“Americanah” is a novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her main character is Ifemelu, a brilliant girl who lives in Lagos with her family and whose childhood flows lightheartedly among school, catholic education and friends. Some of these friends emigrate with their families to England or USA and sometimes they convert in Americanah:
«She will be back and she’ll be a real Americanah the same as Bisi, – added Ranyinudo. […] he was pretending he didn’t understand youruba anymore and used to put a mumbled r in every English world.»
Ifemelu has never thought about emigrating until, during her high school, she meets Obizne: he is the son of a university professor and is fond of American literature. He was born in USA and dreams about going back there one day. With him Ifemelu learns what love is but also how to open her cultural horizon and, in order to be together, they decide to attend the university in Nsukka. But unfortunately a large sequence of professor strikes interrupt the university activity so that Ifemelu and Obizne decide to move to USA and continue their studies there, at the other side of the ocean. Ifemelu immediately obtains her VISA, whereas Obizne’s visa is refused, according to the post 11/9 restrictions…
By this solo travel the expatriation experience for Ifemelu begins, a solo emigration, chosen for study reasons and faced with the enthusiastic attitude that everybody has in those moments when they know that something is going to change and you can just hope that it’s for better. USA, in the mind of our protagonist, is a continent where everything is big, possible, fair – after all her Obizne has always told her the same. But as usually in the emigration stories, the tales we had in our mind are not always what is in reality when you put your foot in the new country.
Facing an expatriation alone is not always easy and often on our path we find obstacles that we hadn’t foreseen when we thought about the experience from the comfortableness of our sofa. Among these, the first is that of discover yourself labelled with a diversity which we didn’t know before:
«I come from a country where race is not a problem; I’ve never thought about myself as a black girl and I became black when I arrived in America»
You realize to be different even when you simply emigrate from the South to the North of Italy. When I left Sardinia twelve years ago, during my first emigration experience, the diversity was underlined by the question “But, are you Sardinian?”. It was usually an accent or my surname to give the input. A question that nobody has never made me in a negative way but that I was bothered by anyway. Perhaps it was for that starting “but”, perhaps because I never harangued anybody asking “but, are you Venetian?” or “but, are you Roman?”. Why nobody used the traditional question with me: “Where are you from?”
With time diversity disappears and our habits combine with the rithms of the new Country.
The diversity label converts in a sense of estrangement in another moment of the story of Ifemelu, which repeats even in the story of many expat: the moment in which you go back to your Homeland.
As for Ifemelu, emigration is often something that “others” don’t forgive us. Going back after an expatriation is a hard test: we made a lot of efforts in order to cancel the diversity in the adopted country, and now is our native country which considers us different.
Our mind is now opened to a new culture, had to make some compromises with a new vision of the world. And in our native country everything looks like unaltered: life goes on, based on the same values as always, and national borders are narrow to us. Coming back from an expatriation must be accepted for what it is: a journey back to our Country, where what was given for granted before now it’s an element we have to discover again. And so also Ifemelu, going back to Nigeria and smelling again its odours is seized by an emotion impossible to be named, full of melancholy and nostalgia for all the things she has lost during her absence.
She, and all of us when we come back from an expatriation, can’t do anything but: