Table of contents
2. Notions of the American Dream in Americanah
2.1. American Dreaming
2.1.2. Perspectives on femaleness and independency
2.1.3. Outward circumstances
2.2. Culture shock
2.2.3. Black Femininity
2.3.3. The Nigerian Dream
4. Works cited
Americanah was first published back in 2013 and marks Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel. Much like the author’s - who migrated to the U.S. in 1996 to study communication and politics (Tunca “Biography”) - own experience, the story focuses on two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, leaving their home in hopes of better education and job opportunities overseas and ultimately ending up back in Nigeria before finally starting a relationship after multiple both personal and professional failures and successes abroad. Next to her writing, Adichie reached a broad and relatively young public through her well-known TED (conference) talks published on YouTube (Adichie “The Danger of the Single Story”) which have since become a permanent part of modern day pop culture: black R’n’B singer Beyoncé featured a whole paragraph of the 2014 TED talk ‘Why we should all be feminists’ (TEDx Talks “We should all be feminists”) in her single ‘Flawless’ which has gained over 86.000.000. clicks on YouTube (BeyoncéVEVO “***Flawless”) and made it into her highly praised Coachella Performance in 2018, published recently in the Grammy-winning music film ‘Homecoming’ available on Netflix (Hussey “Homecoming”).
One could argue that Adichie’s ever-growing popularity is on one hand surely due to her clear, honest visions on ever present issues such as racism, feminism, or inequality in general. But on the other hand by looking not only at her TED talks but primarily at her fiction-writing, it becomes evident that she is also a very talented storyteller, managing to attract a widely heterogenous public to show interest in her clever, always up-to-date stories and succeeding to pass both socio- and polito-critical messages through highly compelling storylines and endearing protagonists.
Americanah marks no exception to this impression: reviews in both Western and African magazines nearly overturn themselves, calling the book ‘a big knockout of a novel’ (Corrigan “Two Tales”) and praising Adichie as ‘one of the most promising African writers of her generation’ (Day “Americanah Review”).
Part of the great wealth of both content and style of the novel is its almost endless variety of topics and literary motifs. At the same time, this diversity poses a great challenge with regard to a literary analysis: not only does the narrow focus on a single topic seem to do the novel and its characters injustice, but the plot itself sometimes jumps so quickly between different narrative moments that a complete analysis seems impossible to put on paper at all.
There is, however, one literary leitmotif, that matches together each single part of the story perfectly, thus enabling to structure the plot and organize the different events this latter is composed of in a mostly satisfying manner: the notion of dreaming and more specifically, American dreaming.
In his 1931 work The Epic of America, that nowadays represents a key piece to American history, the writer and historian James Truslow Adams defines the American Dream as ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. [...] It [is] a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, [.] unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.’ (Adams 404f.). This idea is largely based on the premises of the American Declaration of Independence from 1776:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, wrote Jefferson in words which rang through the continent, ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ (Adams 89)
Americanah's heroine Ifemelu finds herself irrevocably in a similar, albeit far more modern, situation to that of the American first settlers addressed in Adams’ allocution, because she too is leaving her homeland with exactly the same goals in mind as described above: the urge for more freedom as a woman, as an individual and in the sense of independence from her family and the heavy expectations they put on her; her personal pursuit of happiness, which here above all means access to excellent higher education and, ultimately, the hope for a better life (cf. Hallemeier 237).
Accordingly, the present research paper aims to prove in a first step that the American Dream acts as a leitmotif throughout the entire novel, thus showing that it is ideally suited as an object of investigation, in order to explore and discuss in a further step whether Ifemelu's American Dream can ultimately be regarded as fulfilled or disappointed, including the emphasis on important literary topoi such as race, the question of women’s rights and social matters.
Due to the paper’s given length and the particular subject chosen, the following analysis will mainly focus on Ifemelu and her experiences, as she actually leaves Nigeria for the U.S. and then comes back to her home country, thus representing the perfect research subject under the thesis of the American Dream, it’s reliving and consequences through her personae. As for Obinze, who experiences similar difficulties in the U.K., a comparison does present itself, but can only be the subject of another research paper.
The following analysis is divided into three parts. In a first step, Ifemelu's motives for leaving Nigeria and the role that the concept of the American Dream plays in this decision-making process will be examined in more detail. This first part encompasses the stereotypes that Ifemelu holds about the U.S. from the very beginning of the story, the various Nigerian images of women to whom she is exposed and who act as role models to her during her upbringing in Lagos, and finally the external social and political circumstances in the country that prompt her to leave. Following the novel’s chronological order of events, the second part of this paper deals with the culture shock that Ifemelu experiences immediately after her arrival in Brooklyn and which is primarily due to the enormous discrepancy between her ideas and own American dreams expressed before her departure and the American reality that she is gradually forced to catch up with. More peculiarly, her experiences with racism, black femininity and poverty in America will be examined in more detail under this complex of problems. After a brief interim conclusion on the original question of whether the American dream can be considered fulfilled or disappointed based on Ifemelu's experiences in America, a third and final part of the paper focusing on her return to Nigeria and the consequences of her 13-year absence will complete the analysis. Finally, the present research paper will present a descriptive summary of the entire analysis and answer the initial thesis question, as well as proposing a brief outlook on other related research areas and objects, that could be part of a future, larger-scaled research project.
2. Notions of the American Dream in Americanah
2.1. American Dreaming
Ifemelu’s initial image of the U.S. shared with the reader through various passages and flashbacks throughout the novel appears very naive and mostly taken from either contemporary books or mainstream media presented to her by her boyfriend Obinze (Adichie 67). Her mind is filled with common stereotypes, which is also the case for not only most of her classmates but even the present older generations. When Obinze once calls America “the future”, a similar mindset can be found in her father’s reaction when learning that Ifemelu got her first job thanks to her later boyfriend Curt:
“I have no doubt that you will excel. America creates opportunities for people to thrive. Nigeria can indeed learn a lot from them,” while her mother began to sing when Ifemelu said that, in a few years, she could become an American citizen. (Adichie 205)
America - characteristically mentioned mostly as a continent and not as a country in the beginning of the story - is primarily characterized by its economic advantages and freedom: academic education in general seems to be better than in Nigeria, regardless even of the field of studies (Adichie 100). Jobs are not only sufficiently available and practically accessible to everyone who works hard and ambitiously enough to deserve them, they also seem to pay a lot better than in Africa - at least so much that the book repeatedly signals the expectations of those in America feeling the natural obligation to financially support those who stayed at home:
Obinze offered to send her some money. [...] “How can you be sending me money from Nigeria? It should be the other way around,” she said. (Adichie 145) It would not have occurred to Ifemelu to refuse the cheque; now she could pay some bills, send something home to her parents. (Adichie 159)
Young girls and women in America are expected to be freed from the conservative ideals spread in Nigeria: as an ‘Americanah’1, otherwise unacceptable behavior seems to pass more easily and social appreciation is emphasized on seemingly odd characteristics, such as a so-described ‘Western attitude’ and an American accent (Adichie 65). While clearly making mild fun of the Nigerian returnees, a kind of envy does not escape the reader’s eye, as depicted in the shift from Ifemelu mocking a former class mate acting like an Americanah to reassuring herself after obtaining the U.S. visa that the journey she prepares will lead to her returning home a “serious Americanah” one day (Adichie 100).
Ifemelu is so lost in her elaborated vision of an almost heavenly-looking America, shaped by American television shows and books, that when she first spends the summer with her aunt Uju and her cousin Dike in Brooklyn, she gets disappointed several times by the actual reality of her new life. Her naivety becomes most obvious when confronted with real life situations in the States, as for instance when bringing her thickest sweater to Brooklyn since “she had thought of ‘overseas’ as a cold place of wool coats and snow” (Adichie 103), or when passing the theoretical part of her American driver’s license:
‘Yes, I have an American licence’, Ifemelu said, and then she began to talk about the safe-driving course she had taken in Brooklyn, before she got her licence, and how the instructor [...] had cheated. [He] collected the papers, brought out a clay-coloured eraser and began to wipe out some of the answers and to shade in others. Everybody passed. [.] ‘It was a strange moment for me, because until then, I thought nobody in America cheated,’ Ifemelu said. (Adichie 164)
Summing up all these descriptions and impressions delivered to the reader mostly in the first part of the novel, it becomes somewhat obvious that the image set in Ifemelu’s mind and ultimately representing one of the reasons for her leaving Nigeria does strongly match with typical elements of the American Dream: while her objectives do not exactly fit the traditional from-rags-to-riches scheme — as she comes from a middle-class family, gets access to higher education and is not an illegal immigrant fearing for her house or food — she still seeks the most essential part of the American fairytale overseas: the hope for a (financially) better, i.e. more stable life and freedom, as manifested here in the access to the - as it seems - best education system available. Ifemelu symbolizes what may be called a second-generation immigrant. When asked about the importance and meaning of America as a place of longing for the Nigerian youth, Adichie herself stated in a 2015 interview:
America is a place that represents something to this generation of Nigerians [...]. They’re not hungry, they’re not dying of AIDS or poverty or war, but they’re dreaming of America as this “extra place” [.] where magical things happen, and they all want to go [there]. (Adichie 2015: 01:18-01:37 min)
This attitude gets expressed once again in the novel when Ifemelu is waiting for her turn to graduate and start the visa process:
And so she began to dream. She saw herself in a house from The Cosby Show, in a school with students holding notebooks miraculously free of wear and crease. She took the SATs at a Lagos center, packed with thousands of people, all bristling with their own American ambitions. (Adichie 99)
2.1.2. Perspectives on femaleness and independency
In addition to these personal motifs for Ifemelu’s trip to America, characters who act as more or less important role models in her life also play an important part in the process of forming her decision to leave home. It is mainly three very different women who shape the life of the protagonist in the first part of the book.
Firstly, there is her mother, whose name remains unknown to the reader and with whom Ifemelu does not maintain an intimate, but friendly, loving bond throughout the entire novel. Ifemelu grows up in a Christian conservative environment, as becomes evident several times in the course of events. For instance, in her descriptions of how it seems to be normal that men are allowed to chastise their wives in the event of an offense or that an old Christian tradition, such as paying the bride price, is still relevant (Adichie 199). This conservative view reflects strongest in Ifemelu’ s mother: the novel itself starts with an extremely religious setting of her mother dedicating her entire life to a new Christian community.
Not only is she willing to change her outward appearance (e.g. cutting off her hair, fastening, depraving herself from any kind of earthly pleasures, Adichie 43) in order to please her God, but she also projects her traditional values onto Ifemelu, forcing her into Bible study and caring more for her social status and its reflecting on the family, than her own daughter’s well-being (Adichie 49,52). The traditional gender model displayed in all of Nigeria does also apply to Ifemelu’s family: while her father, who is supposed to be the bread winner of his family, is too proud to ask his own sister for money after losing his job and rather gets into debt with a shady acquaintance of his, her mother always bends to his decisions and has no say in important family matters (Adichie 75). When it comes to Ifemelu picking her boyfriends, she seems to care primarily for their devoutness towards the Christian faith and the social and financial advantages that could derive out of them being part of her family than for the feelings they may or may not hold for her daughter (Adichie 97,314). At one point in the novel she even tells her to better hurry up finding herself someone as “a woman is like a flower. [Her] time passes quickly.” (Adichie 301). She is also of no help to Ifemelu when it comes to sexual matters that arise with Ifemelu’s body changing, as she does not even explain to her the function and meaning of her first menstruation, but simply relays everything to her prayers (Adichie 54).
This is when Ifemelu’s aunt Uju comes into the picture. Unlike her sister-in-law, she seems to have no bound (or at least a very lose one) towards Christianity and faith. It is clearly not her goal to rebel against or change the system she is held captive in, but she knows very well how to manipulate the people and rules around to her own benefit. The reader learns from early on, that Uju was a brilliant student, getting easily into medical school and being filled with the ambition of opening her own residency someday (Adichie 46,53). She is not afraid to talk to Ifemelu about elsewhere frowned upon ‘female problems’ arising during her puberty, such as periods and even sex (Adichie 54). This independent status starts to crumble when she meets The General. Even though she seems to sincerely fall in love, she gives up everything for a married man, who clearly plans to keep her only as his mistress, staying most of the time with his wife and family in Lagos. Uju starts to get more and more dependent on her lover, and even though it remains unclear if she is fully aware of this abusive relationship she has gotten herself into, it does not seem to bother her very much, or as Nigerian scholar Justice Otunne puts it: “The General is exploiting Aunty Uju, as much as Aunty Uju is exploiting him.“ (Otunne 185).
Not only does she live in a luxury house that she does not need to pay rent for and work in a comparatively well-paid position, she even accepts the fact that she needs to beg The General for money like a child in order to get whatever she needs, that he reluctantly observes where she is going and how long she is staying via her driver and even changes her body features, all to please him (Adichie 45, 78, 81). While appearing much more confident and self-determined than Ifemelu’s mother in the beginning, it quickly becomes clear that she too is caught up in the patriarchy reigning over the country, needing to apologize to Ifemelu’s father for falling pregnant and losing everything after The General’s tragic death as they were not married and everything was kept to his name (Adichie 84, 87). Her situation slightly improves when she goes to America, but the regressive Nigerian gender roles only reproduce when she meets Bartholomew, who automatically assumes his role as the head of the family, claiming all her money and limiting her decisions (Adichie 217).
Besides these two close family members, there is another character playing a major part in Ifemelu’s upbringing, which is Obinze’s mother. She represents another kind of Nigerian woman, being fully aware of the social inequalities and sexual discrimination that is going on in the country and actively trying to change the situation for the better, as is stated when Obinze tells Ifemelu about the reason his mother had to resign from teaching:
She was on a committee and they discovered that this professor had misused funds and my mother accused him publicly and he got angry and slapped her and said he could not take a woman talking to him like that. So my mother got up an locked the door of the conference room and put the key in her bra. She told him she could not slap him back because he was stronger than her., but he would have to apologize to her publicly, in front of all the people who had seen him slap her. So he did. But she knew he didn’t mean it. She said he did it in a kind of “okay sorry if that’s what you want to hear and just bring out the key” way. She came home that day really angry, and she kept talking about how things had changed and what did it mean that now somebody could just slap another person. She wrote circulars and articles about it, and the student union got involved. People were saying, Oh, why did he slap her when she’s a widow, and that annoyed her even more. She said she should not have been slapped because she is a full human being, not because she doesn’t have a husband to speak for her. So some of her female students went and printed Full Human Being on T-shirts. I guess it made her well-known. (Adichie 59)
As this passage shows, she is a fierce, brave woman, who is not afraid to speak her mind and is - unlike Ifemelu’s mother and Aunt Uju - not afraid to appear ‘unlikeable’. This is quite important, as Ifemelu herself will over the course of the story turn more and more into a similar, although not equally fearless woman. It is also Obinze’s mother who openly and without judgement talks to the young lovers, but especially to Ifemelu, about sex - something that would have been unimaginable in her own house with her conservative mother denying all signs of her daughter’s sexual awakening (Adichie 72, Otunne 181).
Even though she is the only woman that can clearly be identified as an ever-lasting role model to Ifemelu, she fails her life even more dramatically than the other two due to simply being and deliberately staying in Nigeria2. This is important for many aspects of the story that is yet to follow but mainly as a symbol of the only self-determined, successful, independent woman depicted in Ifemelu’s early life failing - both personally, as she has no friends and no husband, and professionally - due to a country, that is politically, socially and even economically not prepared to host women as equal citizens. It transmits the message that if Ifemelu plans to lead a free life like Obinze’s mother and be successful both financially and individually, she will ultimately have to leave Africa in order to succeed.
2.1.3. Outward circumstances
Even though Adichie makes sure to avoid precise discussions and messages related to Nigerian politics, the reader gets a few hints here and there as to why and how the socio-political scenery also plays a big part in Ifemelu’s decision-making process to leave. While always keeping in mind that the novel’s plot is purely fictive and can therefore not be compared to actual real life events that may or may not coincident with elements of the story, references to Nigeria in the early 1990s allow to identify the depicted political scenery as clearly being inspired by the actual historical events. In the first part of the book, the reader gets confronted with one social issue taking a specifically huge influence on the plot, alluding directly to the political events of that time: the repeated appearance of ongoing academic strikes (Adichie 91f., 98).
There are mainly three parties involved in this conflict: the students, the teachers and academic staff and lastly, the military, which seems to function as a synonym of the government, as it is them who are apparently supposed to pay the teachers (cf. Adichie 91). This impression matches with the political coup d’état that took place in real Nigeria in 1993: while the country until then had already been in unstable hands under president Ibrahim Babangida - the government itself being constantly accused of corruption, the violation of human rights and other crimes (Ajibade 5f.) - the elections scheduled for 1993 got cancelled last minute, preparing the way for military general Sani Abacha gaining political power and the head-of-state Chair due to another bloody coup, bringing the country once again under military power (BBC News “A history of coups”).
As is known from several historical sources, the annulation of the 1993 elections, which were expected to finally bring peace and democracy to the country, led to ongoing academic strikes organized by the newly founded ASUU3, even after Abacha took over the office (cf. Kenny 32). The happenings in Nsukka can pretty clearly be matched to the year of 1996, making the plane crash in which The General dies (Adichie 86) the military plane crash near Jos that happened that same year in June (AP News “Plane Crash”) and explaining why Aunt Uju much later in the storyline also evokes presently Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, who only became chairman of the Petroleum Trust Funds and thus an important politician close to the Abacha regime in 1994 (Epku “Trust Fraud”):
Why do I have to take this rubbish? I blame Buhari and Babangida and Abacha, because they destroyed Nigeria. It was strange, how Aunty Uju often spoke about the former heads of state, invoking their names with poisoned blame, but never mentioning The General. (Adichie 218)
The political situation of the government paying neither the teachers nor the administrative stuff of the university (Adichie 91) reflects directly on Ifemelu and her classmates not only in the cancellation of classes but on a more basic level in the shocking lack of infrastructure and basic sanitary structures in the university’s housing facilities, missing even running water and electricity (Adichie 91):
Most mornings [...] she would hurry to the bathroom, to collect water in her bucket before the tap stopped, to squat over the toilet before it became unbearably full. Sometimes, when she was too late, and the toilets already swirled with maggots, she would go to Obinze’s house (...). (Adichie 90)
Other than that, the second, lasting strike signifies to Ifemelu primarily no access to education and the loss of money (spent on housing) and time. She is condemned to return home and wait for the strike to end, only to get thrown back in her studies and having to accept the arbitrary uncertainty of not knowing how or when she will be able to graduate and find work (cf. Adichie 98). Even if she eventually managed to get a job in Nigeria after finishing university one day, both her father’s and Obinze’s mother’s fate perfectly illustrate the fatality of not having security, let alone some sort of guaranty in keeping their jobs as both lose their well-paid positions despite flawless work performances due to the mere despotism of their employers (Adichie 46, 59).
An intermediate summing up of this first part of the analysis can be formulated as follows: the basic components making up the idea of an American Dream are inseparably linked to Ifemelu’s decision of leaving home and going to the U.S.
1 'Americanah is a Nigerian word that means a person who's gone to the U.S. and comes back to Nigeria and suddenly has all of these affectations and he pretends not to understand the Nigerian languages, speaks with an American accent and that kind of thing. It's kind of a funny way of making fun of people who do that and it's kind of a mild way, it's well-intentioned, there's nothing ugly about it, it's not derogatory.' (Adichie 2015: 0:050:38 min).
2 Obinze's narration suggests that she had the choice to leave for work in America after what happened at Nsukka university but decided to move to Lagos instead (Adichie 59).
3 "Academic Staff Union of Universities", 11.04.2020 um 17:30h unter https://web.archive.Org/web/20200202070240/https://www.educationgist.com/history-of-asuu/.