Unofficial statistics: 95% of my students love Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. The remaining 5% do not hate it, they only wish it was not as lengthy.
On my part, I love teaching Americanah because it allows for such a rich and deep and broad exploration of the immigrant experience.
The novel does not tell a single story about immigrants. Rather, it shows the broad spectrum of what constitutes the immigrant experience. There is Ifemelu, the upwardly mobile star girl who eventually achieves her own version of the “American Dream” even though she struggled so hard to adjust to life in the US when she arrived newly. But there is also Obinze who willy-nilly becomes an undocumented immigrant in England and is eventually deported. And there are also Mariama, Aisha, and their fellow hairstylists — semi-literate immigrants to whom Ifemelu’s decision to return to Nigeria is bewildering.
Americanah tells the story of the immigrant who dines and wines with the crème de la crème of society, who has a fellowship at an Ivy League and dates a professor in another Ivy League. But the novel also tells the story of another immigrant who is in the dark doldrums of the underworld of immigrant life, who has to use another person’s identity to work and who attempts to get married to a stranger in order to get his papers. But perhaps what the novel does so well is to demonstrate that there is only a thin line between those two sides of the immigrant experience. After all, Ifemelu herself had to work with a fake ID when she was in college, before becoming the highly successful writer and speaker that we encounter at the opening of the novel.
I usually ask my students to imagine that something happens and, one way or another, they have to take up a name different from their real name. I tell them: “Imagine you have to answer the name Sandra when your real name is Chloe. Do you think there would be times you won’t realize it’s you being referred to when the name Sandra comes up?” These questions help my students realize that undocumented immigrants who tow that path have to deal with certain psychological complications. To answer a name that is not yours is trauma in and of itself.
Our class conversations become animated the most when I get my students to interrogate the intersections of gender, class, race, and nationality in Americanah. We talk about how even though both Ifemelu and Obinze struggle to fit into their new environments upon leaving Nigeria, Ifemelu’s difficulties are particularly exacerbated by her gender in that she eventually falls victim of sexual abuse in the process of trying to make ends meet. We talk about the fact that even though Ifemelu and the hairstylists are all immigrant women, their conversations — sprinkled almost throughout the entire novel — are charged by deep class differences. We talk about how even though the American society often insists on monolithizing Blackness, the experiences of the novel’s Black characters are not only marked by race but also by other intersections of their identity. Dike, for example, ends up being ontologically confused because while society treats him as Black, his mother Aunty Uju keeps impressing it on him that he is African and not Black. Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship is fraught with fundamental disagreements because as Blaine accuses her: “[she] was not sufficiently furious [at racial injustice] because she was African, not African American” (428).
A couple of my students (most of whom are white because I teach at a PWI) have remarked their surprise at the possibility of multivalent Black identities. They say that they’ve never really thought about Black identities in that complex way. At the end of Autumn 2020, one of my students wrote an excellent final paper that explored the psychological effects of what she termed “oversimplified racial categories in the U.S.”
There is a whole lot that Americanah helps me achieve during class conversations. But I think one of the most profound things it does is elicit strong emotions from my students. I had a student whose discussion board posts were very angry at Ifemelu. He came off so strongly and so clearly that Ifemelu’s character was “repulsive”: “she acts like she is better than everyone else, [she’s] snobby and sitting on a high horse. She leaves her current boyfriend, cheats on the guy who gave her a good job for her green card. Is there no limits to her ungratefulness? The lack of respect for herself and.. others… is just repulsive,” he wrote in one of his discussion posts. But at the same time, some of my students greatly admire Ifemelu’s grit and gumption.
Great literature evokes strong emotions in us. And we only respond emotionally to things that touch us.
Many of my students say that they are surprised at how much they can relate to some of the characters in the texts we read, considering that these are immigrant characters and they (my students) have never been immigrants. I think this is one of the many powers of literature: Empathy. The possibility to see yourself in the other, to hear their story and feel it so deeply that it almost feels like your story even though it is NOT your story.
This is what Americanah does for my students, I believe.
A few days before Christmas last year, I woke up to an email from a student. Part of it reads: “I have always loved English but it was in my senior year of high school that I discovered I wanted to major in English. It was through reading The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce that I finally understood what good writing can evoke. I got some of those same feelings through reading Americanah….”