Photograph by Ivara Esege
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. Translated into thirty languages, she is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), and Half of a Yellow Sun, (Orange Prize winner, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, New York Times Notable Book, and People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year); and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, published to critical acclaim in 2009. Her latest novel Americanah, published 2013, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction; and was named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Chimamanda visited Switzerland as part of her two-week European tour. We met in Zürich’s Old Town and had a chat over a pot of peppermint tea.
Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my Top Shelf Books. I’m struck by its balance. The breadth and generosity of your narrative, and how the characters never become polemical devices. You say many of these stories come from your family history and in particular, your father. How are you able to maintain such a clear-eyed perspective?
I start off thinking of my characters as human. That period of our history has haunted me for a very long time. I’ve been close to obsessed by it. I took a while before I could write it. I’d written poems, I’d written short stories, I’d written a play at the age of sixteen, called For Love of Biafra, which was terrible. But it goes to show how long my interest in that period had lasted.
When I finally felt emotionally ready to write the novel, I didn’t want to romanticise the war, or the cause, or the humanity of the people who were involved. I kept reminding myself it was about the people. I spent so much time reading about the period and finding out lots of interesting little titbits, many of which were political, all of which I wanted in the book. So revising took quite a while, as I had to take out all those things which simply showed off my research.
I’m still reading Americanah. I wanted to finish it before this interview but found it a book I could not rush. I keep stopping to think. Once again, such clarity in observation, but I was surprised by the amount of wit and humour pervading the book. So the absurdities surrounding cultural perceptions, miscommunications and misunderstandings make you laugh as well as cry?
Yes. I spoke to a reader this week, who mentioned a character as ‘that racist Kimberley’. And I said, ‘What? I like her very much!’ The reason I say this is the miscommunications and misunderstandings can be hostile and malicious, but many of them are not. Many come from people who don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s something about it that’s funny, if sad. Even things that annoy me can make me laugh.
A woman came up to me yesterday and said, ‘Chimamanda, can you pronounce this word for me? It’s from South Africa’.
Your writing transports the reader. What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
What you see, what you smell, what you hear, just being there.
I noted the detail you used in your TED talk on feminism – the parking-space finders in Lagos.
Yes, the truth is sometimes in the smallest things.
I’d like to know more about how you choose to tell your story. In Americanah in particular, your jumping narrative makes me think of a mix of fireside storytelling, with meandering tangets, juxtaposed with fast flickering images, contrasted with slow, painful detail such as Obinze’s deportation.
Interesting question. I don’t know if I choose. It’s very hard for me to talk about how I work. I sometimes have to invent answers to questions on my writing process as I don’t really plan. When I start a book, I have a vague idea of what I want to do. And if it’s going well, it often becomes something else.
You’re right to observe that in sections like Obinze’s deportation, I pause. It’s an emotional pause. Because it’s important to me, that’s where I feel emotionally involved. In writing that scene, researching and talking to people, it made me very sad.
That vague idea. Theme, character, where do you start?
It’s character and story. But it’s unformed; a nebulous procession of images in my head. With Americanah, I had all these observations I’d made and conversations with other people I wanted to put into the book, but I didn’t know if Ifemelu would go back to Nigeria. I thought it might be a book about longing, about the home you had left behind. As the book progressed, she really wanted to go back, so she did.
With Half of a Yellow Sun, I started the novel obviously wanting the characters to be changed by the war. As I approached the end, I imagined something bad would happen to Baby. But Baby refused to have something bad happen to her. It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding strange. When it’s going well, the characters take over.
Books and writing feature as powerful portals in your novels.
Yes, and that is me. It’s easy to assume that books are important to everybody but they’re not. I know many intelligent people for whom books are irrelevant. This is me making a case for reading, for books.
What kind of books made an impact on you?
Growing up I read a lot of crime, most of which was bad. Do you know James Hadley Chase? You do? (laughs) He’s incredibly popular in Nigeria, but when I went abroad, no one had heard of him. I think I read every single James Hadley Chase book that was published. Recently, I got bored of what is termed ‘serious fiction’ and went back to the books I loved when I was younger. I tried to read James Hadley Chase and it was unbearable! It was so bad! But I discovered PD James and really, really like her. I don’t like violence and prefer the detective kind of thing.
It seems you naturally gravitated towards writing from being a passionate reader. I know you read Enid Blyton books as a child. I recognised the ginger beer.
I loved them!
Me too. You know, my cousin Marcus played Julian in the 1970s TV series of The Famous Five.
Really? I watched that in Nigeria! (sings the theme tune) “We are The Famous Five! Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog…” That’s hilarious!
Now Half of a Yellow Sun is a film, and there are rumours of interest in adapting Americanah. I spoke to David Mitchell about Cloud Atlas. He said he had almost no influence on the film adaptation and didn’t want to. He felt an adaptation should be a new creative vision, a story told in a different voice. What’s your view?
Very similar to his. I stayed away. I chose to stay away and it’s not even the wanting to hear the story from another voice, which by the way I did enjoy, but Half of a Yellow Sun means so much to me. Everything in that book matters to me. Film-making is such a different thing. It would involve making decisions not necessarily based on the integrity of the book. I worried it would break my heart. I thought I’d lose my mind if I were involved.
They asked if I wanted to write the script and I said no. I had a few conversations with the director [Biyi Bandele], who’s a friend of mine, which was calming. In one conversation, he talked about making the story about the sisters, and not Ugwu. I thought, no! Ugwu is the soul of this book. In many ways, Ugwu is me. For him to be something on the side was almost unbearable. He said, yes, I understand, but for film…
And I remember very clearly thinking this is why I cannot be involved.
Having seen the film, of course he is right. Making the sisters the focus works, perfectly. I just couldn’t have done it.
Are you impressed with it?
I think it’s beautiful. And very well acted. It’s filmed in Nigeria, which was important to me. The art of it, capturing Nigeria in beautiful images. There’s something very nostalgic about it that I love.
As an expat, I’m often seen as the mouthpiece of my country. A Brit must be able to justify Britain. You’ve mentioned not only being seen as a representative of your country but the entire continent. In the light of current events, is it an opportunity or a burden to focus attention on Nigerian issues?
Is there a third option? (laughs) I’m ambivalent about this. Sometimes when there are things I feel very strongly about, I’m grateful I have this voice. And there are times like now, when what’s happening is headline news. As often happens with headline news, it’s simplified and there’s no context. So I get 200 emails from news organisations all over the world wanting ‘Chimamanda to come and talk about girls-education-in-Nigeria’.
I’m from southern Nigeria. You’ve lived there so you know that the north and the south are quite different. And for an Igbo person, the education of women is not the problem; it’s the education of men. Men are dropping out of school in Igboland but women are much more educated. So for me to go and talk about girls’ education… it’s not even a lack of nuance, it’s just there’s not enough space for diverse stories. The thinking is that, after those girls were abducted, every Nigerian must have a story to tell about their own experience. And I don’t.
The dangers of the single story? [Chimamanda’s TED talk 2009]
Yes. They want me to focus on this one thing. And while I care very much about this one thing that’s bad, there are other things. So they’ll end up with a very lopsided view of this place where I come from and it’s a place I happen to love.
Also I don’t like to feel defensive. At times I do feel that way with
people who don’t know many stories about where I come from. An emotional defensiveness comes in. It’s strange.
And what are you working on next?
I can’t tell you.
I’m going to play the mysterious one. (laughs)
Tell me about you instead. What do remember from your time in Nigeria?
(I show Chimamanda a photograph from my childhood – see left.
We talk about memories, how pictures can hint at stories, and families.)
I noticed the photography credit in my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. Is that your brother?
|Photograph by Okey Adichie
(laughs) Yes! We had the most hilarious time! This was taken at the house where I grew up. We were walking around and he had the camera and he was saying, I’m tired of this. And I would say, no, tell me what the lighting is like, and he’d say, I don’t know anything about lighting, leave me alone. It’s amazing we actually got this picture, which isn’t bad.
From what I’ve read, you sound like you have a very good relationship with your family.
I have, actually. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t because writers are supposed to be all ‘oh, what my father did to me, what my mother did to me’. I tease my writer friends and tell them certain conversations, I just can’t join in. My parents are lovely. We’re all really close, my parents, my siblings and me.
I’m the strange one.
If eloquent, funny, animated, articulate, observant and precise are strange, may there be much more strangeness to come.
By JJ Marsh