Americanah: Delightful Parallels with the Queer, Migrant Story

Long before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was globally recognized as the literary and advocacy powerhouse that she is, she was making waves on the African continent. As a young Queer African coming into his own, I was jaded about what yet another African author writing for the African audience possibly had to say to the likes of me. Until the entrance of the likes of literary houses like Chris Abani –also from Nigeria – people like me had gotten used to relying on literary offerings by Western, often White authors for Queer oriented, affirming, or even friendly literature.

Adichie was, however, a pleasant surprise to many like me. Her debut offering, Purple Hibiscus, was talked about in academic circles and even issued as required reading for some in high school in certain countries, while her second book which arguably rocketed her to international fame, Half of a Yellow Sun, struck a chord with young Africans as the continent entered the age of Neo-Pan-Africanism. It vividly painted the picture of struggle and the growing pains of a nation, with which young Africans with a newly found sense of pride in their “Africanness” were recognized and appreciated. 

PARIS, FRANCE – JANUARY 20: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attends the Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 20, 2020 in Paris, France. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

But never was a book so well received as her third offering, Americanah. While retelling the immigrant story, not through a point of privilege or disenfranchisement, but through the lens of an otherwise normal cast of characters. Amercianah truly codified the African immigrant experience and the reality of many otherwise ordinary lower- to upper-middle-class Africans who choose to travel abroad to study and ultimately stay on as professionals in various fields.

Visibility and The “Good” African” Trope

The protagonist in the book is not a source of pity, neither does the book have a clear antagonist and veers entirely away from the “misery porn” trope often ascribed to immigrant story-telling where authors focus more on the very valid but often over-amplified indignities suffered by immigrants without equally sharing their strengths and triumphs.

We, young Africans who have traveled and been “othered” in international spaces, were and are Ifemelu, the main character, or her love interest, Obinze, or know of someone who has lived like them or had relayed experiences similar to those of said characters. My only gripe is, like most works of fiction that are often hyped upon release but turn out to be consumerist drivel and personal reticence, I was late to the Americanah party, and only after years of being a foreigner myself did I finally pick up the book, and the revelations contained therein washed over me like a massive tidal wave!

I suddenly felt seen and understood! Everything from the incredulity with which I was met at not being “grateful” for this amazing opportunity supposedly extended to me to live and work abroad, ignorance toward my culture but the demand of recognition of other “more mainstream” cultures and cultural references, non-Black love, and its triumphs and pitfalls; all of it was laid bare like a blueprint to my life, and I felt duped of an important piece of artillery in my “Black, African, Queer, and Abroad” arsenal.

“How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Not all compliments were actual compliments as highlighted in Ifemelu’s experience registering at her alma mater, a story inspired by the author’s own experience of being a brilliant African student in a mostly white class, and witnessing the shock in her lecturer’s reaction to an essay she wrote. If you have been in non-Black spaces as the only person of color, you understand what is behind what we might think of as being “thoroughly impressed.” This sudden realization that Black and African people too are capable of brilliance in academia and not just in sports. And you are instantly transported back to your first interactions with non-Blacks online and having to explain that Africa has electricity and all the modern conveniences the rest of the world does. You are the ambassador for an entire continent, and your success or failure reflects not on your abilities as an individual, but as an indictment or source of pride for an entire group of 1.4 billion people.  

Situations both Ifemelu and Obinze found themselves in felt eerily familiar: Having to explain African history outside of the American construct, or playing arbiter of the good versus the bad African, what that meant in the larger scheme of things (acceptable to the non-Black world), and having to actively shun them so as not to lose our own status as “the good African.” It was even more so for me, as a Queer Black African living in an Asian country, and in a relationship with a European, whose predominant group of friends was Black American and Queer. There were constant clashes in understanding and concessions were rarely made.

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Simply Black and White

I remember one uncomfortable instance when my White partner and a Black friend were locked in an argument that had started with the assertion that all White people enjoyed white privilege. As a person from a predominantly White, European country, this, according to my partner, was a fallacy. He had always been of his little town, then city, then country, and had only become “white” when he set foot outside his country. If there had been any privilege, then it served little to no purpose in a country where almost everyone looked like him.

This was a point I resonated with, as someone from a predominantly Black, African country, and whose concept of race in terms of access and privilege was markedly different from the predominantly American one. Like Ifemelu and Obinze, I had always been of my tribe, then my city, then my country, and region or continent but had to suddenly come to terms with the concept of Blackness as soon as we landed in countries that we would call home. Of course, I had heard of white privilege and had seen it in how White tourists were treated as objects of fascination and reverence back home, but it was still not the insidious system that underpinned life in my country.

Wealth and privilege are tied to class. Systems of inequality based on classism bound my experiences to those of my White partner, an unacceptable parallel according to my friend, who then declared that my partner was a racist by the pure fact of his race. Suffice it to say that an agreement wasn’t reached that night, but the tacit understanding of my partner being disinvited to future events was clear, a theme also replete in Americanah. 

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

One learns that in certain international circles away from home, opinions and perceptions truly are skin deep. No room is left for intellectual dialogue or consideration of facts beyond the binaries of race and “Americanisms.” If you aren’t a white European or American, or a Black American, your narrative is often subsumed under the greater banner of “Black existence” and as an African, or as someone from the Caribbean, you are constantly on the offensive, to ensure that your experiences, thoughts, viewpoints, and opinions are given the recognition they deserve without apologizing for not fitting the narrow racial binary, and also not appearing to suggest that your identity is somehow better than that of others.

It wasn’t uncommon for my African and Caribbean friends to reconvene either digitally or in-person to rehash a conversation had in a more “international” setting, where our opinions were either overlooked, not considered, or entirely ignored, or what was being offered as “the Black reality” was so far from our own reality that its blatant ridiculousness was as shocking as it was exhausting. But it is all part of the “Good African” trope – to be able to bend and malleable enough to conform to a greater narrative that purportedly serves in the best interests of those who look like you regardless of where they come from in the world.

The Silent Killer

It is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it what Seasonal Affected Depression (SAD) is or how it feels especially since you first experience it, you are unlikely to know that is what you are suffering from. Ifemelu, one of the main characters in the book suffers a hard first winter in the States after she moves there for her studies. She shuts herself in, secluding herself, not even bothering to respond to messages from friends and family, and effectively cuts the few friends she has managed to make in her time in the States.

Remembering my first winter, I had the benefit of having a partner from the Northern hemisphere, whose country was more of a winter destination with occasional breaks of warmth throughout the year. He was the one who warned me what to watch out for, and it did help that Beijing winter was unlike the dark doom and gloom that I had expected or read about online or seen in movies.

Beijing was just one bright, cold, windy, and dry tunnel. I struggled with the shorter days and would suffer massive panic attacks at the sudden darkening of the world outside the window while I was doing something as random as hanging out with friends. It took me some time to understand that here, unlike home, looking outside the window wasn’t as reliable a way of telling time, and I was forced to be more in touch with the concept of conventional time when up until then I operated more on “guestimations” and an internal clock fostered from years of living on “African Time” or what our friends in America would call CP (colored people) time. 

“…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

I was good with taking my supplements, but this didn’t stop the lethargy and a general disconnection from the world around me. Suddenly social interactions felt like too much of an effort, and messages of concern from friends and family were an annoyance. My interactions with my partner were more a prescription to maintain a sense of normalcy than a tonic for my sudden malaise, and worst of all, it seemed that everyone around me was unaffected by whatever mysterious bug had struck me. It is a public loneliness unlike anything I have ever experienced before, and though now I have come to consider winter as my favorite time of the year, it was those first few winters that really questioned my choice of wanting to live so far north from my country. Beijing wasn’t meant for people with equatorial weather sensibilities. 

Something for Everyone

Whether it be themes of female and African empowerment, the all too relatable code of silence in which one is conscripted by virtue of living abroad or being Queer and in the closet, or the feeling of treading water and struggling to survive, to the arc of coming into one’s own, this book still provides a buffet of social, psychological, and racial commentary, and makes it a timeless classic which has a little something for everything. But as a Queer Kikuyu, from Nairobi Kenya, living in Beijing, China, Americanah is more than a collection of relevant experiences by people like myself and is a personal treatise on the migrant experience, no matter their configuration, or personal identity. All this to say, Americanah should be recommended reading for everyone!  

Photos:, David Cooper | Credit: Toronto Star via Getty Images, Shaunae Teske Photography, Unsplash   

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