Americanah: The Book about Hair

Americanah book cover.Recently, our book group got together to discuss Americanah, the new book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about a young Nigerian woman moving to the U.S. for a number of years then eventually returning to Africa. Our group is a small but committed bunch that would rather come to book group than do almost anything else but sometimes life gets in the way and attendance is sparse. So this time there were only four of us and our opinion of this book was evenly divided. I had recommended Americanah for various reasons. I had heard the author interviewed on NPR, read the New York Times Book Review and, let’s face it, I’m a sucker for anything endorsed by these folks. That aside, Adichie’s point of view seemed fresh, irreverent and entirely compelling. But really she had me when she said her book was about “hair.” More on that later.

Americanah book cover, Kenyan edition.

Book cover of the Kenyan edition

Americanah is also about Ifemelu, a black woman from Africa, learning what it’s like to be black in America; it’s about globalization, human nature and love. Many have also called it a comedy of manners. But, as one of the characters says, “Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” The book group was unanimous in its admiration of the author’s bravery to take on such major and complex issues.

We also all loved the running social commentary throughout the book that Ifemelu offers on her blog about race and class in America. Here’s a sample:

Sometimes [Americans] say “culture” when they mean race. They say a film is “mainstream” when they mean “white folks like it or made it.” When they say “urban” it means black and poor and possibly dangerous and potentially exciting. “Racially charged” means we are uncomfortable saying “racist.”

The blog has the portentous title of “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and advances serious reflections on race that are nimbly balanced by Ifemelu’s amusing encounters with white liberals. Here is the description of a visit to a relative of her white, affluent boyfriend:

Once, they visited his aunt, Claire, in Vermont, a woman who had an organic farm and walked around barefoot and talked about how connected to the earth it made her feel. Did Ifemelu have such an experience in Nigeria? she asked, and looked disappointed when Ifemelu said her mother would slap her if she ever stepped outside without shoes. Claire talked, throughout the visit, about her Kenyan safari, about Mandela’s grace, about her adoration for Harry Belafonte, and Ifemelu worried that she would lapse into Ebonics or Swahili.

We also agreed that we learned a lot about modern Nigeria through the eyes of various generations and classes. The experiences of people who wanted desperately to leave the country for a better life; those who stayed and joined a new upwardly mobile class; and those who left, some to return, some to join the diaspora; are all incisively portrayed.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As for the preoccupation with hair, the author describes in great detail the process by which so many black women all over the world relax, straighten and manage their hair in order to transform its natural texture into a flowing one. Ifemelu’s yearning for smooth locks is instilled in her at a young age and trails her into adulthood and to the U.S. where straight hair on black women is considered more ‘professional’. This element may seem less significant than the big topics of race, class and immigration tackled in Americanah but it is a cunning way to connect personal experience with the politics of race and gender. Ifemelu’s feelings eventually become clear:

Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running… today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.

Where did the opinion of the book group diverge?  It was in the plot line and more specifically in the ‘love’ story woven throughout the novel. (Stop reading here if you don’t want to know what happens at the end. Our group decrees that you can’t have a meaningful discussion of a book if you’re not allowed to mention the ending.)

During her youth in Nigeria, Ifemelu has a passionate and significant relationship that she abandons but eventually resumes when she returns to her homeland. Half of us felt that this ending was too conventional and tidy and did not match the complexity of the rest of the novel. There was not enough depth to Ifemelu’s character and insight into her thoughts so this aspect of the novel made it less satisfying than its more journalistic quality. The other half of the group were gratified to see the couple come to their senses and commit to their intended soul-mate. I have to admit I was in the latter group and came to the meeting brimming with enthusiasm about every aspect of this book. But as often happens with this discriminating group I came to see the others’ point of view and appreciate it.

I’m still enthusiastic about the book and have been recommending to anyone who asks what I’ve been reading. And despite their reservations, the rest of the group would encourage you to read it too. It’s written in an innovative style that examines serious, complicated issues while directed by a thoughtful and witty guide.

– Miria Ioannou

Watch a TED talk by the author: “We should all be feminists.”

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