What Does an African Woman Want in America?
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah, is about race relations in America and Britain, immigration from Africa to the global North, the systemic division between the global North and global South, and the ways in which precarity—the lived experience of artificially created, pervasive economic vulnerability—makes us romanticize an elsewhere. It is a novel about living in the margins, of an America and Britain observed from the margins, survived by staying in the margins, and escaped or ejected from as the margins become increasingly narrowed. It presents the picture of a failure to create a life—not as an immigrant failure but as a failure of the American project and the American dream. It is a novel about the movements one makes to access privilege.
Americanah arrives on the fiftieth year after Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech; it comes at a time when report cards on race relations in America are necessary and abundant, when minorities in America, and blacks in particular, are staring down the barrel of Barack Obama’s second and final term, interrogating the nature of change, the meaning of progress, and the abstraction of an American dream that is so often a lived nightmare.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King dared to dream, we have report cards on racism in America and in Europe, but report cards are not enough there is systemic failure; there is a need for more discourses on race, and narratives that provide entry points for transversal solidarities that Paul Gilroy, in The Black Atlantic, insisted must “renounce the easy claims of African-American exceptionalism in favour of a global, coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse.”
The main character in Americanah is Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman. The novel takes us through her childhood in Nigeria, to her enrolment in a Nigerian university, the interruption of her education by an academic strike, her departure for the U.S. in order to advance her education, her success there, and her eventual voluntary return to Nigeria thirteen years later. The titular Americanah is itself a part of the Nigerian lexicon, an appellation denoting one who has been to America. It marks an ontological discontinuity: the Americanah is both Nigerian and not, both African and not, both American and not. It is a word redolent with colonial memory, a polar opposite of the word Afrikaner (a white South African, typically of Dutch descent), both of which words recall the violence of forced belonging and the continual rootlessness of unbelonging.
Ifemelu’s story is animated by her writing of a blog on race in America and by her love for Obinze, her high-school sweetheart, whom she leaves in Nigeria and who endures a life of hardship in Britain before returning to Nigeria. Important also is her Aunty Uju, with whom she lives when she first arrives in America, and who settles permanently in the U.S. Ifemelu witnesses the growth of her aunt’s son, Dike, and his troubled development hints at the terrible difficulty of raising a young black man in America.
The situation for immigrants to the global North remains dire: where black asylum seekers in Switzerland are segregated from populations and treated like animals; where African migrants attempting to get to Italy die in their thousands due to the punitive anti-immigrant fortification of Europe; where, in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers— many of them African—are dying of unnatural causes, including suicide, at a rate of one a week; where circumcised African women in Spain have been compelled—with the promise that their psychological and relationship problems will be solved—to get clitoral reconstruction, a surgery whose efficacy has not been tested or verified in a scientific way, and has the explicit aim of being a sort of denegrification; where, in the U.K., vans with “In the U.K. illegally? Go home or face arrest,” emblazoned against a black background, glide through the streets; where Australia has announced that asylum seekers landing on its shores will never be allowed to settle in the mainland or become citizens but will be processed by and re-settled in Papua New Guinea, and while they wait are held in surrounding islands like Nauru and Manus island, where refugee camps are run in such terrible conditions that terror is visited on inhabitants daily and vulnerability is the only reality available; where, in Tel Aviv, a teen gang has been “serially hunting down, robbing, and beating non-Jewish Africans,” and anti-African attacks in Israel occur on such a regular basis as to be considered commonplace.
Americanah works as an intervention, a welcome caesura in a dirge of immigrant abjection often made inaudible or incomprehensible by the continuous popular urging that the world is post-race. It provides a measured story—not too violent to be unbearable, or too relentless as to be agonizing, or too horrific as to be unreadable—that serves a gentle reminder that racism is very much alive and growing stronger.
In the essay, Muiritu Mugikuyu (translated as “Gikuyu Woman”), about diasporic historicity, Kenyan returnee, Keguro Macharia, discusses the letters written by a Kenyan woman who has gone abroad for further education. He describes this kind of writing as that in which “simultaneously, she participates in the most frequent kind of diasporic exchange: she volunteers information about the conditions of blackness ‘over there,’ conditions which are always difficult and often unmanageable.” In this mode of “diasporic exchange,” Americanah functions as a sort of beginner’s manual, as well as a “Welcome to” book an African might pick up after leaping the Atlantic and landing in strange territory. It is a book that describes the unlivable nature of the American (and British) dream for minorities and the unwelcome status of such people in Britain. It proposes a strong consideration of return as the only recourse when the inevitable, sustained, and intractable strangle of anti-black racism becomes unbearable. Indeed, the opening pages of the novel show Ifemelu as hemmed in and uneasy, stifled by the world she inhabits.
Ifemelu’s story begins with a description of the unique pleasures of Princeton: It has “no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here […] She liked the campus, grave with knowledge […] This place of affluent ease.” Immediately there’s a negation in the offing: “She could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty.” With that, she launches into a litany of all that she finds unpleasant, the many ways admittance and belonging are nonetheless denied to anyone of colour. The discomforts accumulate and become particularly pointed when she recounts a man telling her, “Ever write about adoption? Nobody wants black babies in this country, and I don’t mean biracial, I mean black. Even the black families don’t want them.” She uses the story of this encounter for an article in her blog—the writing of which might be cathartic—but this assertion lingers as a moment of trauma. Later, when her cousin Dike attempts suicide, that early declaration seems portentous and concretely true, made even more so because of how Dike’s suicide is elided. Ifemelu merely receives a phone call from Aunty Uju, telling her what has happened. Then, “she took him to Miami and they spent two days in a hotel, ordering burgers at the thatch-covered bar by the pool, talking about everything but the suicide attempt.” America does not want black babies; black babies growing up in America see that they are not wanted. If America somehow manages not to annihilate them, they are compelled by America to annihilate themselves.
In the essay Designed to Fail, sociologist and activist Imogen Tyler describes the biopolitics of British citizenship and asks us to consider that this failure of nation-states to incorporate immigrant and minority bodies occurs by design, that it is in the very structure of neoliberal citizenship to reproduce, within these host countries, the erstwhile colonial borders and the segregating barriers that were imposed abroad. Thus, there exists a state racism that operates through both policy and social practice. Biopolitics being the ways in which power exerts itself to appropriate, manage, and direct the basic life-functions of bodies, Americanah provides us with an opportunity to observe such political working as it transforms the characters in the novel.
Ifemelu’s journey is one that Adichie has described as being strongly autobiographical and it is worthwhile to consider the ways in which it intersects with the conditions of blackness as lived in the U.S. and Britain—that is, to consider the book both as a memoirist’s account and as a realistic work of fiction. By reading Americanah through non-fictional accounts of black life and by in turn reading conditions of black life through Americanah we might be able to place Adichie’s novel within a broader and deeper narrative of abjection and struggle.
Ifemelu’s decision to leave the U.S. and resettle in Nigeria is the conceptual axis around which the entire narrative turns. Having spent more than a decade in the U.S. obtaining a good education, and after having succeeded in creating a good life, her rejection of America might seem like a reluctance to fully invest herself in America. Indeed it is this perceived reluctance that is often used to demonize immigrants as opportunistic and exploitative interlopers who, while willing to benefit from the hospitality of wealthy nations, are unwilling to give back (through their taxes, their labor, their lives). Simultaneously, an African attempting to obtain a visa is demonized because it is assumed that she will settle in the U.S., possibly illegally, and refuse to return, content to be a perpetual drain on the largesse of the system.
However, to characterize Ifemelu as a “reluctant American” (as one review did) requires a certain presumption of what it means to be American. It would be more accurate to say that Ifemelu and other immigrants find themselves in a “reluctant America,” a phrase that would hint at the ways in which a minoritizing state (that is, one that continuously produces minorities by defining and designating minority identities thus re-inscribing the color line) makes it such that no amount of desire enables a black immigrant or a black American to settle into the American polity without continually experiencing rejection. Chris Dorner, a black ex-LAPD officer who became a hunted man after murdering several law enforcement officers, in his letter To: America, wrote,
The [Los Angeles Police] department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse […] I’m not an aspiring rapper, I’m not a gang member, I’m not a dope dealer, I don’t have multiple babies momma’s. I am an American by choice, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a military service member, I am a man who has lost complete faith in the system, when the system betrayed, slandered, and libelled me. I lived a good life and though not a religious man I always stuck to my own personal code of ethics, ethos and always stuck to my shoreline and true North. I didn’t need the US Navy to instil Honor, Courage, and Commitment in me but I thank them for re-enforcing it. It’s in my DNA.” [emphasis mine]
Ifemelu’s rejection by America, like Dorner’s, is a form of American autoimmune response, the same kind that resulted in the murder of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed law enforcer, the kind that eviscerates and ejects black men and women who dare to dream the American Dream; the kind manifested by a violent combination of hate and desire, of aggression and confinement by the state, a push and pull that tears bodies apart.
Americanah takes us from Nigeria, to America, to Britain and back. It is very much concerned with the ways in which imperialism operates now, in commerce and through culture. Ifemelu’s Nigerian ex-boyfriend, Obinze, having returned to Nigeria from his own emigration to Britain, is instructed that as part of starting his business, “after you register your own company, you must find a white man. Find one of your white friends in England. Tell everybody he is your General Manager. You will see how doors will open for you because you have an oyinbo General Manager. Even Chief has some white men that he brings in for show when he needs them. That is how Nigeria works. I’m telling you.” This, said tongue-in-cheek, is no joke. It is in fact how business almost everywhere in Africa works. Obinze gets one of his former colleagues, a truck driver, to join him in Nigeria and Obinze’s business thrives. More striking is that this white “general manager” does nothing for the business but lives in luxury in Nigeria and remains valuable simply by virtue of his whiteness.
Recent migrations to the U.S. and the U.K.—the point of departure proper, in Americanah—find Africans in the diaspora unmoored from history: they don’t have the historical ties to America that American blacks do; they do not identify with America in deep ways; they are not particularly conscious of the long shadow of slave trade across the Atlantic nor do they retain a knowledge of the collective struggles of immigrants and minorities in Europe. The global North is, initially, for these immigrants, an idealised place constructed, in the imagination, from films, television shows, and through a romanticizing gaze that glosses over the difficulties that American literature—always beautiful in their eyes—depicts. From a young age, Obinze is fixated on America. He talks about it constantly. He longs for it always. His middle-class status is, for him, a launching pad to get to America. For Obinze,
To be here, among people who had gone abroad, was natural for him. He [Obinze] was fluent in the knowledge of foreign things, especially of American things. Everybody watched American films and exchanged faded American magazines, but he knew details about American presidents from a hundred years ago. Everybody watched American shows, but he knew about Lisa Bonet leaving The Cosby Show to go and do Angel Heart and Will Smith’s huge debts before he was signed to do The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. “You look like a black American” was his ultimate compliment, which he told her when she wore a nice dress, or when her hair was done in large braids. Manhattan was his zenith. He often said “It’s not as if this is Manhattan” or “Go to Manhattan and see how things are.” He gave her a copy of Huckleberry Finn, the pages creased from his thumbing, and she started reading it on the bus home but stopped after a few chapters. The next morning, she put it down on his desk with a decided thump. “Unreadable nonsense,” she said. “It’s written in different American dialects,” Obinze said.
For these children—Ifemelu, Obinze, and their friends—living in Africa, casting their minds abroad, America is the zenith of a journey of social mobility that bourgeois thinking and an overwhelmingly imported culture teaches them to expect and to which they feel entitled. It is a way to leapfrog the provincial limitations and familiar domestic drudgery of home. It doesn’t occur to them that they might fail.
Ifemelu, who doesn’t desire America half as much as Obinze does, goes to America and succeeds: Her blog is a success and attracts enough money for it to be her sole source of income. By any immigrant standard, she has made it, a fact that is sealed by her bringing her parents to America for a visit where they are awed by all that she has achieved (all she lacks in their eyes is a husband). Obinze fails in his attempts to go to America and ends up in Britain where, by any immigrant standard, he fails. Americanah creates these immigrant trajectories to emphasize the different ways in which life as an immigrant fails. These parallel paths are interwoven by their friends, other immigrants, who meet each of them at different times. These friends settle abroad in different ways either distancing themselves from their past or cleaving to it by trying to recreate it, producing other kinds of failures.
Before leaving Nigeria, it doesn’t occur to them that their concepts of the fantastic global North and mundane Africa, diametrically opposed, are so inaccurate as to be almost meaningless and possibly dangerous. The challenge of their lives is to become American or British, to lose their African-ness, to insert themselves into a world, in the global North, that they imagine will allow them to inhabit a new, prosperous, wonderful, idealized subjectivity. Imani Perry, in Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, describes the nature of this trans-Atlantic pull:
[T]he Americanness of the subject of Black American exceptionalism predicates idealized Blackness on claims to, or actual citizenship in, the American dream. No wonder, then, that, despite the collective memory of slavery, the legacies of Jim Crow, and persistent racial inequality, generations of willing Black immigrants have followed the unwilling over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first […] Black American exceptionalism sustains American mythologies of perfect democracy and unfettered possibility. It seduces believers in multiracial democracy with the aesthetics of racial equality or “color blindness.” At the same time, even among those who recognize the persistence of inequality, Black American exceptionalism offers that ever-present word of the Obama presidential campaign: hope.
Ifemelu arrives in the United States without a concept of race. Immediately, she “became black.” Ifemelu’s blackening occurs as a result of the covert and overt racism she witnesses and experiences. Her blog is informed by her daily encounter with racial difference, encounters which form the titles of her articles: “American Tribalism,” “What Do WASPs Aspire To?,” “Travelling While Black,” “What Academics Mean by White Privilege.” One one occasion, Ifemelu wanting to get her eyebrows waxed is informed by an “Asian [sic] woman behind the counter” that “we don’t do curly.” Every day she experiences, “small things that piss us [blacks] off,” but that she finds herself unable to talk about. She notices that blacks in general are unable to talk with whites about these issues due to a respectability politics which ensures “they talked about it [racism] in the slippery way that admitted nothing and engaged nothing and ended with the word ‘crazy,’ like a curious nugget to be examined and then put aside.” Her experiences work not only against her sense of self but against her sense of community. When her black American boyfriend, Blaine, organizes a protest against racism in front of a library at Yale, she instead attends a party, already executing her escape from a racial struggle of which she realizes she wants no part.
This process of becoming black, of being marked and cast in shadow, is experienced by both the American black and the non-American black, the imperial subject and the colonial subject. Zora Neale Hurston, in How It Feels To Be Colored, describes leaving her home of Eatonville to go to school in Jacksonville:
When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown–warranted not to rub nor run […] I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
Ifemelu, like Hurston, is shrunken within an enveloping milieu, but she is not diminished. She becomes nameless, only a color, a generic type: merely a colored girl, no longer herself but a colored girl-thing. Frustrated, Ifemelu says,
I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.
She experiences an unsettling discontinuity: she was “myself”; then, suddenly, she was black. In becoming black, the self is subsumed in blackness. She becomes what Malcolm X, in a speech given at the University of Ghana in 1964, described as “a victim of America.”
Frantz Fanon, in his great book on colonial psychology, Black Skin, White Masks, describes the psychological impact of this moment, the fact of blackness:
I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance […] I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. Why, it’s a Negro!
Urgent question, everyday
Americanah is written from, in, and about privilege. Ifemelu, when she lands in the U.S. and for a time after, lives in straitened circumstances, but her story never dwells on the implications of being both black and poor, on what it would mean for an entire community to be in such a state. Her story, individualist throughout, is perpetually facing elsewhere, always upward; as a result her life initially seems no more different, and certainly no less terrible, than that of a typical broke student. When she escapes that life, the reader gets the impression that she has pulled herself up, that this possibility is realistic, and her quality of life achievable by any black or brown immigrant who works hard enough.
Adichie herself has been decorated with major literary awards that have brought with them prestige, money, and tremendous security. Because both Ifemelu and Obinze are coming from and arriving at places of relative financial well-being, the African immigrant experience that Adichie dramatizes in Americanah is a limited one. Cornel West reminds us in Race Matters, his writings on race relations in America, that while all of the varied experiences of blackness in an anti-black, white supremacist regime are valuable, we must never forget what is at stake: “For me, [race] is an urgent question of power and morality; for others, it is an everyday matter of life and death.”
Obinze, in the U.K., has to live a life in many ways worse than what he might have endured in Nigeria. He does so because the possibilities for a better life in Britain are ostensibly more easily reachable than they could ever be back home. Working illegally, he takes menial jobs as a janitor, then as a packer for a trucking company, and is exploited by other immigrants whose help he needs. He endures this, always conscious of an idea he believes in—that anyone can start low and, in short order, ascend, here, in the highest point of the globe, the global North:
He knew of the many stories of friends and relatives who, in the harsh glare of life abroad, became unreliable, even hostile, versions of their former selves. But what was it about the stubbornness of hope, the need to believe in your own exceptionality, that these things happened to other people whose friends were not like yours?
Integral to the racialized structure of the global North is exclusion. Political exclusion is the way in which racism is practiced; economic exclusion is the way in which it is enforced. Living in the U.K. illegally, Obinze’s prospects are severely constrained. In order to work and earn a living, he has to borrow a National Insurance card from another slightly better established immigrant. To do so, he has to part with a percentage of his salary or lose everything altogether. Because he is undocumented, he cannot travel out of Britain for fear of being apprehended by immigration authorities. Because he is designated as “illegal” he is consigned to only the lowest paying jobs where the surveillance technologies of the state are permissively applied. His life is one of imperilled, involuntary immobility. This cruel paradox is described in a necessarily anonymous essay on immigrant activism:
Through an unauthorized act of mobility, undocumented immigrants are made immobile. There is a petrifying struggle for survival for undocumented immigrants due to the staggering lack of access and privileges.
In order to break out of this lack of access, Obinze arranges to marry someone with papers, and in the intermezzo falls in love with the girl, Cleotilde, with whom he is paired by brokers. On the day of his wedding, minutes before he can become a citizen, he is discovered, detained, and summarily removed from the country. This violent removal is neoliberal nationalism working within the legacy of imperialism. Nigeria was colonized by Britain. Now, Nigerian citizens find themselves rendered repugnant to a country whose attractiveness, by which immigrants are propelled, was built on the backs of enslaved subjects from former colonies.
A policeman clamped handcuffs around his wrists. He felt himself watching the scene from far away, watching himself walk to the police car outside, and sink into the too-soft seat in the back. There had been so many times in the past when he had feared that this would happen, so many moments that had become one single blur of panic, and now it felt like the dull echo of an aftermath. Cleotilde had flung herself on the ground and begun to cry. […] “Removed.” That word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.
Proximity to privilege
The climax of Ifemelu’s ascent into the American dream occurs during her relationship with her white American boyfriend, Curt:
Their lives were full of plans he made—Cozumel for one night, London for a long weekend—and she sometimes took a taxi on Friday evenings after work to meet him at the airport.
Ideologically, Americanah stands on troubled ground: The two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, having had diametrically different fates in the U.S. and the U.K., return to Nigeria where they find financial success as well as emotional and psychological fulfilment. The novel suggests that return or escape (material or conceptual) hold the best promise for those blacks who find themselves languishing in the diaspora. However, the freedom to move and to succeed in America or Africa hinges on a neoliberal idea of social mobility. Ifemelu obtains a green card, assisted by Curt, who simply “made a call”; she is a citizen of two countries and can move between them in whichever ways she wishes. Obinze, upon returning to Nigeria, becomes an immensely wealthy businessman; he can travel wherever he likes, his newly found mobility emphasised by the things that become banal: He never flies British Airways because even though it is what “the big boys flew,” he recalls being removed from Britain, handcuffed in the plane, and perfunctorily ejected into Nigeria.
“When I was a regular man in economy, British Airways treated me like shit from a bad diarrhea,” Obinze said.
The survival strategy that seems to work best is that which Ifemelu adopts: She allies herself with Curt. His wealth shields her from the more violent winds that buffet those who are poor while black in America. Her next boyfriend, Blaine, is a professor at Yale and distinctively upper middle-class. Through him, she furthers her access, meets a Senegalese professor and their friendship results in an important scholarship to Princeton, which accords her further privileges. By comparison, a chatty girl who braids her hair in the salon (in which an extended section of the story takes place) doesn’t seem to have any such prospects: she wants to marry one of two men, both of whom are African, and economically constrained. Aunty Uju, who escaped from Nigeria after the death of her lover, an army general, flounders as she works towards a medical degree and license, and she marries a Nigerian man with no prospects, who depends on her, and both she and her son suffer for it. These individual stories reveal a prevailing isolation among immigrants in the U.S. No hint, beyond Blaine’s cross-class exertions, is given of any alliances through which shared, collective progress might be possible. Many of the struggles faced by other immigrants are liminal for most of the novel. Ifemelu flinches and pulls away in the face of these struggles. When she runs into Kayode, a childhood friend, she is numb and cold, and he feels himself spurned:
There was, in Kayode’s demeanor, a withdrawal of spirit, a pulling back of his army of warmth, because he sensed very well that she had made the choice to shut him out. She was already walking away. Over her shoulder, she said to him, “Take care.” She was supposed to exchange phone numbers, talk for longer, behave in all the expected ways.
The turn towards the collective is one which Ifemelu rejects repeatedly. This marks a serious weakness in the novel but also raises a challenge for the reader and for future novels on race. While Ifemelu blogs about white privilege, the novel seems to lack a self-reflexive capacity to examine its own assumptions of privilege and to move beyond them; and yet, it is precisely this genuine movement towards the collective that is most important in any struggle against or consideration of oppression. Discussing the problem with privilege, Andrea Smith, activist and author of Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, writes:
[T]he purpose was for individuals to recognize how they were shaped by structural forms of oppression. However, the response to structural racism became an individual one—individual confession at the expense of collective action. Thus the question becomes, how would one collectivize individual transformation?”
By contrast, in the U.K., Obinze is embedded in a network of immigrants, some documented, many not, almost all of them engaged in illegal activities. This network operates its own economy with a market wherein documents and identities are loaned in exchange for regular cash payments. These collectives, sharing information and schemes by which to evade government surveillance or integrate themselves into their host communities, are often characterized by the extortionate and exploitative nature of the transactions they enable: the arranged marriage by which Obinze attempts to become a citizen, his usage of other immigrant’s papers to access state services and jobs.
These networks, operating underground, do serve to make life possible for immigrants, but they also provide the invisible and uncompensated labor that maintains an economy built on institutionalized inequality, an unjust carceral immigration regime, and the use of minorities as scapegoats for diverse social ills. While immigrants are finding ways to survive, the countries in which they are abjected exploit their labor (in short-term, low-wage, insecure jobs) and place ever more of the burden for their own welfare onto these immigrants. The numerous immigrants who die in transit or who are jailed or deported by America, Britain, and Europe thus comprise the waste that is intrinsic to the violent operation of capitalism. Obinze and his fellow immigrants work and their labor is exploited. Then they are made destitute, removed or held in detention, their lives wasted.
A radical love plot?
Americanah, as a love story, is about a failed love affair with the global North and the attendant disillusionment that results from the breaking of that relationship and its material promise. It is about the succour afforded by a love for home and a home that loves. The schism between the African and the global North, however, is one that is easy to get over because home is in Africa which, for Ifemelu and Obinze, is where the heart is and always was. But just how useful would this home-love be if both Ifemelu and Obinze didn’t find themselves, as they do, in middle and upper-class comfort but in a more difficult situation? Would the trade-off between home and abroad be so easy to delineate?
Indeed, it is the very banality (and realism) of Ifemelu’s romantic entanglements (as well as those of Obinze and other characters in the novel) that points us to the structural conditions under which these relationships occur. Of the relationships that Ifemelu has, two are depicted as major: One with the white American man, Curt; the second, with Blaine, the black American Yale professor. Both men treat her well, both are cultured, and of means. Both of the men are “good” men. These two relationships, read politically, with their obvious parallels and their eventual specific failure—Ifemelu ends them, for no clear reason—present the possibility that, for Ifemelu, living as an African immigrant in the U.S., a loving relationship is impossible to sustain and that forces beyond her control work against her, making it impossible for her to create a complete life in America. This impossibility, when an immigrant finds her will and imagination frustrated as she attempts to create a life, is reflected in other narratives of diasporic exhaustion and return. In his essay, On Qutting, Keguro Macharia writes of his decision to return to Kenya from America, that:
I have said that I cannot build a life here […] I have meant something closer to saying that I cannot imagine—or desire—a life here.
Subashini Navaratnam, in her review of Americanah, suggests that Adichie has proffered a “radical notion of love,” one that is open and ideologically inclusive. She describes it as “radical love across racial borders” and it is worth considering what it might mean for love to be radical or to be across racial borders rather than between racialized bodies. Ifemelu describes it as,
Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved.
In reminding us of James Baldwin’s edict that “love is a battle, love is a war,” Keguro Macharia says,
I’m not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings. I’m talking about the struggle to love, the struggle to be recognized as loving, and the struggle to be recognized as lovable.
This struggle for recognition, as described by Fanon in The Negro and Hagel, is to be “recognized by the Other […] It is on that other being, on recognition by that other being, that her own human worth and reality depend. It is that other being in whom the meaning of her life is condensed.” This recognition, in love, has at its core, Fanon says, “an absolute reciprocity which must be emphasized. It is in the degree to which I go beyond my own immediate being that I apprehend the existence of the other as a natural and more than natural reality.”
It is this reciprocity that Ifemelu figures in saying that a true love that would solve racism would make the lover in her imagination “breathe through the nostrils of your beloved.” Life—given by and shared through breath—would simultaneously be risked and be dependent on this love. Calling upon Fanon again, we might read Ifemelu’s idea of love as one that allows the lover and the beloved to “go beyond life toward a supreme good that is the transformation of subjective certainty of my own worth into a universally valid objective truth.” This recognition (through love) that Fanon is talking about is precisely that of recognition of and by the racialized other, the black or the African who is caught in an anti-black regime. This would be a love that doesn’t efface difference (erasure of this kind is, after all, always an act of violence) but incorporates these differences, and thereby reconstitutes itself as a truly radical act of love. The supreme good that Fanon speaks of would result, from this love and recognition, in a complete undoing of white supremacy and anti-blackness, and thus of racist oppression.
Ifemelu, recounting her break-up with Curt, says,
And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.
What are we to make of the declaration that racism in America is insoluble? Ifemelu, in speaking of the rarity of such love, is pointing out the need not only for individuals to foster love as a survival strategy, but also, in the various configurations of love that they are able to discover and possibly sustain, to look to propagate and proliferate such loving. The proliferation of radical love across racial borders might, eventually, make racism collapse of its own weight. But by declaring the problem insoluble, what statement is being made about those people who, while minoritized and racialized, have to make a life in the global North, those who are not at home in Africa or in Europe or in America—who are estranged everywhere—and have no choice but to remain abroad?
Navaratnam, in her reading of the Americanah love plot, is asking us to consider that it is precisely the reaching across race, across that problematic, vertiginous space, that makes love across racial borders radical. Until recently, loving relationships between whites and blacks were verboten and therefore always radical (historically, the widespread raping of black women by white men has always occurred as well as voluntary miscegenation to a perhaps smaller extent). In reading Ifemelu, we are presented with the proposition that even though they are no longer proscribed, such loving relationships retain their radical impetus, and that love can be simultaneously banal and radical. This, of course, does not contend with the intrinsic failure of any attempt at a multiracial relationship. Jared Sexton, in Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, notes that such relationships can never solve racism because by their definition they rely on the continued existence of racial difference. That is, an authentic relationship between a black woman and a white man is only possible if and because the woman remains defined as black relative to the white man.
The rarity and power of the love of which Ifemelu speaks is described, again by Keguro Macharia, in his writing on diasporic love poetry:
We rarely hear about love, about the kind of love that makes us vulnerable, that dares us to risk our hearts, our lives, our commitments. We rarely hear about the love that allows us to transcend divisive ethnic politics. We rarely hear about the intimate, risky forms of loving that have the power to transform our social and political worlds simply by being public and daring to exist.
Ifemelu cannot imagine authentic love across racial borders in America. African blacks in America and American blacks are also separated by a racial barrier—she expends a lot of energy in her blog detailing the differences between “American blacks” and “non-American blacks.” Because these romantic failures are not attributed to any clearly defined schisms that are common to failed relationships everywhere—Ifemelu’s infidelity is attributed to a deeper, underlying or overarching, hidden cause—the failures of these relationships can be read as reflecting, to again quote Macharia, “Fanon’s conceptual problem [about love]”, that is, “authentic love can neither be experienced nor sustained under conditions of oppression.” Love is not “a refuge from the complexities of colonial modernity.”
Ifemelu notices daily, casual racism while Curt does not. Curt only notices blatant racism, such as when a spa attendant refuses to wax Ifemelu’s eyebrows. At moments such as that one, he rallies to her defence, oblivious that his white, male, always-effective, always-authoritative defence only underscores and re-inscribes the racist structure in which they live. At other times,
When they walked into a restaurant with linen-covered tables, and the host looked at them and asked Curt, “Table for one?” Curt hastily told her the host did not mean it “like that.” And she wanted to ask him, “How else could the host have meant it?” When the strawberry-haired owner of the bed-and-breakfast in Montreal refused to acknowledge her as they checked in, a steadfast refusal, smiling and looking only at Curt, she wanted to tell Curt how slighted she felt, worse because she was unsure whether the woman disliked black people or liked Curt. But she did not, because he would tell her she was overreacting or tired or both.
It is these moments that sabotage their relationship, and that hint at the untenable nature of “multiracial” relationships. Such experiences will be easily recognizable by immigrants of color and black Americans. In Life In Transit / Love Is A Homesickness, M. Neelika Jayawardane (of South Asian extraction, she spent her childhood in Zambia and was educated and teaches in the U.S.) describes her affair with a white South African man living in South Africa while she was living in the U.S. On a long holiday she visits him and a particular experience marks the ending of their affair,
The final decision I made—to leave him, yes, but more significantly, to return to the US to accept my residency—happened over something as benign as a holiday to see the blossoming Namaqualand flowers […] The owner of the hotel, a 30-something white woman who looked like she drank her fair share, spoke to my companion in Afrikaans—she addressed only him, never once looking at me. Earlier in the evening, when I’d gone to fetch a bag from the car, and asked her for directions back to the room, she certainly replied to my query in comfortable English—but I was on my own at that moment.
She seemed intent on flirting with him. He seemed to comply—all the charm that I fell for was being trotted out here, too, in a dusty, two-tabled dining room with a black cat sleeping in the washbasin. She was attractive enough.
At the dinner table, I endured an entire conversation between them, in Afrikaans. My body seemed to have disappeared from the room. I was not only an outsider in his world, in her world—I did not exist.
My fish and wilted chips remained untouched. […] Once she left the dining room, I waited for words denoting sympathy about the awkward situation I was living through, here on the frontier of colonial encounter. But he had nothing to say. […] The rage with which this man reacted to my exchange with the motel owner shocked me out of love. It shook me out of wanting to be aligned with his narrative of nationalism—one that was now in the process of struggling to prove its place in Africa. I didn’t think that the conversation between us, at this point, revealed much about the politics surrounding language and identity, but much more about how much my lover’s loyalty to his heritage would play out in our relationship.
It is this type of experience, of being rendered invisible—of one’s white lover being wilfully complicit in this unmaking, of being misunderstood, of being perceived as one who cannot understand, of being reminded of one’s marginal, inferior status—that Ifemelu suffers and from which she eventually recoils. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as he travels out of the American deep south, understands already that diasporic love is fraught:
I couldn’t give much thought to love; in order to travel far you had to be detached, and I had the long road back […]
Removal, escape, return
Both Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s immigrant experiences are heroic-mythic journeys in which they return with new knowledge, almost magical capabilities, and ineffable yearnings, all of which make them restlessly estranged from their countrymen in Nigeria. Crucially, their journeys allow them to re-imagine what home can be. In that re-imagining, they reconceptualize home, moulding it to fit their expanded consciousness and desires.
It is a romantic tale to be sure, but in this breathlessly optimistic depiction of two lovers reunited after being separated by time, space, and politics, there is not much room for those many immigrant lives that never experience triumph, those for whom class mobility is out of reach, and escape impossible. The increasing tenor of the individualist romance detracts from a conversation of collective, shared world-building and its necessity in times of increasing difficulty for immigrants worldwide. The tale becomes dreamlike, fulfilling typical deeply felt wishes of idealized love, of romantic visions that become real, of belonging, of rootedness, of agency and choice, of happiness. Returning to the global South seems like a conclusive answer to the problems immigrants face in the global North but in literature on diasporic return, we are often reminded that this is not the case. Kenyan feminist, Wambui Mwangi, writes of her own experience, that:
When I came home to Kenya, I was (made) very aware of my new strangeness, my apparently-imported otherness. The very condition of ‘returning’ from the Diaspora speaks of wider narratives and global structures in which the possibility of post-colonial ‘Kenyan-ness’ is implicated: empire, coloniality, capitalism, transnationalism, Diaspora.
For all its merit, Americanah evades the interminable duration of immigrant struggle even as it indicates that immigrant experiences are diverse and varied and that not all narratives must remain mired in resistance and struggle. Missing from it is a broader, radical, and necessary sense of the possible as articulated by black American feminist, bell hooks, in her essay on Revolutionary Black Women:
Consistently, contemporary black women writers link the struggle to become subject with a concern with emotional and spiritual well-being. Most often the narcissistic-based individual pursuit of self and identity subsumes the possibility of sustained commitment to radical politics.
It becomes, in its concluding third, not so much radical as escapist, a book that one could never fully inhabit, live with or live through, but might, while reading, cry and laugh, but eventually put down in order to re-enter a world whose difficult political realities, while similar to those in the book, are for the most part unromantic and permanent, and whose struggles offer a rather different set of pleasures and pains.
In the final pages of Americanah we find this scene:
And then, on a languorous Sunday evening, seven months since she had last seen him, there Obinze was, at the door of her flat. She stared at him. “Ifem,” he said.
For a long time she stared at him. He was saying what she wanted to hear and yet she stared at him. “Ceiling,” she said [using his nickname], finally. “Come in.”
In entering Ifemelu’s house—if Obinze eventually does, as he did many times before—he will return to the hermetically sealed safety of a romance that allows them to turn away from the world that lies beyond it.
Orem Ochiel is a lapsed mathematician and perspiring writer. He writes to be in conversation with the authors who have kept him sane, to communicate with the distant dead and the unreachable living, to give his soul hope in the uneasy quiet of night and balance in the roiling of day. He writes that he may develop empathy for those with whom we share this pained planet. He muses at twitter.com/nochiel, scribbles inconstantly at lifefiction.tumblr.com, and maintains an inbox at email@example.com.