Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, is the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian who travels to America to study and stays there for 13 years before deciding to return to Lagos. The book is an atmospheric and vibrant love story – the love between Ifemelu and Obinze, the high-school sweetheart she leaves behind, the love between Ifemelu and her American boyfriend, the love she has for her young cousin Dike, whom she looks after in America, and the love of her homeland, Nigeria. It is also a novel about race and immigration and what it feels like to be black in America.
But the book’s biggest love affair seems to be Adichie’s enduring relationship with hair. Hairstyle is such a constant presence in the book that not a page goes past without a mention of it: straight weaves, box braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, afros, twists, raucous curls, kinky coils and TWAs (teeny weeny afros). Not to mention texturisers, relaxers, oils, pomades and hair butter. No character in her book gets away without having their hairstyle mentioned, and many are defined by it. And not just the girls. ‘The greying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot.’ ‘A dreadlocked white man sat next to her on the train, his hair like old twine ropes that ended in a blond fuzz.’
Chimamanda Adichie, 36, sits before me now in a hotel in London: contained, amused, sexy and intellectual. Her own hair is succinctly tethered, but it looks as if, were she to free it, it would be ready to spring into action at any time.
‘I am obsessed with hair!’ she exclaims, before settling happily into a long session on the subject. ‘As you can see I have natural, negro hair, free from relaxers and things. My hair story started when I was a baby. My mother had boys and she desperately wanted a girl, a girl with hair. I came out with a lot of hair and she was thrilled. As I was growing up she would do things to my hair but what I loved the most was when she stretched it with a hot comb. I was terrified too, because when the comb touched your ear it was so painful, but I loved the idea that my hair would then be straight. So when I was three years old I already had the idea that straight hair was beautiful and my hair was ugly.’
In secondary school her hair had to be natural or in braids. Even now, Adichie says, her two nieces who go to school near Lagos have to have their hair cut short, like boys. (‘They are continually texting me, to ask me to buy them a wig. I believe strongly that we should be proud of our hair, but if my 15-year-old nieces want a straight wig, I’ll buy them a straight wig! Life is short.’)
On the last day of secondary school Adichie ‘relaxed’ her hair. ‘It was this huge girl occasion for me and my friends,’ she says. ‘A relaxer alters the hair chemically and makes it permanently straight. But it also burns the scalp. And sometimes the hair just refuses to be totally straight, so they’ll use a tong and then it smells just like burning goat.’
She progressed through a series of hairstyles before she moved to America. ‘But here’s the thing – in America I suddenly found out I was black. I’m black! What does that mean? Suddenly I started thinking, why do I want my hair to look like white girls’ hair? This is absurd.’ In Americanah, after Ifemelu gets the relaxer treatment in the salon for the first time, the hairdresser says, ‘Wow, girl, you’ve got that white-girl swing!’Adichie writes. ‘She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss.’
Adichie well remembers the day she cut off all her hair, and is now a keen exponent of the natural hair movement, though it is only popular in America; back in Nigeria hair is still straight. She has a friend who will not even answer the door without her wig, and ‘the salons there don’t know how to care for our hair any more. They only know about wigs and weaves and relaxed hair.’
Don’t get put off my the length, the entire article is well worth reading. I just wish Adichie would’ve addressed the real reason why Nigerians were upset about Thandie Newton being cast to play a Nigerian woman.