Ifemelu’s Maternal Figures as her Literary Foils

Ifemelu seems to have an okay relationship with her biological mother until she comes home one day and cuts off all of her hair outside in the yard. The cultural significance of losing one’s hair in Nigeria stems from some of the self esteem being placed largely on the hair, as seen in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when the captured tribesmen are forced to shave their heads in an act of great shame. Ifemelu’s mother’s hair loss represents her religious transition into a new, more devoted church, as well as her growing more distant from her daughter.Ifemelu’s mother uses God to justify behaviors, or blames the devil when bad things happen to her, hides behind her religion, starves herself in the name of her faith.  Ifemelu greatly resents her mother’s timid behavior and vows not to be like her, acting out in church and speaking her mind. Ifemelu’s mother avoids uncomfortable situations and wants to sugarcoat things, which Ifemelu strives to be the opposite of and is part of why she starts her blog as a way of being open and clearly, publicly expressing her own opinions.

Dissatisfied with her own mother, a young Ifemelu turns to her father’s cousin Uju, who she calls Aunty Uju, as a maternal figure in her childhood. Uju brings her fashion magazines, teaches her about her menstrual period, and is truly honest with Ifemelu. Ifemelu admires Aunty Uju but as she gets involved with The General and becomes totally dependent on him, making no income of her own, Ifemelu grows disappointment in her. Ifemelu resents that Uju has not stood up for the values that Ifemelu associated her with in her childhood: independence and strength. As Ifemelu travels to America and sees how Uju settles to be with Bartholomew even though she doesn’t love him, and the way that Uju loses herself and her Nigerian culture in the process of assimilating into America, Ifemelu realizes that Uju is no longer who she wants to be when she grows up. A desire to not turn out like Uju influences Ifemelu’s decisions to not stay with Blaine and go in search of a more fulfilling relationship and to be conscious of maintaining her connections with Nigeria while she’s in America, and evaluating the cultural and racial customs on her blog, and to go back to Nigeria. I think that Ifemelu will be put into a similar relationship as Uju was with the General when she returns to Nigeria and finds Obinze married and with a family, and because she saw what happened for Uju when she got involved with a married man, will insist on Obinze getting a divorce before they become serious again. Ifemelu used to look up to her Aunty Uju but now is trying to learn from her mistakes.

 

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