Alienation and defamiliarization in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s «Americanah» (2013)
Cet article a été rédigé dans le cadre d'un stage à l'ENS de Lyon.
“The Danger of a Single Story” is the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first TED Talk which she gave in 2009 and in which she challenges narratives that create stereotypical or one-dimensional visions of a place, a people, or a culture. The wish to offer a plurality of perspectives on a given subject or situation could be said to thread through the Nigerian author’s entire œuvre: her first novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) interrogates the role that religion plays in Nigeria while her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) narrates the Biafran War ((The Biafran war, also called Nigerian civil war, lasted from 1967 until 1970 and was set off by the declaration of independence of an Eastern region of Nigeria mostly inhabited by the Igbo people. See Encyclopaedia Britannica.)) as experienced by three different characters, thereby eschewing the pitfall of proposing a unique perspective on the history of the war. Adichie has not constrained herself to novel-writing as she has published a short story collection (The Thing Around Your Neck, 2009), a feminist manifesto (Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, 2017) which complemented her 2012 TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” (published as an essay in 2014) and more recently a non-fictional work (Notes on Grief, 2021). Apart from being a prolific writer, Adichie also stands out through her presence in the anglophone public sphere as she tirelessly participates in podium discussions and interviews.
When Adichie’s third novel Americanah was published in May 2013 (a few months before the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement ((In the aftermath of the killing of the Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man, several racial justice groups formed that would later unite in the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has since been protesting racial inequality, police violence, and systemic racism more generally. See Thebault.))), the novel met the pulse of time with its insight into the workings of race and racism in the United States. Americanah narrates the coming-of-age story of Ifemelu who, at the age of 19, leaves Nigeria, her family, and her high school boyfriend Obinze to go study in the United States. Adichie, who was born to Igbo parents in 1977 and today divides her time between Nigeria and the US, acknowledged that her own emigration to the United States when she was a student has informed Ifemelu’s story (Brockes, 2014). Although Obinze and Ifemelu’s relationship breaks off during her 13-year stay in the United States, the novel ends on a romantic tone with their reunion when Ifemelu decides to move back to Nigeria. Obinze’s own dispiriting experience of migration to the United Kingdom forms a subplot to the story, which complements Ifemelu’s journey. Despite the romantic undertones, Americanah mainly concentrates on Ifemelu’s identity formation and her development towards a more mature version of herself, which inscribes the novel within the genre of the Bildungsroman. Moreover, through Ifemelu’s journey, Adichie touches on the themes of migration, racism, and Pan-Africanism that are intertwined with experiences of dislocation, alienation, and (un)belonging. Ifemelu’s position as an outsider proves to be an essential narrative feature in the novel as it enables Adichie to defamiliarize racist behaviours and bring out the harsh reality of constant alienation that migrants experience.
1. Countering the single story about migration
Americanah can be read as a challenge to different kinds of ‘single stories’ about African immigration, the American Dream and even the genre of the Bildungsroman itself. In the United States, Ifemelu’s position as an individual who, with time, learns all the cultural codes that allow her to navigate American society, may be interpreted as one of epistemic privilege ((The philosophical concept of epistemic privilege is related to the idea that a given person has better access to knowledge about reality or about themselves because of their specific status.)). Despite this privilege, Ifemelu remains an outsider as she can neither fully integrate into the dominant white American society nor identify with the African-American community. This absence of a sense of belonging leads Ifemelu to look at these social groups from an objective but understanding distance as an “outsider within” to quote Sarah Collins in her article “Learning from the Outsider Within” (Collins, 1986, 13-14). Thanks to the heterodiegetic narrator who focalises on Ifemelu, the reader has access to her thoughts and is therefore privy to this particular, defamiliarizing perspective on American society. The emphasis on Ifemelu’s outsider perspective is what singles out Americanah among many other contemporary novels that centre on experiences of migrants who feel a strong sense of belonging to hyphenated communities such as Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan or The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisnero.
Upon Ifemelu’s arrival to the US, her changing relationship to the myth of the American Dream, which Americans and non-Americans alike know and aspire to, is striking. This myth depicts the United States as a place of exceptional bounty and opportunities where anybody can achieve financial success. Ifemelu quickly becomes disillusioned with America, which is foreshadowed in the lines narrating her very first impression of the country: “She stared at buildings and cars and signboards, all of them matt, disappointingly matt; in the landscape of her imagination, the mundane things in America were covered in a high-shine gloss.” (104) The repetition of the adjective “matt” and the sober semi-colon separating reality from dream in this passage convey Ifemelu’s disappointment. Even her Aunt Uju (who had moved to the United States a few years earlier) has not seen her American Dream come true as is suggested by the descriptions of her looks: Ifemelu remarks “her ears bereft of earrings, her roughly braided hair” (104) and finds her “dry-faced and tense” (15), which stresses Uju’s exhaustion; the adjective “bereft” even suggests that something has been violently taken away from her. At the beginning of her stay, Ifemelu also learns of what appear to be America-specific problems such as obesity and a high crime rate. At one point, Ifemelu gets scared of even leaving her apartment, as she feels that crime is ubiquitous due the news ceaselessly reporting shootings (113-114). Ifemelu’s perspective here portrays the US as a dangerous place and reverses the stereotype that many in the global North hold of African countries in relation to the pervasiveness of crime. Moreover, for Ifemelu, America is the place where she slides into poverty as she cannot find work, and the discrepancy between reality and the American Dream is at its most ironic when, at a meeting of the African Student Union at Ifemelu’s university, American-African ((While the term African-American refers to Americans with partial or total (mostly formerly enslaved) ancestry from Africa, the term American-African refers to Africans that have migrated to the US.)) students repeat remarks frequently uttered by white Americans such as “[i]t’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa” (139). Although Ifemelu comes from a lower middle-class family and has grown up in a modest household, it is in America that she has to resort to sex work in order to pay for her rent. Even if Ifemelu later succeeds financially, these rough beginnings viewed through an outsider’s eyes jar with the single narrative of America’s exceptionalism and present the American Dream under a more realistic light.
2. Class and race divisions in interracial relationships
As is the case in many Bildungsromane, Ifemelu’s personal development towards maturity is impacted by her social and more specifically romantic relationships. In high school in Nigeria, Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze but their relationship comes to an end after her emigration to the US. Although Ifemelu claims in her blog that romantic love is what could help solve America’s race problems (296), her own interracial relationships eventually fail. In addressing the difficulties that can come from interracial relationships, the novel is not only part of a trend, in contemporary American literature, of novels featuring or centring on interracial relationships such as for instance Days of Distraction (2020) by Alexandra Chang, but it also exposes divisions brought about by class and race differences in the United States.
Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt, a rich white American, allows her to access a certain level of wealth and luxury that drastically changes her situation as an immigrant: she no longer needs to check her expenses, and more importantly, once she finishes college, Curt helps her find a job in a company which takes care of her work visa and green card applications. Yet with time it becomes clear that Curt’s privileged position as a rich white male makes him mostly oblivious of what it means to be a Black ((In this article we have chosen to use the capitalised version of the term Black for reasons of uniformity. In Americanah, Adichie makes use of both “black” and “Black”.)) woman in the United States. He is as surprised that Ifemelu needs to relax her hair for her job as he is stunned whenever Ifemelu encounters open racism. With time, Ifemelu realises that “Curt and his friends would […] never be fully knowable to her” (207) and as she increasingly considers their differences as insurmountable, she breaks up with him.
Blaine, Ifemelu’s second American boyfriend, is a Black university professor specialised in African politics who is very active in the African-American cause. At first, Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship seems off to a good start as they both care about racial equality and appear to be on the same page more generally. Soon however Ifemelu understands that she cannot wholly identify with the African-American community and their struggle, which offends Blaine. In his eyes, Ifemelu is “not sufficiently furious because she [is] African, not African American” (345) and this distinction makes it sound as if they, Ifemelu and Blaine or even African-Americans and American-Africans, are incompatible. The turn that their relationship takes raises many questions about identity, community, and belonging and it brings out the many differences in the experience of Black people in the United States, who are often essentialised and viewed as one homogeneous group. Thus, Ifemelu’s feeling of alienation from her romantic partners and their social groups exposes how American-Africans form “a distinct ethnic group within the already racialized and marginalized Black community and the larger population as a whole” (Landry, 2018, 2).
3. The blog as a form of social commentary
One prominent narrative feature of Americanah is Ifemelu’s anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, in which she expresses herself freely on such matters as racism, hair politics, and privilege. The blog is not only a space that allows Ifemelu to share her experiences of alienation in America, but it also turns out to be an effective tool in creating a supportive online community whose members share experiences and offer advice in the comment sections. Besides, the blog is striking in that it “deliberately [defamiliarizes] American habits of responding to race, describing each as strange and artificial” (Levine, 2015, 594) and in doing so it is part of Adichie’s endeavour to change the one-sided, stereotypical narrative on migration, but also on American-Africans and African-Americans in the United States as it mostly presents white Americans as the ‘strange other’.
In order to dismantle the workings of racism, Adichie frequently makes use of irony, for example when, in one blog entry, Ifemelu offers ‘translations’ of what white Americans mean when they say certain things that concern race. Thus, she explains that “[s]ometimes they say culture when they mean race [and t]hey say a film is ‘mainstream’ when they mean ‘white folks like it or made it’” (351). The clear discrepancy between the explicit and the implicit in these lines has the effect of mocking Americans’ dread of openly engaging with racism. A sense of irony is also present when Ifemelu reflects on how African-Americans take for granted that African immigrants fully integrate into their community and therefore expect certain behaviours from them. In what resembles a list of guidelines, Ifemelu explains that Black people should nod at one another in public and that they should display their indignation when words such as “watermelon” or “tar-baby” are used in jokes, even though they do not know their implied meaning (221). Due to the ironic tone, these guidelines give the impression that racial identity is a performance. In an interview, Adichie once mentioned that she wanted the blog to be a space of social commentary and the blog indeed seems to have anthropological undertones: Ifemelu takes on the role of observing, explaining, and commenting upon the behaviour and idiosyncrasies of white American people, which produces an interesting subversion of the way Europeans used to write about African people during colonial times. One noteworthy blog entry in this regard is entitled Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism. The word “tribalism” has colonial connotations and it brings to mind travel or anthropological writings that produced one-sided, pejorative narratives about the backwardness of African countries. As a result, many of the underlying political issues of the novel come to a head in the blog which allows Adichie to liberate herself from the constraints of plot and action as the use of the first-person tends to blur the boundaries between author and protagonist.
In addressing the experience of alienation that migrants and Black people in the US have to face and in defamiliarizing America’s relationship with race and racism, Americanah offers a perspective that withstands the limitations of the single story. Even though Adichie does not align with postcolonial theories, Americanah can be read as an instance of the “Empire writing back” (Ashcroft, 2002), because Adichie unsettles pejorative assumptions about African countries that stem from colonial times and appropriates traditionally European genres such as the Bildungsroman and the romance to do so. With Americanah, Adichie points the way for the up-and-coming wave of Nigerian writers who likewise attempt to nuance and diversify the narratives about their country.
In this passage, Ifemelu and her Nigerian friend Ginnika (who had also moved to the US) meet Kimberly, a well-off white woman, for an informal job interview as Ifemelu would like to become the new babysitter for Kimberly’s children. Ifemelu later gets the job and Kimberly and her family are the first white people that Ifemelu has a deeper relationship with in the US.
This passage highlights the discrepancy between how Ifemelu perceives herself and how she is perceived by other (in this case white) people, which makes it exemplary of how the novel exposes racism in the United States. Whereas Ifemelu introduces herself with three simple words (“Hello, I’m Ifemelu”), Kimberly reacts in a more complex manner. The unnatural repetition of how beautiful she finds Ifemelu’s name makes the word beautiful seem devoid of meaning and eventually neutralises the compliment. Together with the words “rich”, “colorful”, and “wonderful”, this semantic field of celebration hints at the idea of colour celebration, which is the form of racism that Kimberly falls back upon here: instead of openly acknowledging race and saying Black, she uses the positive adjective beautiful. At the same time, her question about the meaning of Ifemelu’s name, the implication that it is a multicultural name, and the evocation that Ifemelu comes from a “rich culture” turn Ifemelu into a cultural Other and imply that Kimberly belongs to the norm and Ifemelu to a deviation from it. This opposition between African countries and the US is reinforced by Ifemelu’s impression that Kimberly would not perceive the culture of Norway, a country seemingly closer to the US in culture, as different (or “rich”).
Ifemelu however resists the othering of herself and her name, as is visible in her direct, simple answers that demystify her name’s meaning and its pronunciation. Moreover, it seems that Ifemelu’s or rather the Nigerian point of view prevails throughout the passage: when Ifemelu reacts to Kimberly’s question about the meaning of her name, she shares a secret moment of amusement with Ginnika, which has the effect of mocking Kimberly’s question. Ifemelu’s short, blunt answers may also hint at the importance of authenticity in the novel. Thus, when Ifemelu confronts Kimberly with the unembellished criticism that she could simply say “black” when referring to Black women, her honesty allows their friendship to access a higher level (conveyed by the expression “truly friends”). These seemingly didactic lines may suggest that honesty can be an effective remedy to overcome artificial divisions brought about by the social construct of race.
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Pour citer cette ressource :
Annalena Geisler, "Alienation and defamiliarization in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s «Americanah» (2013)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juin 2022. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/alienation-and-defamiliarization-in-americanah-2013