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A Postcolonial Reading Of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

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Twenty first Century writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie exhibits the influence of Postcolonial condition through her novels. The term ‘Hybridity’ is often associated with postcolonialism and it is one of the most recurrent topics of the genre. Hybridity expands about the balance between the nature and the western culture. Adichie’s novel Americanah is one such novel. This paper will explore how migration has reshaped the life of the central character, Ifemelu. The protagonist of the novel is embedded in a postcolonial frame. The process of formulating a new cultural identity leads to a multi-cultural lifestyle. Further, the precariousness of balancing the eastern and western culture contributes to her hybridity. The journey from Africa to America, her struggles, cross-cultural journey and identity formation of the migrant, Ifemelu is explored in this paper.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Nigeria. She is from Abba, in Anambra State, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka, where she attended primary and secondary schools. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals including Granta, and won the International PEN/David Wong award in 2003. She was a Hodder fellow at Princeton University for the academic year 2005-06. She lives in Nigeria. She has won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007 for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Americanah is Adichie’s third novel. Adichie’s words have been sampled by pop music artists and she is celebrated for her speeches in TED conferences, making her ideas also reach non-readers. Her main characters are part of academic and politicized environments and engage in intellectual debates about race, ethnicity and culture in Nigeria, the United States and England.

Adichie’s life and work represent the diversity of a continent marked by a single story. She recounts that, from an early age, she used to read British and American stories. Consequently, the texts she produced as a child were filled with characters with blond hair, who played in the snow, ate apples, and were happy to see the sun appear. After reading few African novels she came to a conclusion that even dark characters can be used as a central character of a novel.

Chimamanda Adichie is a postcolonial author who is from the former British colony, Nigeria, and writes in the language of the colonizer, English. Adichie as a postcolonial writer goes beyond the simple definition of it because she not only brings out the translations and linguistic part of colonization but also the politics of postcolonial consequences. Adichie has a mixture of her Igbo culture and the western culture. She ideally thinks in English than in Igbo to bring out a language hybridity. In one of her speeches she has told:

I don’t know many proverbs, so […] I admire people who do, because it shows a kind of, a depth in your knowledge of the language that I really don’t have. My father has that. […] When my father speaks Igbo, it’s very literary: his sentences are full of metaphors and nothing is ever said directly. And I’m just full of admiration for this but my generation, we don’t really have that and, because my language of education in Nigeria was entirely English, I can’t even make an intellectual argument in Igbo. So, I can gossip in Igbo and I can make fun and laugh and […] tease, but to say something sort of profound, such as it might be? I can’t.

Postcolonial theory is introduced to revise the historical representations of former colonies to interpret the developments that took place. The idea of post-colonialism can be best understood by the concept of ‘hybridity’ given by the Indian theorist Homi. K.Bhabha in The Location of Culture published in the year 1994. The Theorist brings the peculiarity of postcolonial discourse by stressing its hybrid and other ambivalent options. As a consequence of encounter of various cultures within the postcolonial entity, Bhabha claims that a third individual instance is formed that bears the complexness and ambiguities of the various cultures mixted together. This unique perspective challenges the previous simple idea of culture and holds true addition to the emergence of new postcolonial ideas. Novels are medium through which the writer depicts people, place and culture. In the same way, they can be a tool for postcolonial cultures “to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (Said 11). The twenty-first century postcolonial condition now includes multicultural identities that embrace the hybridity that stems from the intersection of culture.

Americanah is a book that explores many topics, such as race, immigration, gender, education, etc. The novel has a third person narrator view and it narrated through present and flashbacks. Adichie points out certain aspects of life in the Western world that many people choose to ignore, such as inequality within the society and prejudiced attitude towards black people. She explains that in the novel through dialogues, inner monologues or the main protagonist’s blog. Her characters are often conflicted and looking for a place where they belong. The novel also stands as a platform to celebrate different kinds of love: love for family members, as well as romantic love. Adichie has put together the complications of distance, displacement, and separation.

Elizabeth Day, in her review of Americanah in The Guardian says about the novel: “There are some stories that tell a great story and others that make you change the way you look at the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a book that manages to do both” (i). Likewise in a review in Financial Times the novel is given as, “A long satisfying novel of cross-continental relationships, exile and the pull of home…” (ii). This novel can be divided into several segments such as identity formation that shows the process of the post-colonial migrant identity. Ifemelu’s stages of identity include her time as a native Nigerian, her experience as an immigrant in America, her Americanah, and her return to native land.

Americanah is the story of a Nigerian girl Ifemelunamma, who migrates to America for her University Education. She is a native of Nsukka village in Nigeria. Due to various political reasons and strikes she goes to America to get her education. Her aunt Uju is the one who suggests her to move to America and also helps her in arranging for a scholarship. Upon her arrival to America she faces many obstacles, especially her encounter with of an alien culture. Everything looks new there. Story of Ifemelu is a story of the struggle of African immigrants in America. Likewise her boyfriend Obinze encounters various problems in London. Adichie starts and ends her story in Nigeria, which stands as a symbol of independence in postcolonial Nigeria.

The diasporic feature of the novel is well explained through the character Ifemelu. The displacement of her from her native land Nigeria transforms her at multiple levels. The loss of identity is the major consequence of her immigration. She suffered financially which made her search to for a job. She has gone there with student visa. Ifemelu, after staying at America for thirteen years longs to go back to her country. She thinks about her old days with Obinze. Both Obinze and Ifemelu were to leave to America, but he was denied after 9/11. So he travels to London with his mother, to a University conference, and does not come back to Nigeria. The immigration of the Nigerian people can be considered as a cultural politics between the native land, Nigeria and the western land. Ifemelu learns about the living condition of America by comparing it with her native land, Nigeria.

According to Albert Memmi, “He uses a term “double illegitimacy”and explains it as a foreigner who arrives in another land by accident has created a place for himself and taken away the place form the inhabitant. He legitimizes this usruption by substituting local laws with his own” (176). It exposes the situations of the illegal immigrants in England. Obinze and Ifemelu had to live with somebody else’s identity, and are reminded of their new name. Obinze tries to make his situation legal through an arranged marriage, but it is found out and he is deported immediately. Obinze says that in England things happen as if people lived in a world where the present has no connection with the past which refers to the African diaspora. In English citizens do not seem to understand any reality outside the African stereotype, as it is observed in a party, where Obinze meets old friends and other English guests:

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Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty. (278)

In an interview Adichie explores the significance and meaning of the novel’s title, Americanah. She explains that she too only recognised herself as black when she arrived in America: “… and race is something I discovered in America, because, when I was in Nigeria I did not think of myself as black, and then I went to the US and I became black” (Adichie. This shows that Adichie’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences are reflected in the character of Ifemelu, and how Adichie too was influenced by cultural and historical aspects regarding the concept of race, since she had never before considered the significance of having a certain skin colour before. This goes well with Ien Ang’s statement that race is seen differently from country to country, from nation to nation. Even though two people might share the same skin colour, their reactions to situations might differ due to significantly different historical and cultural influences from their home countries. At one point, Ifemelu expresses this as follows: “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” (290).

Ifemelu cannot identify the troubles Blaine has gone through as an African American black in America, because she is Nigerian. Cultural history stands as a barrier for Ifemelu to recognise the struggles other African Americans have gone through. Instead, her nationality and cultural heritage influence her opinions in such a way that her ideas does not correlate with how others of the same skin colour see things in America. Ifemelu tries to implement herself into the American society and writes her blog about challenges both African American blacks and non-American blacks go through in the US, she cannot sufficiently assimilate into the society, since her cultural perspective of race is different due to her nationality.

The recurring idea of African immigration to the West is that, the Africans are refugees of wars, fleeing terrible economic condition. However, the truth within which Adichie places her characters is extremely different. They represent members of an informed Nigerian socio-economic class who would like to go away from their homelands to get opportunities and make their dreams come true. They are not much sure about their success in the western nation but they undergo many issues in order to attain success in an alien land. Ifemelu’s aunt Uju is the lover of the General in Nigerian army. She lives under his shadow, but he dies. She gives birth to his child and names him Dike. She moves to America with a dream of pursuing her medical course, by starting a part-time work. In Ifemelu’s case, it is the political situation in Nigeria that causes students like her to seek opportunities abroad:

In the newspapers, university lecturers listed their complaints, the agreements that were trampled in the dust by government men whose own children were schooling abroad. Campuses were emptied, classrooms drained of life. Students hoped for short strikes, because they could not hope to have no strike at all. Everyone was talking about leaving. (98)

Ifemelu struggles between cultural adaptation and keeping true her identity. She questions how becoming ‘more American’ is encouraged in order to blend successfully in American society. Dominant cultures impose conditions of subordination, which makes social and class divisions difficult to overcome.. As Frantz Fanon points out: “The feeling of inferiority of the colonized is the correlative to the European’s feeling of superiority. Let us have courage to say outright: It is the racist who creates his inferior” (69). There are certain expectations to the Immigrants who return to Nigeria after many years of living in. They expect them to have an American accent and a straightened chemically treated hair. Even Ranyinudo notices that Ifemelu does not have an American accent, she is not a full Americanah. He says, “ “Americanah!” Ranyinudo teased her often. “You are looking at things with American eyes. But the problem is that you are not even a real Americcanah. At least if you had an American accent we would tolerate your complaining!”” (385). Thinking her to be an Americanah he hesitates to speak to her, but Ifemelu understands it talks in a simple way as she did in her teen age days with Obinze.

Language is important when it comes to the attitude Americans have towards black immigrants. English language has the tendency to open the space between cultures. Homi K. Bhabha explains as : “Open[s] the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism or multi-culturalism of the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity” (209). Ifemelu and her friends who travel to the western countries doesn’t want to get influenced by their practices and they wanted to hold on with their Nigerian roots. However, when Ifemelu arrives in America and sees the American culture, she experiences the effects of becoming an Americanah and she begins to implement the American qualities.

In Ifemelu’s quest for identity into American society, she not only tries to understand and participate in the American culture, she also changes herself to fit into the American norm. She does a number of things that she in Nigeria made fun of others for doing: becoming Americanah. In the previously mentioned interview Adichie explains the term Americanah as follows: “… A person who is going to the US and comes back to Nigeria and suddenly has all of these affectations and pretends not to understand Nigerian languages, speaks with an American accent and that kind of thing” (Adichie). During her days in Nigeria, Ifemelu and her friends made fun of a girl Bisi, who travelled to America and lost some of her Nigerian accent when she spoke English: “They roared with laughter, at that word “Americanah”, wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke” (65).

When speaking to Ifemelu the woman at the registration desk for the University students pronounced the words with carefulness and separated each word for better understanding. This made Ifemelu shrink because English was her native language, and yet the woman thought she could not understand the simplest instruction of filling a form. This incident made Ifemelu start learning to speak in an American accent in the following weeks. In a way she changed her identity to avoid future humiliation, as she could not bear the thought of being viewed as an uneducated immigrant from an undeveloped country. The following of new language brought in a mixer of two cultures and made her a hybrid. According to Izevbaye, “Both the literature and its criticism have been governed by an African awareness of its relation to the modern European world and by a preoccupation with the displacement of the west from the centre of the universe” (127). Adichie’s Americanah is a strong narrative which actively displays the issues in the postcolonial Nigeria. She also explores the culture of United States and England.

Ifemelu’s blogging makes her get a different lifestyle and different identity. The speciality of her blog is writing about practical issues and the problems she faced. In terms of the problems it means racism. In few of her posts she writes about few persons indirectly which hurts them. Even now racism is seen in America but many people choose to ignore this fact. She did her first presentation in a small company at Ohio where all were whites. She presented it on the title “How to talk about race with the colleagues of other races”. That evening she received an e-mai that:”YOUR TALK WAS BALONEY. YOU ARE A RACIST.YOU SHOULD BE GRATEFUL WE LET YOU INTO THIS COUNTRY.”(305). After this incident she changed her strategy for giving presentations. Later she is invited in many schools to give speech “During her talks, she said: ‘America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.’ In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.” (305)

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie writes a lot about hair, which can be seen as a metaphor for changes in immigrant’s behaviour. Ifemelu is asked to straighten her hair to look professional in her job interviews. Aunty Uju does it to get a job. She does chemical treatment to make her hair look professional. The byproduct of a native Nigerian doing hair treatment to look like an American professional is a ‘hybrid’ Aunty Uju. This can be explained as; hybridity is the mingling of the culture of the colonized and the culture of the colonizer. This shows that culture is not monolithic but a dynamic entity. Ifemelu also does chemical treatment for hair, which becomes a threat for her cultural identiy. She struggles with recognising and appreciating her appearance after the chemical treatment “She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss” (203).

The novel Americanah not only shows urban middle-class characters, business people and academics but also shows poor, uneducated, rural and conservative characters. Likewise, the range of different characters from the different social, financial and educational levels helps Western readers to identify themselves with the narrative. Adichie has well portrayed the depression and experience of immigrants that makes them nostalgic. Ifemelu and Aunt Uju’s charcter stands as a best example for hybridity, where the language and hair stands as a symbol for hybridity. Ifemelu finds that she has lost her Nigerian roots and at last she tries to overcome it by getting back her old Nigerian roots. Ifemelu’s characterisation is a part of Adichie’s character, which speaks about her experience in America.

Works Cited

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  7. Guarracino, Serena. Writing : Blogging in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Between, Vol.IV, no. 8, Nov, 2014.
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  9. Nayar, Pramok K. Literary Theory Today. Asia Book Club, 2002.
  10. Oddershede & Larsen. “Postcolonial Cultural Identity: A Comparative Intersectional Analysis of the Creation of Cultural Identity”. 2018, Postcolonial_ Cultural_Identity___ A_Comparative_Intersectional_Analysis_of_the_Creation_of_Cultural_Identity.pdf. Accessed 11 Jan 2019.
  11. Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.
  12. Scarsini, Valentina. Americanah or Various Observations About Gender, Sexuality and Migration: A Study of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 2017.
  13. Sneddon, Hope. The Social and Spatial Politics of Hair in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Win: The EAAS Women’s Network Journal Issue 1. 2018.
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  15. Ortega, Jeannine, ‘Post-Colonial Female Identity: An Examination of the Twentieth Century Narrative Between Nation and Identity in A Question of Power, See Then Now, and Americanah’ (2015).Master of Liberal Studies Theses. 66.

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