Americanah Essay Questions

  1. 1

    The first part of Ifemelu’s story is told in flashback while she has her hair braided at a salon before she returns to Nigeria. Why might Adichie have chosen this structure for storytelling?

    By setting the story in the present and using memories to narrate Ifemelu's life until then, Adichie is able to move in chronological order at times but also mix together memories by theme or emotional importance. For example, Adichie juxtaposes Ifemelu's relationships by having her think about moments when she was dating Obinze while dating Blaine or Curt. The structure also allows for foreshadowing, especially through the fact that we know her relationships with Blaine and Curt will not work out in the end, that she will be successful in the United States even though she struggles at the beginning, and that she will have a close relationship with Dike as he grows. Finally, the setting of the hair salon for the frame of the story allows Ifemelu to return time and again to the external signs of race and culture as supremely important to one's identity.

  2. 2

    Why does Ifemelu decide to go back to Nigeria after 13 years?

    Ifemelu never makes it entirely clear what spurs her to return to Nigeria, but there seems to be an emptiness to her life when she is not in a truly loving, engaging relationship. Though she is entertained by Curt and interested by Blaine, she feels a pull back toward Obinze. Furthermore, though Ifemelu has a skill and passion for analyzing American society, she seems to crave a society where she will not have to have her belonging questioned by others and herself constantly. Though the Nigeria she returns to is not entirely familiar, she is happy to settle back into routines and roles that she fully understands.

  3. 3

    Ifemelu feels that Aunty Uju is too eager to capitulate to the demands of fitting in. Uju says, “You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed” (120). Is Aunty Uju right in compromising her own identity to a certain extent? How is Dike affected by his mother’s struggles?

    Aunty Uju tells Ifemelu this during a discussion about black hair and American culture. Whether or not Aunty Uju is right in compromising her own identity, Adichie shows that Ifemelu too, when it comes to getting a higher paying job, takes out her braids and relaxes her hair, deciding that she will bow to cultural norms as necessary to stay America. However, Adichie also shows how partial assimilation to American culture entails feeling not entirely American or entirely Nigerian, with potentially ills effects; she does so through Dike's suicide attempt, which Ifemelu believes is due at least in part to Dike's lack of identity.

  4. 4

    For a time, Ifemelu is a babysitter for Kimberly, a white woman who donates to a charity in Africa. Adichie writes that “for a moment Ifemelu was sorry to have come from Africa, to be the reason that this beautiful woman, with her bleached teeth and bounteous hair, would have to dig deep to feel such pity, such hopelessness. She smiled brightly, hoping to make Kimberly feel better” (152). What is the character Kimberly and the relationship between Kimberly and Ifemelu supposed to represent or demonstrate for the reader?

    Ifemelu and Kimberly's relationship is one of the most interesting in the book, as they are extremely different and yet seem to cultivate real care for one another. Kimberly, as a privileged white woman, often does not have the right experience or vocabulary to discuss matters with Ifemelu, but she is juxtaposed by her sister Laura who does not even try to engage Ifemelu as a person, first by attempting to deny her the babysitting job and then goading her into anger in nearly every interaction. Ifemelu, in both of these relationships, must to some extent act as a representative for all of Africa, since Kimberly and her friends seem to indiscriminately speak about the whole continent as if it is one country. In addition, she does a good deal of thinking about the privilege it takes to donate to and even seem genuinely saddened by causes in Africa, feeling a sort of discomfort that she is from a place that these white women pity.

  5. 5

    In her effort to feel less like an outsider, Ifemelu begins faking an American accent. She feels triumphant when she can do it, and then feels ashamed and resolves to stop (175). Which aspects of becoming an American are the most difficult (and the least) for Ifemelu as she struggles to figure out how much she will give up of her Nigerian self?

    Language is one very important part of Ifemelu's identity in America, as she struggles to decide how much she wants or needs to act like an American to live the life she desires. At the same time she is making these linguistic decisions, Ifemelu also struggles with qualms over the American education system. Early in her time in the United States, she criticizes the mathematics curriculum Dike studies in elementary school; later, in university, she is critical of the style of her own classes, which emphasize participation and have an imbalanced racial makeup. However, as Ifemelu stays in the United States and even in the early days of her return to Nigeria, she comes to place a lot of importance on her American-ness, even the fact that she has the choice to live in America and blend in through voice and style. Finally, she is as passionate about the election of Barack Obama as many born and raised in America, and is filled with fear and then elation as she follows his campaign.

  6. 6

    In what ways does Adichie use hair in Americanah to examine race, culture, and identity?

    Hair is incredibly important to Ifemelu's experience of Nigeria and America as it can represent one's cultural and individual identity or be wielded as a means of racism and oppression. The first half of the story is framed by Ifemelu visiting a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey to get braids in preparation for returning to Nigeria. In addition, the stages of her life are seen through her relationship to hair: her mother having beautiful hair when Ifemelu was a child and then cutting it off in her years of religious extremism, Aunty Uju and her having to relax their hair to be taken seriously in America, the embarrassment of her tiny Afro after a certain relaxer starts to make her hair fall out, and her final love and acceptance of her natural hair gained by cultivating relationships with other natural-haired black women online. Adichie addresses the ways in which hair is political through the views of many female characters in the book who want to sport natural hair but feel limited by the way natural hair and braids are not taken seriously in the business world, and in which it is explicitly not political, writing that people automatically viewed Ifemelu's Afro as a statement that she did not intend.

  7. 7

    What does Ifemelu find satisfying about her relationships with Curt and Blaine? Why does she, eventually, abandon each relationship? Is it possible that she needs to be with someone Nigerian, or does she simply need to be with Obinze?

    Though it seems, looking at the novel as a whole, that Ifemelu never stopped loving Obinze, she does have long, healthy relationships with other men while living in the United States. These three men can be seen to represent certain archetypes - White American Men, Black American Men, and Nigerian Men - or be read more deeply for the specifics Adichie gives about their personalities and relationships with Ifemelu.

    Curt is the most dissimilar from Ifemelu and from the other two men she seriously dates in that he has grown up in a sheltered, privileged environment and is not much of an intellectual. Their relationship seems based upon his love of Ifemelu - the way he makes her feel beautiful and cared for.

    Her relationship with Blaine, however, is more intense, requiring her to stretch herself to like the books, music, and art that he does and spend time with his intellectual friends. In the end, Adichie does seem to imply that the differences between their upbringing pushes them apart as it gives them different goals for this important stretch of their life; the fight that brings on the decline of their relationship is due to Ifemelu not going to a protest Blaine organizes for a black man falsely accused of dealing drugs.

    Whether Ifemelu wants to be with Obinze or simply with a Nigerian man is not stated explicitly, but it would seem that she has ample chance, both in America and in Nigeria, to have a relationship with other Nigerians and does not do so. Aunty Uju, on the other hand, makes an explicit point of seeking out African men to date in the United States, not seeming to put much value on their being a perfect match for her emotionally.

  8. 8

    At one of her salons, Shan says that "You can't write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it'll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious" (417). Has Adichie chosen one of these paths, or has she succeeded in writing an "honest novel about race"?

    Honesty is a major theme in the novel, and this quote brings up the ironic and meta-textual question of whether Americanah itself is an "honest novel." While Shan does go on to single out Ifemelu's blog as successful because she is African rather than African American, the reader must question whether this quote may still apply to the reading of Americanah. With regard to being precious, it seems that Adichie purposefully pushes the boundaries of what she is allowed to say in the novel, especially in her blog post excerpts. As for pretentious, while Adichie is highly educated, she does not disguise much of her book in flowery language, metaphor, or symbolism, rather opting for a realistic story packed with both apt observations in academic language and the mundane details of an immigrant black woman assimilating into American society.

  9. 9

    Just before Ifemelu plans to leave for Nigeria, her beloved cousin Dike attempts suicide. What does Adichie mean to communicate through this suicide attempt and its lack of success?

    Dike, Ifemelu's cousin who was born in Nigeria but grows up almost entirely in America, and in primarily white spaces at that, is an important symbol in the story as he represents the conflict of identity for second-generation Africans in America. His mother, Aunty Uju, does not allow him to connect with his African roots, preventing him from learning to speak Igbo, not talking to him about his father, and not taking him back to visit, but she also does not approve of him being a part of American black culture. Dike unsuccessfully attempts suicide as a teenager, an event that shakes Aunty Uju and Ifemelu greatly, but the two women blame this attempt on drastically different things; Ifemelu believes that his discomfort in life stems from his lack of identity while Aunty Uju says that many teenagers have clinical depression which should be viewed and treated medically. However, through Dike's lack of success in committing suicide, Adichie perhaps allows for some hope in this situation, and Dike is shown to continue on with his life and even get the chance to connect with Nigeria through Ifemelu in the years that follow.

  10. 10

    The term “Americanah” is used for Nigerians who have been changed by living in America. Why do you think Adichie chose this as the title of her novel? Is the title a judgment of Ifemelu?

    Identity is central to the novel Americanah, and a large part of this is the degree to which one can have two distinct national identities. Ifemelu was never particularly drawn to America, unlike Obinze, and yet once she is in America she finds herself desperate to stay there, arguing with herself over whether she should use an American accent, and caring deeply about American politics. However, some choices she makes are distinctly Nigerian, like eventually choosing that she should drop her American accent and return to Nigeria. She is proud when she feels herself fitting back into Nigerian society and choosing to befriend authentic Nigerian women like Zemaye rather than total Americanahs like Doris. It seems that Adichie is not so much judging Ifemelu as using the title to cause readers to reflect further on the use of the word, both a taunt and a word of praise, about America and yet so Nigerian.