_Americanah_ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | Study Questions and Assignment Prompts

Last semester, I taught a course in Modern World Literature. Designing my curriculum around four novels by women of color, I was frustrated to find that although these are celebrated works of literature, teaching resources for them were less readily available than I would have expected. I decided to publish the reading questions and assignments prompts I developed to serve as a resource for other instructors.

*** Note: my class met on a Monday / Wednesday schedule, so my assignment structure is set up to have longer readings and reflections due on Monday sessions, and shorter readings due on Wednesday sessions.

W – READ: Americanah – Pt I, Ch. 1-2

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • How does the novel introduce us to Ifemelu? What impressions does it give of her? What traits define her character?
  • The novel (told from Ifemelu’s point of view) places a lot of emphasis on the differences between the two initial settings of the story: Princeton and Trenton. How would you characterize each of these places? Why do you think the novel describes them in such detail? How does Ifemelu’s movement between them, and the way she relates to each place, help to define her character?
  • How does the novel introduce us to Obinze? What impressions does it give of him? What traits define his character? How does the story change when it’s told from his perspective, versus Ifemelu’s?
  • Both Ifemelu and Obinze have lives that would seem, from the outside, to be successful and fulfilling, yet both seem dissatisfied. What do you think is the source of this dissatisfaction? Why do you think Ifemelu believes that returning to Nigeria will help her feel more fulfilled?

M – READ: Americanah – Pt II, Ch. 3-8

  • In Part II, we learn about Ifemelu’s background, and some of the tumultuous aspects of her childhood. How do you think these experiences affected Ifemelu? Does learning about her background give you new insight into her character
  • What do you think of Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship? What kind of bond do they have? Do you think it’s just a childish romance, or is there something more there? What do you think it is about Ifemelu that attracts Obinze, and vice versa? We know from Part I that Ifemelu and Obinze intend to reconnect as older adults — does this surprise you? What do you think will come of it?
  • Through the depiction of Uju’s relationship with the General, the novel reveals many aspects of the political and economic climate of Nigeria, as well as the nature of men’s and women’s roles and relationships. What does this interlude show us about the world of the novel?
  • How do you think witnessing Uju’s experience impacts Ifemelu?

Reading Reflection I

Part 1

In class, we talked about the emphasis in the opening chapter of Ifemelu’s movement between two cities that are presented as two separate worlds, Trenton and Princeton. Adiche represents these worlds as having different demographics, different landscapes, and different codes of behavior, and she interrogates how easily (or not) Ifemelu is able to navigate these different worlds, how fully she is able to fit in, and where she feels at home.

There are also other worlds that Ifemelu moves between, in the chapters we have read: between Lagos and Nsukka, between Uju’s lifestyle and her home life, between Nigeria and the US, between familial life and university life, and so on. How do these different worlds contrast each other, and how does each environment shape Ifemelu. How do they come together to create the world of the novel?

Create a collage of at least 3 images or video clips that represent the world of the novel. These might, for example, be visuals that relate to the history or characteristics of the actual settings referenced in the novel. Or they might be representations of different social settings, political/economic environments, or emotional landscapes inhabited by the characters. You can choose to represent concrete details that you think are significant, or the symbolic functions that these worlds serve within the story.

For this assignment, you don’t have to write anything, but we will be sharing the collages in class, so you should be prepared to discuss and explain your choices.

You can format your collage however you choose, as long as you have 3 different images or clips. Post your collage elements to your portfolio.

Part 2

In class, you’ll share the collage you created, discussing and explaining your choices with the other members of your group. Consider how your classmates have conceived the world(s) of the novel, and how the multiple settings of the novel intersect and inform one another. How might the world of the novel, as defined by your fellow students, intersect with, add to, or challenge your own conception of the world of the novel?

Choose one additional image or clip to add to your collage, inspired by the collages of one or more of your classmates. You could add the exact image/clip your classmate used, or find a similar one. 

In a brief paragraph (100-150 words), explain who inspired your fourth collage element, what the image/clip represents about the novel and why you chose this piece — i.e. how your classmate’s perspective helped you to understand the novel differently or more deeply, and how it informs what you wanted to communicate about the world of the novel in your original collage.

W – READ: Americanah – Pt II, Ch. 9-13

  • In Chapter 9, we finally witness Ifemelu’s initial arrival in the U.S. Despite her anticipation, she is somewhat disturbed by the experience, noting that “nothing is familiar” even her relationship with her aunt; she thinks, “Aunty Uju’s impatience, that new prickliness in her, made Ifemelu feel that there were things she should already know but, through some personal failing of hers, did not know.” What is it that Ifemelu does not know that those around her seem to “already know”? What things does Ifemelu learn about American life that strike her as odd or unexpected that those around her seem to think are normal?
  • Ifemelu is expected to learn new ways of speaking, acting, and even thinking to fit in or assimilate in her new home. A useful concept to help think through these changes is the idea of code-switching, or changing one’s language, modes of expression, behavior, even ways of thinking, according to the present context; the “code” represents norms of speech, action, and attitude that are considered appropriate or acceptable in a given situation. Which codes do you see operating in the stories of Ifemelu and her family, that each of them have to negotiate? Do any of the characters engage in code-switching? Do any of them refuse to do so? Where do the codes come from? That is, why are the characters expected to speak, act, dress, or even think a certain way — to follow a particular script? Do these codes for how people should speak or act reflect certain assumptions, beliefs, values, or practices of a particular community? What is at stake for the characters when they choose to code-switch, or not? What consequences do or might they face as a result?
  • When Ifemelu meets the nextdoor neighobors, Jane and Marlon, Uju tells her, “They are like us.” In what sense are Jane and Marlon “like” Ifemelu’s family? What the are different ways that Ifemelu learns to judge what groups of people are alike and unalike in American society — i.e., what does she begin to learn about how the nature of American society defines identity. Does this experience lead her to redefine her own identity?

M – READ: Americanah – Pt II, Ch. 14-17

  • At the beginning of Ch. 14, Ifemelu decides to begin speaking with an American accent. What motivates her to make this choice? What effect does she expect this change to have? What makes her decide to stop? How has she changed in the interim?
  • Later in the novel, Ifemelu will write in one of her blog posts, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care” (110). Based on what we’ve read so far of her experiences, what do you think she means? How does Ifemelu begin to negotiate what it means to be “black” in America? What it means to be “African” in America? How do the interactions she has encourage or coerce her to accept and take on these identities? Where do we see her resist having her identity defined according to these preconceived categories?

Reading Reflection II

***Note: In my course curriculum, we had previously read Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, so this assignment references our previous course content. You may need to adapt this assignment to fit your course content.

Like Sophie in Breath, Eyes, Memory, Ifemelu is depicted growing up in an environment of economic and political instability —corrupt government, a recession, multiple coups. And like Sophie, she leaves this world in her youth to move to the East Coast of the United States; both girls have high expectations built up for them by their friends and families, but both find life in the U.S. different from what they anticipated. Do these characters resemble each other in other ways? Do you see other parallels between their experiences and the way they respond to them?

Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.

W – READ: Americanah – Pt II, Ch. 18-22

  • At the beginning of Ch, 18, we once again jump back to the “present” of the story, in the salon where the older Ifemelu is getting her hair braided. Why do you think Adichie has written the story to continually jump back and forth between the present day and the stories of the past? Do the scenes in the hair salon interact with the past stories in a significant way? 
  • The story from the past is also interrupted by the excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog, more and more frequently. Why do you think Adichie has incorporated these blog posts? Do they add to the themes developed through the story? Do they help us to understand Ifemelu’s character better? 
  • When Ifemelu begins applying for jobs, she is advised by a friend to take out her braids and straighten her hair. She thinks, “Aunty Uju had said something similar in the past, and she had laughed then. Now she knew enough not to laugh.” What is it that Ifemelu “knows”? How has she changed since her initial response to Uju’s statement about straigtening her hair to look “professional”? When Ifemelu decides to change her hair, and finds the online community for natural hair, why is this so significant to her?
  • When Ifemelu gets involved in a new relationship, she thinks, “With Curt, she became in her mind, a woman free of knots and cares, a woman running in the rain with the taste of sun-warmed strawberries in her mouth.” How would you characterize Ifemelu and Curt’s relationship? What is it that draws her to Curt? Why/how does their relationship change the way she feels about herself? 

M – READ: Americanah – Pt. III, Ch. 23-30

  • Part III switches back into telling the story from Obinze’s perspective. What do you notice about the narration, and the style of the storytelling in this section — does it change as well? Does Obinze seem to see the world through different eyes than Ifemelu? If so, what are these differences in perspective, and how do they come through in the way the story is told? If not, what are the ways in which Obinze and Ifemelu’s perspectives are similar?
  • We learn a lot about Obinze in this section — not only through the story of his current experiences, but also through his memories about childhood and school. How does this new information develop your understanding of his character? 
  • Obinze thinks to himself that he lives “in London, indeed, but invisibly, his existence like an erased pencil sketch.” What are the ways that Obinze’s existence in London is invisible, and how does this experience affect his character? Are there any times when Obinze is “visible,” or any people who can see him?  

Reading Reflection III

How would you compare Ifemelu’s experience living as an immigrant in the US to Obinze’s experience living as an immigrant in England? Do they face similar obstacles? Have access to the same opportunities? Is one of them “better off”? If so, what is the source of their divergent experiences?

Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.

W – READ: Americanah – Pt. IV, Ch. 31-35

  • Do you buy Ifemelu’s claim that she cheated on Curt because she was “curious”? Or do you agree with Ginnika that Ifemelu is a “self-sabotager”? Is there another explanation for why Ifemelu isn’t satisfied in her relationship with Curt? Does Curt’s response surprise you?
  • Why does Ifemelu start her blog? What do you think she hopes to get out of writing a blog about race?
  • Ifemelu gets negative comments and e-mails about her blog and her lectures, calling her a racist? Why do you think these people feel that Ifemelu is a racist? You’ve read excepts from her blog – do you think any of her writing has racist leanings? How do you think Ifemelu’s accusers would define “racism”? How would Ifemelu define it?
  • How would you characterize Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine? How does it compare to her relationships with Curt and Obinze?

M – READ: Americanah – Pt. IV, Ch. 36-41; Pt. V, Ch. 42

  • Shan makes the comment that in the literary world, “race is a brew best served mild, tempered with other liquids, otherwise white folk can’t swallow it.”; she believes her editor–and the publishing industry as a whole–want discussions of race to be diluted to keep people “comfortable.” Ifemelu expressed similar thoughts about diversity workshops. Do you agree that discussions about race are sometimes watered down to keep people comfortable? Have there been other examples in the novel that reflect this?
  • Shan claims that Ifemelu can write her blog “[b]ecause she’s African. She’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. So she can write it and get all these accolades and get invited to give talks. If she were African American, she’d just be labelled angry and shunned.” Do you agree with her judgement of Ifemelu’s blog, and Ifemelu herself? Why or why not?
  • When Blaine organizes the rally for Mr. White, why do you think Ifemelu chooses not to go? Do you understand Blaine’s response, why he gets so upset?
  • When Obinze writes to Ifemelu e-mails telling her about his time in England, he looks forward to the writing, even when she doesn’t respond, because “he had never told himself his own story.” Why do you think writing these e-mails is therapeutic for him? How does his motivation in writing to Ifemelu compare to her motivation in starting her blog? Why do both characters see writing as an outlet?

W – READ: Americanah – Pt. VI, Ch. 43; Pt VII Ch. 44-48

  • Ifemelu struggles to understand why Dike attempted suicide. Do you understand it? Does the novel give us any clues that Ifemelu has missed? Why do you think Adichie included this episode in the novel?
  • How would you characterize Ifemelu’s reaction to Nigeria upon her return? What things does she notice? What does she recognize? In what ways has Nigeria become unrecognizable? Ifemelu says she’s uncertain to what extent Nigeria has changed and to what extent it’s her that has changed — what do you think?
  • After she arrives in Nigeria, Ifemelu continues to allow Obinze to believe she’s still in America — why do you think she does this?
  • At the party, Ifemelu thinks, “This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had; a ‘they have the kinds of things we can eat’ kind of person.” What does Ifemelu mean by this? Why does she hope she has not become this kind of person? What makes her fear she has become this kind of person? 

M – READ: Americanah – Pt. VII, Ch. 49-55 (a.k.a., the rest of the book)

  • When Ifemelu meets Obinze again, they both agree that Nigeria seemed different to them, after living abroad. Ifemelu says, “It’s as if we are looking at an adult Nigeria that we didn’t know about.” How do you think Obinze and Ifemelu’s characters have changed since they were young, and how might this have affected their perception of Nigeria and those around them? How might it affect their perception of each other?
  • Obinze remembers a time when his mother said, “There are many different ways to be poor in the world, but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.” What did she mean by this? How has the novel depicted the ways of being poor and rich in Nigeria, the US, and England? Why do you think the novel so consistently brings up the difference between the lives of the rich and the poor throughout the story?
  • When Ifemelu calls Curt, he asks if she still blogs about race, but she tells him, “I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black.” Do you understand what she means by this? What about on the level of the story — race was a prominent theme throughout most of the novel; does it feel like Ifemelu returned to Nigeria, and the novel stopped being about race? Does the final part of the novel abandon this theme, or does it still come up in other ways? Do you feel like the issues related to race raised in the earlier parts of the novel get resolved?
  • What about Ifemze — or should it be Obinzemelu? What do you think about their reunion? How would you have expected their relationship to have changed after all these years apart? Do you think the depiction of their renewed relationship is realistic? Are you satisfied with the way the story ends?

Reading Reflection IV

Consider what you think the novel is designed to communicate to us, and how you think we’re intended to relate to the characters in the story. How does Adichie use her novel to reflect on and communicate about the world (whether we’re talking about the geographical world the characters inhabit, or their social world, or their psychological or emotional world)?

Choose any angle on these questions that interests you. You can use the focus questions provided with the reading assignment as a prompt, but you may also choose to reflect on another aspect of the novel that interests you.

Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.

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