Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born on September 15, 1977, in Enugu, Nigeria, and grew up in Nsukka, where the University of Nigeria is located. Her parents worked for the university, her father as a professor, and her mother as the first female registrar in the university. Her family is Igbo, one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria, along with the Yoruba and Hausa. Although she began studying medicine at the University of Nigeria, Adichie longed to study the humanities, and later received a scholarship to Drexel University in Philadelphia to change her course of study. After two years, she transferred to Eastern Connecticut University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a BA in political science and communications. She then attended Johns Hopkins University for her MFA in creative writing, and later received an MA in African studies from Yale University. Since then she has won numerous fellowships and awards, including a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008. She now teaches in Nigeria and the United States.
Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus , was published in 2003, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005. Following that, she wrote two novels, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah , plus numerous essays and short stories. In addition to her fiction, Adichie is well known as a speaker and essayist. Her two extremely popular TED Talks highlight themes that she explores throughout her creative work, and quite clearly in Americanah . At 2009’s TED Global Conference she presented, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which discusses the consequences of stereotypes in both fiction and reality. Her 2012 TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” addressed the importance of raising both daughters and sons to create a fairer world. It has been downloaded millions of times and republished in book form. In 2013, Beyoncé sampled the talk on her song “***Flawless,” bringing Adichie’s message to the wider public.
Adichie worked on Americanah throughout 2011–2012, while on fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. The novel draws inspiration partially from her experiences in the United States throughout college, and those of friends. Like her character Ifemelu, Adichie was taken aback at being considered black in the United States and the negativity associated with the label. The book was released in 2013 to great reviews, winning the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award. The New York Times listed it as one of the best ten books of the year, and it was chosen for the New York Public Library’s 2017 “One Book, One New York” campaign. In 2018, actress Lupita Nyong’o announced that she was working to adapt the novel as a television miniseries. Former president Barack Obama included Americanah on his list of books by “a number of Africa’s best writers and thinkers,” a collection he compiled in 2018 in preparation for his first visits to Kenya and South Africa since his time in office. On that list, Americanah joins Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart , one of the undisputed classics of Nigerian literature.
After Nigeria’s independence from the British Empire in 1960, the country faced a series of military coups, and the government passed from one general to another. The resulting instability had catastrophic effects for the nation’s infrastructure. Poor working conditions and late payments for the staffs of the universities caused strikes, and universities closed for months at a time. Amidst this chaos, many Nigerians chose to immigrate to countries like the United States and Britain in search of opportunities. Adichie has said that she wanted to depict this kind of immigration in Americanah , one of middle-class immigrants on a quest for more opportunities instead of fleeing danger. In 1998, the then head of state, General Abubakar, brought forward a new plan to return Nigeria’s power to an elected president. The 1999 elections proceeded as planned, bringing Olusegun Obasanjo to power. However, corruption and conflict still plagued the country.
Ifemelu and Obinze’s differing immigration experiences relate to the changes in the United States and Britain after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Amongst other new security measures, the United States created a new Department of Homeland Security, which took over the scrutiny of visa applications, leading to more rejections overall. Similar immigrant paranoia reached Britain, and the home secretary, David Blunkett, worked toward stricter immigration laws and even proposed implementing identification cards for British citizens. These fears and bureaucratic difficulties added to the already challenging immigration landscapes of these countries. Also important to the novel are Ifemelu’s frank and often humorous observations of race in America. These experiences become tied to the nomination and eventual election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States in 2008. His central campaign messages of hope and change resonated both as an alternative to the fear that typified previous administrations, and as the dream that the United States was ready for a black president despite its deep racial divide.