Friends are dress shopping in the novel "Americanah"; when they get to the register, the cashier asks which of two saleswomen helped them, but they're not sure. She lists numerous physical characteristics to identify the salesperson before giving up.
"Why didn't she just ask 'Was it the black girl or the white girl?'" the main character, Ifemelu, exclaims after they leave. "Because this is America," her friend tells her. "You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things."
"That came from my own life," says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose new novel is part love story, part social critique, and one of the best you'll read this year.
"It was one of my very early lessons about race in the U.S," continues Adichie, who was born in Nigeria and now splits her time between there and Maryland. "You're supposed to just pretend that you can't see that these people look different."
Adichie finds the peculiarities of American racial politics fascinating — and also, well, hilarious.
"I feel as though being African, I can laugh at certain things that maybe if I were African American I wouldn't. I don't know race in the way an African American knows race," she says, speaking by Skype from a hotel room in Boston, where she's on tour. "Sometimes it takes an outsider to see something about your own reality that you don't."
Adichie's first novel, "Purple Hibiscus," was set in postcolonial Nigeria; her second, "Half of a Yellow Sun," about the Biafran war, won the U.K.'s Orange Prize; in 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
"Americanah" (Knopf, 496 pp., $26.95) has a tripod structure, split among Nigeria, the U.S. and England. It begins with Ifemelu, a writer with a popular blog who, instead of taking a job with a major magazine, has decided to return home to Nigeria. She moves in rarefied academic circles; her not-quite-ex-boyfriend teaches at Yale, and she's concluding a prestigious writing fellowship at Princeton. Pretty much everyone thinks her decision to move back after a decade in America is a bad one.
The novel then jumps back in time, to teenage Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze, the magnetic, bookish son of a university professor. They stay together in college and have comfortable lives in Nigeria, but both aspire to more and plan to move abroad.
These characters are richly drawn, as are even those who make fleeting appearances in the book, from the ladies at Ifemelu's braid shop to Obinze's one kind boss in England. When parts of the plot seem familiar — the perils of emigration, the difficulties of being a foreigner in a new land — Adichie digs in deeply, finding a way to make them fresh.
Both young Nigerians have troubles after moving abroad, but Obinze — who lands in England — has a tougher road. Where Ifemelu encounters kindness in New Jersey, he finds people eager to take advantage of an immigrant in need of work. Despite being a well-educated young man, he winds up cleaning bathrooms.
Ifemelu is an opinionated blogger; some of her writing appears in the text, and we see she's all anti-post-racial id, without any superego on guard. "Many American blacks proudly say they have some 'Indian.' Which means Thank God We Are Not Full-Blooded Negroes," one post begins.
If that seems a little inflammatory, Adichie doesn't mind. "I want a woman who's prickly. She's a character who demands investment," she explains. "I hope that the reader with Ifemelu will have a push and pull. There will be times when they applaud her and times where they want to smack her."
She laughs and continues, "I wanted Ifemelu to be a character who wasn't easy to like," she says. "I think it's a very feminist book — I think all of my work is very feminist. She just refuses to keep quiet. In a way that in my life I think I refuse to as well."
Adichie doesn't want anyone to confuse Ifemelu with her, though "Ifemelu's not me, but of course there's a lot of me in her," she explains. "I find that people assume that it's me. In Nigeria, people are completely convinced that it's me." In Lagos, a woman insisted that Adichie tell her how to meet one of Ifemelu's wonderful boyfriends — sadly, just a character in a novel.
She says there's "a very strong magpie component" to her fiction-writing process: "I collect people's things. I'm constantly stealing from people's lives and also my life."
Nsukka, the town where Obinze and Ifemelu attend college, is Adichie's hometown. Her family lived in university housing — the same home as the great African novelist Chinua Achebe, author of "Things Fall Apart," who died in March.
"It's still very strange to talk about him in the past tense," Adichie says, tearing up. "I really deeply admired him and respected him, not only because I think he was a wonderful writer but because I think he was also a remarkable human being.
"Once I was driving around Lagos and there's a roadside mechanic sitting on a bench reading 'Things Fall Apart.' I just started crying," she recalls. "I was so moved by it! It's a hot afternoon, but he's finding pleasure in this book."
The novel, published in 1958, remains vital. "People felt that he's given us" — she gestures expansively — "us Africans, in a larger sense, our dignity back. Because he made our history no longer that ridiculous story of primitive people. He made it real and human."
"I didn't want to write like him," Adichie continues, "but it made me more confident to write what I really wanted to write, which is stories of Nigerian people."
Adichie will appear at ALOUD at the Los Angeles Public Library at 7:15 p.m. June 6. More information: http://www.lfla.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times