Hair is incredibly important to Ifemelu's experience of Nigeria and America as, especially in America, 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. Through Ifemelu's hair changes, 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.
The book questions the institution of marriage, as marriage is wielded more often as a means of economics than of love. The most important example of this is Obinze's attempted green card marriage to Cleotilde in London. However, the economic aspect of marriage is also important in Nigeria, where adultery is portrayed as common and both marriage and extramarital affairs are shown as quite transactional. For example, in Aunty Uju's relationship with The General, he would give her as much money as she needed, but never gave her so much at one time that she wouldn't have to come back asking for more. The climax of the novel centers around how much Obinze values the sanctity of his marriage and family, with Obinze eventually choosing a life with Ifemelu.
Language and accents play a very important role in the novel as a marker of nationality, social class, and assimilation. The reader may first recognize that Ifemelu's father speaks very differently than other Nigerians in the book, peppering his speech liberally with academic words. Ifemelu says he does this because of his shame that he didn't obtain higher education. The other Nigerians in the story, on the other hand, speak a mix of Nigerian Standard English and Nigerian Pidgin, languages based on English but distinctly Nigerian in their grammar and vocabulary. Once Ifemelu is in America, she must choose whether to speak with an American accent or not, which she does at first until she is embarrassed that she takes sounding assimilated as a compliment and switches back to speaking with the accent she learned in school. With whom Ifemelu is able to speak Igbo is also quite important. For example, she notes that Aunty Uju does not allow her to speak Igbo with Dike, something he ends up regretting as a teen. Also, she and Obinze swapping proverbs in Igbo was an important part of their early relationship.
Though Ifemelu is not religious herself, two characters in the book are drawn in by religion in a way that Adichie describes as dangerous: Ifemelu's mother and Esther, the secretary at Zoe. Ifemelu's mother converts multiple times between sects of Christianity that have her fast for days at a time, abstain from pleasures such as dancing, and most importantly chop off her hair and swear off relaxer. Even as a child, Ifemelu views these churches with skepticism, as she notices that the congregants are often asked to donate as much money as possible while the preachers live in luxury. Esther partakes in the same kind of religion, often fasting for days and trying to get the other women in the office to come to her church. In one interesting scene, Esther even tells Ifemelu, almost cheerfully, that she has "the spirit of husband-repelling" (517).
Books and Education
Ifemelu's relationship with books is quite interesting, as she is a highly educated woman but often told throughout the novel that she values the wrong kinds of literature. As a teen, Obinze tries to get her to read the books he likes, most of them about America or by American authors. On one occasion, he tries to make her read Huckleberry Finn, which she does not even like enough to finish. In her relationship with Blaine, too, he tries to get her interested in a higher caliber of literature than she currently reads, and she tries to live up to these expectations. In their first encounter on the train, she tries to hide her trashy magazine from him, assuming that he will judge her for reading it before they have even said a word to one another. Even in her relationship with Curt, who is not exactly an intellectual, her taste in magazines is questioned when he sees that she is reading Essence, which he calls "racially skewed" (364). In a moment of meta-literature, even the worth of Americanah itself is questioned when Blaine's sister Shan says, "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" (417), begging the question of whether Adichie's book achieves this honesty.
As in the quote above in which Shan questions the honesty of books about race in America, the concept of honesty comes up often throughout Americanah. It seems that in most cases, people are not as sparing as Shan when throwing around the word "honest" regarding both literature and people. For example, Obinze is called an honest man by many once he becomes a rich businessman in Nigeria simply because he is not as conniving as many others. Ifemelu also notes that a white girl who has come into the same hair salon as she to get braids says that the book Bend in the River was "so honest, the most honest book I've read about Africa" (253), while not speaking from a place of experience, meaning her assessment cannot be true. However, honesty is used at least once in the positive sense, when Obinze tells Ifemelu something he has continued to value about her since adolescence: "You haven't stopped being honest, Ifem. Thank God" (529).
Names and Nicknames
Names become very important to the novel as Ifemelu, Obinze, and others work and study abroad in places where their names make them clear outsiders and sometimes even dangerous (in the case of taking on other names for work purposes). The name Ifemelu must take on - Ngozi - is even more significant in that it is one of the given names of the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In the nostalgic sections of Part 1 wherein Ifemelu focuses on her teenage friend group and romance with Obinze, the focus is on not given names but nicknames. Obinze is called one nickname by most of their friends - The Zed - but when he and Ifemelu become romantically intimate, she begins to call him the suggestive name "Ceiling." The use of a special nickname shows others that they have a relationship they cannot be a part of and keeps a playful sensuality in even their public lives. Throughout the novel, even after the couple has broken up, Ifemelu will continue to use this nickname for Obinze at certain times in a way that shows she has not fully gotten over their relationship.
Americanah Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Americanah is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.