top of page

Navigating Borders: Ifemelu's Transnational Self in "Americanah"

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's acclaimed novel, Americanah (2013), brilliantly tackles the complexities surrounding the process of identity formation among individuals who share multiple cultural backgrounds.

As a young Nigerian woman seeking education and financial stability, Ifemelu, the main character of the novel, immigrates to the United States, where she has lived for about 15 years and struggles to come to terms with her multicultural identity as a Black Nigerian in America. This article aims to explore the process that led Ifemelu to embrace her new identity as an "Americanah" – a transnational hybrid self that reflects her stance against cultural and social boundaries imposed on her, in favor of a self-determined space where both of her national identities can thrive. Through exploring three key motifs —hair, language, and name— we delve into Ifemelu's navigation of both physical and metaphorical borders as she asserts her individuality and challenges the conventional understanding of fixed borders and unilateral identities.

In order to better understand Ifemelu’s journey to identity formation, it is crucial to provide an introductory section that explores the concept of the self in a transnational context.


Figure 1: "Americanah" Artwork (Mariana Lancastre, 2020).


What is a Transnational Identity?


Whether an induced choice or not, “growing numbers of individuals are ‘on the move’ and travel outside their native cultures and homelands” (Ghazy, 2020) to seek opportunities. This increased mobility has propelled multicultural encounters among countless subjects, raising significant issues related to the condition of the self across borders. In this particular context, in fact, identities constantly evolve and adapt, influenced by changing locations, idioms, and multicultural experiences. In this regard, transnationalism, extensively studied in literary and cultural fields, offers a valuable framework to understand the significant implications of people, ideas, and cultural expressions transcending national boundaries.

The main theory that scholars in transnational studies support is that individuals exist beyond the limits of nation-states, thus challenging the idea of identity as a mere monolith. Adopting a transnational perspective, in fact, enables us to comprehend the intricate interconnections and exchanges between regions, nations, and continents and their impact on the identity formation of such individuals (Ghazy, 2020). Natasha Garret, a respected researcher in literary transnationalism, attributes the birth of transnational identities to advancements in modern technologies, such as improved communication and travel capabilities (Baniya, 2018). According to her study, these advancements have fostered greater interconnectedness in the era of globalization since people who migrate now have increased opportunities to maintain connections with their home countries, for instance through visits or virtual communication, while also integrating into their host society. However, precisely these multifaceted connections and loyalties to multiple national identities become a factor of crisis in the process of self-determination (Baniya, 2018).


Figure 2: The Migration Series, panel no. 40. (Jacob Lawrence, 1941).

Scholars C. Suarez-Orozco and M. Suarez-Orozco proposed three key concepts to explain the development of a transnational identity: ethnic flight, active opposition, and bi- or trans-culturalism (Esteban-Guitart & Vila, 2015). In ethnic flight, immigrants assimilate strongly into the dominant culture of their host countries, often renouncing their own social identity and distancing themselves from their original groups. On the contrary, in active opposition, identity construction revolves around rejecting the institutions of the dominant culture (Esteban-Guitart & Vila, 2015). At last, the study, which was primarily focused on migrant youth, explored the final comprehensive phase of identity formation:

The creation of transcultural identities is the most adaptive of the three styles. It preserves the affective bonds with the culture of origin, but allows the child to acquire the skills necessary to function successfully in the dominant culture. (193-199)

The process of identity construction for individuals with transnational backgrounds, particularly those from "third-world” countries, presents significant challenges. These individuals not only navigate multiple cultural influences but also grapple with the enduring effects of colonialism, which have historically deemed their cultural identities as inferior, so as to pressure them to abandon their cultural heritage in favor of white supremacist ideologies. As a result, despite successfully integrating into a new society, immigrants very often still face marginalization and discrimination from their new society. Factors such as accent, family background, beliefs, and skin color contribute to this treatment. Moreover, these experiences reshape perspectives and create discontinuities also with their original cultural group, leading to what influential postcolonial scholar Bhabha introduces as "unhomeliness" (Bhabha, 1994), which is the state of not having a home in either culture. In this liminal space, known as the "third space," hybrid identities emerge, challenging rigid cultural boundaries and continually forming and reforming diverse identities. This third space allows for cultural hybridity without hierarchies (Bhabha, 1994) and thus, without anyone being subjected to choose between the culture of origin and the culture of acquisition. On the contrary, it is a place where different cultures intermingle, new qualities arise, and identity is no longer confined to one nation or culture: borders are finally dissolved.


Figure 3: The era of globalization and international migration (HBR, 2022).

Ifemelu’s Transnational Experience


The investigation of Ifemelu’s transnational identity has to begin with a discussion of her name, which reflects her strong bond with her homeland, Nigeria. Although it is universally acknowledged that names play a significant role in shaping our identity, to the extent that the very mispronunciation of our name can distort who we are as individuals, this significance is particularly heightened in the Igbo culture, the society in which Ifemelu was born and raised. As a matter of fact, names in Igbo culture are believed to have the potential to manifest their intention (or meaning) into reality, as a sort of powerful spell (Oosterink, 2019). This is exemplified in a poignant passage of the novel, where Ifemelu discusses the possibility of an English translation of her name, Ifemelunamma, with Obinze, her long-time boyfriend, and his mother back in Nigeria. Obinze's mother suggests translations such as "Made-in-Good-Times" or "Beautifully Made" (Adichie, 2013), foreseeing the profound connection between the positive connotations of Ifemelu's name and her process of identity formation (Oosterink, 2019).

When Ifemelu first arrives in the U.S., her strong sense of identity remains intact, as demonstrated in her conversation with her aunt Uju, who had immigrated earlier from Nigeria after her husband's death. In this scene, Ifemelu not only expresses her disapproval of Uju allowing other Americans to mispronounce her name but also stresses her proud and unchanged Nigerian identity by continuing the conversation in Igbo (Adichie, 2013).

However, as time passes, Ifemelu also encounters difficulties regarding her name. Many Americans struggle to pronounce it correctly, leading to mispronunciations and misunderstandings. These experiences contribute to her sense of alienation and not belonging in the new cultural environment. Therefore, although initially critical of her uncle Uju's decision to allow others to mispronounce her name or even choose a different name for her, Ifemelu becomes conflicted and eventually succumbs to the temptation of not correcting people, opting instead for the simpler and shorter nickname, "Ifem". She finds herself having to compromise by partially giving away her name and, consequently, a part of her identity to accommodate the dominant culture. This event marks the beginning of Ifemelu’s process of ethnic flight.


Figure 4: Illustration of cultural assimilation (BVTigerNews, 2021).

Similar experiences unfold with regard to language. Initially, Ifemelu holds a strong sense of her Nigerian identity and even attempts to teach her cousin Dike, who has never been to Nigeria, some Igbo. She is taken aback by the notion that his mother, Uju, would not teach him. However, the reason behind her choice is more complicated than Ifemelu is able to guess:

When I come here with my son they beat him in school because of African accent. In Newark. If you see my son face? Purple like onion. They beat, beat, beat him. Black boys beat him like this. Now accent go and no problems. (192)

Although Uju offers an explanation that Ifemelu does not immediately grasp, gradually she comes to understand, as she assimilates further into American society, that language, like any other physical or metaphorical border, is a means of exclusion, isolation, and suffering.

After the previous events, Ifemelu is still reluctant to abandon her Nigerian accent. However, she quickly realizes that, in order to “make it” in America, she needs to adapt and speak "American English". This realization occurs during a conversation with Christina Thomas, a new colleague who introduces her to university life in the U.S. Christina speaks slowly and deliberately, questioning Ifemelu's English proficiency (Adichie, 2013). The reasons why Ms. Thomas believes that, stems from the influence of colonialism which has led to the perception that Ifemelu's Nigerian accent is inferior compared to “standard” English.

As the story progresses, Ifemelu's initial critique of the American language, like for instance its excessive use of the word "excited" (Adichie, 2013), suddenly disappears. Ifemelu is now becoming more proficient in American English, and she unconsciously incorporates the same words and expressions she once criticized into her own vocabulary, as if - to quote the narrator - “new words were falling out of her mouth” (Adichie, 2).


Figure 5: Picture representing language assimilation (n.d.).

In addition to adopting an American accent, Ifemelu also conforms to Western beauty standards in order to appear more professional during a job interview. Upon recommendation, Ifemelu undergoes a hair-relaxing treatment that involves using strong chemicals, resulting in scalp burns and painful irritations. In “Regimentation or Hybridity? Western Beauty Practises By Black Women in Adichie’s Americanah”, the author Yerima (2017) argues that Ifemelu's decision to relax her hair exemplifies her attempt as a black woman to gain power, acceptance, and privilege by conforming to white beauty standards. This is evident in Ifemelu's conversation with Curt, her partner at the time, regarding her choice to relax her hair:

[m]y full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it's going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, at worst, spiral curls but never kinky (209).

In her process of assimilation, Ifemelu becomes aware of the underlying dynamics at play. She recognizes that conforming to White norms, such as altering her accent and her physique, is necessary to access the privileges associated with securing a job in America. Therefore, Ifemelu's ability to adapt to American norms becomes a determining factor in her stay in America. Author of “Formation Within the Nation: Migration and Marginalization in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah”, Flodqvist (2018) amazingly summarizes what Ifemelu is subjected to:

By having to carry an otherness, she is denied individuality in America and is instead continuously treated as part of the undefinable group of others. To deal with the discrimination connected to that otherness, she is forced to resort to mimicking Western traits, rather than expressing her own self. (27)

Beyond its physicality, Ifemelu soon realizes that Black hair could determine acceptance or rejection from specific social groups and classes, and its manipulation could open up career opportunities. Therefore, hair, capable of excluding and discriminating, becomes another cultural border that Ifemelu must navigate. At this juncture in the story, having successfully assimilated to the point where people mistake her for an African American woman, born and raised in the U.S., she experiences a sense of loss and isolation from both cultures. Through this passage, the protagonist mourns the suppression and sacrifice of her Black identity in order to conform to America and its set of values after straightening her hair. The author Adichie writes:

She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had straightened the ends, the scent of burning, of something organic dying that should not have died, filled her with a sense of loss (208).

Figure 6: Portrait, “Internal Battle” (Keturah Ariel, 2021).

At the lowest point in her life, where her assimilation had distanced her from her Nigerian heritage and yet she still faced exclusion from American society due to societal issues like racism, a significant turning point occurred when Ifemelu made the decision to embrace her natural hair. This act involved abandoning the practice of chemically straightening her hair to conform to Western beauty standards. By braiding her hair once again, as she used to before leaving Nigeria, Ifemelu engages in a political act of resistance. On an ordinary day in early spring, she gazed into a mirror, ran her fingers through her dense, spongy, and glorious hair, and found herself unable to imagine it any other way. In that simple moment, she fell in love with her hair all over again (Adichie, 2017), symbolizing the moment of reclamation of her Nigerian, as well as her Black identity and her rejection of societal pressures to conform.

Soon later, she also “stop[s] faking an American accent” (Adichie, 2013) because she recognizes that she had been compelled to “a pitch of voice and a way of being that was not hers” (Adichie, 2013). This is the turning point in the novel since Ifemelu is beginning to reclaim her identity and roots. Her decision to drop the American accent and maintain her natural hair is indeed an active comeback and cultural declaration of her Nigerian heritage.

Surprisingly, it is upon returning to Nigeria, the place she once called home, that Ifemelu's transnational self becomes most evident. Despite being in her homeland, Ifemelu feels displaced and occupies an in-between space, a "third space," where she is neither fully American nor Nigerian. She views both cultures from an outsider's perspective, feeling like a tourist in her own country. Attending a meeting with other Nigerian returnees from the U.S., Ifemelu finds solace among fellow hybrids who share their experiences and together they reminisce about what they miss from the U.S.. Finally, when the locals affectionately refer to her as "Americanah", they unconsciously highlight her Americanized persona. In this conclusive recognition, she sees her identity converging into one word: she is, indeed, Americanah – a successful establishment of a space made from the amalgamations of both identities.



Conclusions


Americanah by the extraordinary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a story that resonates with many racialized people who, due to societal expectations, face the erasure of their true multicultural selves and are forced to choose between assimilation into the dominant culture (White culture) or complete alienation. Through the novel's protagonist, the author proposes an alternative to cultural assimilation. By refusing to abandon her roots and embarking on a journey to reclaim her agency as well as herself, Ifemelu courageously explores, builds, and re-builds elements of her identity such as her name, accent, and even her cherished afro hair, symbolizing her relentless struggle against societal norms that have attempted to confine her to a single stereotypical box. Instead, Ifemelu eventually reconciles with her third space—a unique environment where she can express her diverse background and find solace in her transnational identity. Precisely in returning to Nigeria, her place of origin, Ifemelu's sense of identity is enhanced, which was only possible through her ability to transcend the multiple borders of her identity.


Bibliography

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. Alfred A. Knopf. Retrieved from: https://www.oasisacademysouthbank.org/uploaded/South_Bank/Curriculum/Student_Learning/Online_Library/KS4/Americanah_by_Chimamanda_Ngozi_Adichie.pdf


Adichie, C. N. (2017). Americanah. Harper Collins 4th Estate.


Baniya, B. K. (2018). (Trans)national Simultaneity in Adichie’s Americanah. Faculty of Art in English, University of Tribhuvan. Retrieved from: https://elibrary.tucl.edu.np/handle/123456789/2941


Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge. Retrieved from: http://www2.tf.jcu.cz/~klapetek/bha.pdf


Bica, P. (2021). The struggle to pretend and belong: Americanah’s case. Revista de Investigación del Departamento de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales [UNLaM], (19), 17-29. Retrieved from: https://www.redalyc.org/journal/5819/581966771002/html/#redalyc_581966771002_ref9


Esteban-Guitart, M., Vila, I. (2015). The voices of newcomers. A qualitative analysis of the construction of transnational identity. Psychosocial Intervention, 24 (1), 17-25. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psi.2015.01.002


Flodqvist, E. (2018). Formation Within the Nation : Migration and Marginalization in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah [Dissertation]. Retrieved from: http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:sh:diva-37875


Ghazy, N. (2020). The Malleability of the Gendered Self across Borders: A Comparative Study of Assia Djebar, Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Cairo Studies in English (CSE). Retrieved from: https://cse.journals.ekb.eg/


Oosterink, J. (2019). "'Arriving at Your Own Door': Transnational Identity Formation in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah". Masters Theses, Grand Valley State University, 952. https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/theses/952

Suárez-Orozco, C., & Suárez-Orozco, M. M. (2001). Children of immigration. Harvard University Press. Retrieved from: https://www.oecd.org/education/school/Children-of%20-Immigration.pdf

Visual sources






Comments


Author Photo

Roberta

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page