Image courtesy: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s FB page
Some time last year, I happened to see ‘Good hair’ at the Vikalp screening at Prithvi theatre in Bombay. The documentary was eye opener because I never knew about the million dollar hair styling industry that had only the African American women as customers. It showed various ways by which black women tried changing the way their natural hair looked using techniques like relaxing, hair weaving etc. It was an introduction to a world that was unfamiliar to me. It made me wonder when was the last time I saw a black woman in movies/sitcom/music videos etc with her original nappy hair.
The documentary made an impact on me as I kept thinking about issues related to body image. I talk about this documentary now because I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In one of her recent interviews while promoting Americanah, she spoke about how ‘Hair is political’ for her. And I was fascinated. I really wanted to know how she incorporated this issue in her book. I first came to know of Adichie when I saw her talking about the dangers of a single story. I was quite impressed with her speech and made a mental note that I need to read her books.
The story in Americanah is mainly about Ifemelu and her life in Nigeria as a school girl to her life in the United States and her subsequent journey back to her home country after 13 years. Adichie also fleshes out beautiful romantic relationships that Ifemelu shares with Obinze (her first boyfriend), Curt and Blaine. Ifemelu’s relationships with these three men form a crucial portion of the book.
Hair forms an important part of the story. A lot happens at the hair salon where Ifemelu goes to braid her hair. While she doesn’t think much about her hair in Nigeria, it attains focus of her attention in the US. Adichie is delightfully political and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she weaved her politics while narrating the story of Ifemelu. It is an important book because Adichie makes a political statement about loving one’s body when there is a billion dollar industry that tells you not to! The story resonated with me because we, in India, also face similar body image problems, especially since we have social traditions and a huge industry constantly telling us that, “You are beautiful only if you are fair-skinned.”
Nigeria’s unsettling political climate affects Ifemelu’s life deeply and becomes a major reason why she ends up going to USA for her further studies. Questions about identity owing to migration in our globalised world form a major part of the story. Adichie has spoken a lot about how she became black and African only when she went to USA. It is interesting because it highlights how Africa is homogenised when it is in fact a huge continent filled with people belonging to different nationalities, ethnicities, tribes among others. Also, the African-American community in USA trace their origins to slavery in the US whereas people belonging to different countries in Africa don’t necessarily share the same history. That they belong to the same race is the extent of the commonality they share. However, the common racial identity ends up bundling all the black people as African-Americans and the character of Ifemelu constantly tries to fight this imposition. Even though Ifemelu isn’t an African American, she becomes one purely on the basis of the discrimination she faces like the other African Americans. She ends up speaking a lot of about race but also reiterates her own identity of being an American African by starting a blog and writing extensively about it.
The book is mainly about the middle class society in Nigeria. The similarities between the middle classes in India and Nigeria are striking, especially in terms of aspirations, values etc. Also, Nigeria forms a major part of the book, almost like an important character. Adichie talks about her country with lot of warmth and love. Her observations about Nigerians both in Nigeria and the USA are laced with wit, irony and compassion. Before this book, I knew precious little about the country. Sadly, I only knew of Nigeria in context of email scams. I thank Adichie for changing my mental image and triggering an interest in her country.
I am sure Americanah will be taught in universities to introduce students to the complexities of race and gender. I loved reading it. There were such delightful moments that I couldn’t stop tweeting about it even when I was reading it, because I badly wanted to express and share the joy I felt. Americanah might be the story of Ifemelu but it also gives a glimpse of the kind of person Adichie would be. She seems to be the kind of person I would love to have conversations with over endless cups of chai. In one of her interviews, she mentions that she teaches writing in Nigeria. Now that is one class I would love to take!