Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, is an interrogation of race, black hair, and love, but foremost, it is a love story that spans the course of one woman’s life. Ifemelu, the novel’s protagonist, begins her story in militarized Nigeria before heading to America to seek higher education. She stumbles through the follies of identity politics, self-acceptance, academia, and affairs of the heart. The novel has been praised for its use of blog-speak, as Ifemelu has found her voice through writing—brazenly—about the world around her. No topic is off-topic, and her readers expect the inciting glazed with a healthy dose of sarcasm and candor.
Chimamanda and I discussed the novel, but we also talked about societal structures of oppression, Nigeria’s anti-queer laws, and the necessity of speaking up. No, we did not discuss Beyoncé or even the newly-confirmed movie deal for Americanah with Lupita Nyong’o. Fancy? Sure. However, Chimamanda was a literary powerhouse long before she received those phone calls. She is the author of three books, a MacArthur fellow, a Hodder fellow, and a Radcliffe fellow. Never mind the TED Talk that has become the single story on single stories. While it’s wonderful that our entertainers have taken notice, Chimamanda is already a gilded star in the literary cosmos.
The Rumpus: Americanah is a big book spanning several decades, several countries, a cast of characters and themes. You’ve talked before, in other interviews, about learning to be black in America. I’m interested in how one balances the ideas in a book of this magnitude.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think when I was working on the book, I wasn’t thinking about big ideas but rather what I was interested in. It’s about leaving home, love, race, hair, and I think all of those things are connected. I don’t think my process is very conscious. My process is all about following the story and following the characters.
Rumpus: I want to discuss the first few pages of the book where you touch on the idea of food deserts and poverty versus access to fresh produce and farmer’s markets and supermarkets.
Adichie: One of the things that struck me when I came to the US was discovering American poverty. I say this because I had consumed a lot of American culture, but I was not quite prepared for the reality of American poverty. When I first drove through West Philadelphia I had this strange sort of shock. I got the sense that this was a part of the U.S. that had been forgotten and that always stayed with me. I wanted to write a novel where the character notices, because it’s very easy to live through these things and not take notice. In five seconds you can drive through a neighborhood where things seem fine, to a neighborhood where the world seems to have forgotten that people are there.
Rumpus: When the novel begins, Ifemelu is a fat woman—a point that has been overlooked a lot in discussions about your novel. Can you talk about writing a fat woman, who has ideas, who has sex, who has a voice?
Adichie: I am interested in challenging the mainstream ideas of what is beautiful and what is acceptable. I think U.S. culture, in particular, demonizes weight in a way that I find disturbing. Being Nigerian—well, Nigeria is changing because everybody is watching America’s Next Top Model—but in general, Nigeria is not a culture that demonizes weight. When I think about “fat,” and the idea of self-censorship and language and the fact that “fat” is a bad word in America, I wanted to challenge it and poke fun at it. Why can’t fat just be a description? With Ifemelu, I wanted to talk about gender expectations and ideas of what’s attractive and who can be attractive. In the novel, Ifemelu doesn’t want to call Obinze because she wants to lose weight first, and of course she finally does, and actually he finds it very attractive that she’s not skinny, as do many people in the world. This homogenizing idea of what’s attractive in people’s real lives is not true.
Rumpus: One of Americanah’s themes is sponsorship. We see it from Aunty Uju’s affair to Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt. I am also thinking of Ifemelu’s first interactions with the desperate hair dresser. Can you talk about the challenges of writing a love affair in this context?
Adichie: I didn’t want to be apologetic about my love story, and I think to be willing to write about love you have to be willing to sound foolish. I wanted to write about foolish and goofy love and different relationships. I wanted to write about interracial relationships in a way that does not pretend as if race does not exist.
Rumpus: I am very interested in black love stories, both as a reader and a writer. Can you talk about some novels that were referential to you when you decided you would write a book about love?
Adichie: Buchi Emecheta’s novel, The Joys of Motherhood, which is often talked about as a feminist and political text, actually is a fantastic love story and has a very good sex scene, which I quite like.
Rumpus: What about the idea of the “exceptional Negro” in your book? There are the black characters who are removed from certain facts of everyday black life because they’ve “made it,” or women who are given a different set of expectations because they have a white parent.
Adichie: I was coming from a place of wanting to ask questions. What I’m struck by in the U.S., with American blacks, is that success and acceptance comes with an exceptionality card, so that in some ways these people are no longer black and that is when they become magical. Think about Oprah. In a way, they can do well or be accepted into these incredibly racist spaces and not be seen as black, and I find that quite interesting.
Rumpus: And the black American Obama love affair as a backdrop for Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship?
Adichie: I wanted to capture the incredible exuberance and geeky optimism that happened when Obama was elected. I like to think of this novel as a memorial of that period. Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship is clearly over, but the strange magic of the Obama period allows it to kind of hobble on.
Rumpus: In the novel, black hair has transformative powers. Tell me more about Ifemelu’s hair journey.
Adichie: Americanah is many things, but the major point is that it is about a woman who comes into her own. Hair, which, by the way, for me in a personal sense is also important, because my journey started where I thought of my natural hair as unattractive, to now being ridiculously pleased about having kinky hair. There’s a larger political statement about the need for black women to have different kinds of beauty. It’s about black women all over the world, not just the U.S., being told they cannot wear their hair the way it grows on their head. The world tells them it is unprofessional and untidy. I want us to have a world where black women’s natural hair is an equal option.
Rumpus: Finally, I want to talk about the critical piece you wrote for The Scoop on Nigeria and its homophobic laws. What prompted you to speak up?
Adichie: I did it because I wanted to start a conversation, and I wrote it particularly for a Nigerian audience and particularly for my generation of Nigerians. People talk about homosexuality in a way that is devoid of humanity. I think there are many Nigerians who are good and kind people, who hadn’t quite sat down to think about how deeply inhumane and unjust this law is. It’s very easy to alienate people when talking about something like this because Nigeria has become increasingly conservative in religion and religiosity. People close off as soon as you bring up the word. I knew that I would get a lot of negative pushback, but there’s no way I couldn’t speak about it. I had to.
People have told my family to tell me to keep out of this and stop supporting the gays. For every ten people who think and say that, there is also one person who says homosexuals should not be jailed or harassed. And that one person out of ten or out of twenty makes it worth it.
Featured image of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © by David Levenson.