Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in Princeton, New Jersey, must travel to another town to get her hair braided properly. She likes Princeton, but its population is mostly white and so there are no hairdressers there who know how to braid her hair. She gets on the train and looks around at the passengers, wondering if they would make good subjects for the lifestyle blog she used to run, which was called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She used to interview random people she found herself on public transportation with about racial issues and their opinions.
Ifemelu getting her hair braided acts as a frame story for the first part of the novel, and immediately introduces hair (particularly black women’s hair) as an important subject and symbol in the novel. Adichie introduces Ifemelu at a time when she has created a successful identity for herself as an American citizen: she has a fellowship at Princeton, a successful blog, and feels comfortable talking to American strangers.
Her blog became very popular, but Ifemelu has recently decided to quit writing it. She wonders if this was a good decision. As the train leaves Princeton and arrives in Trenton, many more black passengers get on. She noticed something similar when she took the New York Subway system, how some places were full of slim white people and others with “fat” black people. Ifemelu thinks about how she has stopped saying “fat” since living in America. Recently a man at the grocery store called Ifemelu fat, and later she looked in the mirror and accepted that this was true.
Posts from Ifemelu’s blog will be interspersed throughout the narrative, and through them Adichie is able to give more direct cultural commentary. We already see that Ifemelu’s gaze is similar to Adichie’s own—always noticing the small things that make up the big pictures of culture, race, or identity. Ifemelu is comfortable enough with herself right now that discovering she is “fat” is no big deal for her.
Ifemelu had recently become dissatisfied with her successful blog, her healthy relationship with her boyfriend Blaine, and her general life in America. She found herself longing for Nigeria, and thinking about her first love, her old boyfriend Obinze. After the rude stranger at the supermarket insulted her, Ifemelu found herself goaded into action. When her academic fellowship at Princeton ended, she told Blaine that she was moving back home to Nigeria.
Ifemelu is comfortable with herself as an American citizen, but now less so as a Nigerian. An important part of Ifemelu’s character and identity is a restlessness and dissatisfaction, a desire to know herself better and explore every option. Her decision to move back to Nigeria is the initial impetus for the novel’s action.
Ifemelu and Blaine had been together for three years, especially bonding over their shared enthusiasm for Barack Obama. Blaine could only ask “why” when she told him she was leaving, despite the fact that he is a professor who always looks for the complex reasons behind things. Ifemelu felt guilty, but had always known that Blaine could not give her what she needed in life.
Adichie tells the novel’s story in a complex way, framing memories within back stories and scattering scenes from different times throughout the narrative. Ultimately it all comes together, but for now we are thrown into the middle of Ifemelu’s busy life. This first major separation is Ifemelu’s break-up with Blaine.
Back in the present, Ifemelu gets off the train and takes a taxi to the hair braiding salon. She is relieved that her taxi driver isn’t Nigerian, as Nigerian taxi drivers always like to boast about their success in America to her, or else look resentful that she seems so successful. Ifemelu has never been to this salon before, but she knows it will look like all the other African hair braiding salons she has been to.
Adichie holds nothing back in her cultural criticism, and Nigerians get just as much satire as Americans. Here she starts to introduce the many struggles of immigrants in America. For these taxi drivers, it is a crisis of identity to find themselves suddenly ranked lower in society.
They arrive and Ifemelu goes into the salon. The three women working there are Mariama, Halima, and Aisha. Ifemelu haggles with Mariama and Mariama says that Aisha will do her hair. It is very hot inside and there is no air conditioning. A Nigerian movie is playing on the TV. Mariama says that she and Halima are from Mali, while Aisha is from Senegal. Halima gives Ifemelu the special smile that Ifemelu recognizes as being only for fellow Africans.
The hair salon becomes the setting for all of Ifemelu’s initial flashbacks. It is a good encapsulation of the kinds of scenarios Adichie explores in depth—these are women from various African countries who are now struggling in America, where they find that they are second-class citizens. America is not the paradise they may have imagined, but in fact a hot and uncomfortable place.
Ifemelu tries to read the novel she has brought, but it’s too hot to concentrate. Mariama apologizes and says that the air conditioner broke yesterday, but Ifemelu knows that this isn’t true – it probably broke long before, or never worked at all. Aisha finishes the customer she’s working on. She asks Ifemelu what color of hair attachments she wants, and disapproves when Ifemelu requests a more natural color than the usual pure black.
Ifemelu makes the kinds of small cultural observations that make up much of the novel—like noting that Mariama is lying about the air conditioner, but in a way that preserves a kind shared fantasy about their status in America. Hair becomes more of a symbol now as Ifemelu chooses natural over artificial.
Aisha asks Ifemelu why she doesn’t relax her hair with chemicals, and Ifemelu finds herself preaching (as she often does to black women) about keeping her hair “the way God made it,” and how it can be combed if it’s properly moisturized. Ifemelu brought her own comb and combs her hair herself. Aisha snorts derisively, and then starts to braid Ifemelu’s hair. They watch the TV and Aisha asks if Ifemelu knows the Nigerian actors. Ifemelu says she doesn’t.
Black women are expected (according to American standards of beauty and professionalism) to relax their hair or somehow make it look more like white women’s hair. Ifemelu, however, has decided to embrace her natural hair and not subject it to chemicals. Thus hair starts to represent how American society makes no place for black independence or beauty.
Aisha says that Nigerian films (Nollywood) used to be bad but now are good, and Ifemelu is pleased to hear Nigeria praised. She has been looking for good omens about her decision to return home, as everyone she knows seems to think she is making a bad decision. Only her old friend in Lagos, Ranyinudo, seemed pleased. Ranyinudo was the one who had told Ifemelu about Obinze’s marriage, newfound wealth, and child. Ifemelu, overcome with emotion, had then sent Obinze an email after years of silence between them. He had responded, but she hadn’t answered back.
The overarching plot of the novel will be Ifemelu’s romantic relationship with Obinze. At this point they have been separated by thousands of miles and many years of silence. This is the great physical separation of the book, and the action begins as they move towards reconnecting. Obinze has a successful life in Nigeria, and Ifemelu is leaving her own successful American life to move back home.
Aisha asks Ifemelu if she is Yoruba, and is surprised to hear that she is Igbo (two of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria). Aisha says she is dating two Igbo men right now, and she wants to marry either one, but they both say that Igbo people can only marry other Igbo. Ifemelu is amused by this, and says that Igbo people marry all kinds of people. Aisha talks more, and in describing her sister she says “Africa” instead of a specific country. Ifemelu points this out, and Aisha says that she has learned to just say “Africa” or else Americans will be confused.
Ifemelu is a successful and well-adjusted American at this point, but characters like Aisha are still going through the struggles of immigrant life and trying to cling to their old identity from home while adjusting to a totally different culture. Aisha has adopted even the American insensitivity and ignorance regarding Africa, as she doesn’t bother naming specific countries but only the continent.
Aisha asks how long Ifemelu has been in America, but Ifemelu decides then that she doesn’t like Aisha, so she ignores the question and checks her phone. She feels suddenly reckless and composes an email to Obinze, sending it off without rereading it. Aisha refuses to be discouraged and repeats her question. Ifemelu says fifteen years—it has only been thirteen, but she is used to lying about this because most Africans in America respect you more the longer you’ve been there—and Aisha is impressed.
We start to learn more about Ifemelu, whose character will carry most of the novel. She is strong-willed and proud, but also impulsive at times, as in sending this email to Obinze. She knows how many cultural exchanges work, and so knows what fellow Africans expect to hear and what will impress them.
Aisha ask where Ifemelu lives, and then looks intimidated when she says Princeton. Ifemelu takes a “perverse pleasure” in this. She tells Aisha that she is moving back to Nigeria next week, but Aisha can’t understand why she would do this after fifteen years in America. Ifemelu thinks of how her family and friends have wondered if she can “cope” with living in Nigeria again, as if America has fundamentally changed her. She hasn’t told her parents that she broke up with Blaine, instead saying that he would be following her after a few weeks.
Ifemelu knows that according to the status quo, “someone like her” isn’t supposed to live in a place like Princeton: a wealthy, white, and well-educated community. Ifemelu’s new crisis of identity both leads her to move back to Nigeria and makes her afraid to do so. She worries (and so do her family members) that America has somehow changed her, so that she is no longer truly Nigerian.
Ifemelu lies to Aisha and says that she is going to Nigeria to see “her man,” and Aisha finally accepts this as a good reason. Aisha then declares that she will invite her two boyfriends to come talk to Ifemelu, so Ifemelu can tell them that Igbo people don’t always have to marry other Igbo. Ifemelu tries to dissuade her, but Aisha is persistent. Ifemelu thinks about how this would be a good subject for a blog post about “How the Pressures of Immigrant Life Can Make You Act Crazy.”
Again Ifemelu knows what Aisha expects from her, and so doesn’t try to explain the complexities of her decision, which even she doesn’t fully understand. She has recently given up her blog, but still sees her interactions through the lens of cultural criticism and racial commentary.