and many of my family members who work for the NHS, will never receive respect due to the xenophobia that is rife in Western societies.
Dike is the son of Aunty Uju and her deceased partner. Of all the characters, Dike is most like me. As the child of a Nigerian immigrant, raised in a Western country and specifically a majority-white American neighbourhood, he is unsure of his identity. The question of whether he’s Nigerian or American plagues his young mind, whether there’s a difference between being Nigerian and just a monolithic ‘black’. His difficulty in understanding his identity and his place in this world prompts him to attempt to take his life at the age of 17. Though he recovers, we are left cold with shock at the pain of Dike’s struggle. As much as I related to Dike, this still had me taken aback. However, the scene where he travels to Nigeria with his cousin Ifemelu, when he’s driving in the city and finally feels like and looks like he’s home? I have to admit that scene brought a tear to my eye. Finding your place to call home, your true home, is a journey that many people will struggle to complete, let alone a child of immigrants. Like Dike, I spent a lot of my childhood questioning where my home was, Ireland, where I was born, Nigeria, where my ancestors were born, or England, where I live. All of these identities co-exist within me, and much of the time it feels like there’s a battle for me to pick one, am I Irish, Nigerian or British? Reading Americanah and relating to the character of Dike provided clarity for me, like a cloud had lifted. I realised that I could be all these identities, and there was no reason I should be proud to say that I’m Nigerian, just as Dike realises when he finally visits the country. Together we realised our culture and country was one of the most beautiful and powerful aspects of our identity.
I can say without doubt that Americanah made me who I am. It’s a narrative that somehow managed to address and encapsulate every feeling I had ever felt as a black child of African immigrants. Everything from identity to appearance to mental health was discussed. Never has a book made me feel so validated. It was like I could hear Adichie herself telling me that my feelings and fears were legitimate. I would recommend this book to anyone, children of immigrants, women, people who are friends with immigrants, people who are friends of children of immigrants. This book helped me understand who I was, and I think it’ll help anyone who doesn’t understand the immigrant experience understand me, and people like me, a bit better too.