Chimamanda Adichie: Interview

by A. Naomi Jackson
Mosaic #17 – Winter 2007

She was born in Enugu and grew up in Nsukka; her father was Vice-Chancellor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Before she had even undertaken her first degree, Adichie had already published a collection of poetry, Decisions, seen her play For Love of Biafra performed, and received encouragement for her writing ambitions. When she set out for the States for her undergraduate degree in communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University, it wasn’t necessarily writing fiction that she had in mind. However, it was there, during the pressure of her senior year final exams, that she wrote the first draft of Purple Hibiscus. She later received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University Writing Seminars. To say that Adichie was focused, talented, or determined would only scratch the surface of the writer’s commitment to honing her craft and developing new work.

Chimamanda Adichie
Chimamanda Adichie

Speaking of writing as a necessity rather than a luxury, Adichie says that she cannot remember a time when she was not a writer: “I’ve been writing since I was old enough to spell and I cannot speak about what makes me ‘keep writing’ because to do so would be to suggest that there are times I don’t want to write. There aren’t. There are times when I hate what I write, there are times when I resent the mental exhaustion, but I have never ever thought about the possibility of NOT writing. I write because I have to. It is what makes me happy.”

Before the publication of her novel, it was Adichie’s short stories, published in prestigious literary journals and magazines, including Zoetrope: All Story, Granta, and the Mississippi Review, that drew the literary world’s attention to this young writer. Her short story, “You in America,” first appeared in Zoetrope before being shortlisted for the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing and is that rare literary work that can sustain the second-person voice without sacrificing distance from the reader or threatening to stilt the story’s rhythm. Here we read about a Nigerian girl who just arrived in the States to study at university and leaves an abusive uncle to strike out on her own in a small Connecticut college town. The character Adichie draws is neither pathetic nor perfect; the emotional range of her characters and her masterful ability to draw the social, political, and environmental world around them is astounding for a writer her age. It is no surprise that the short story on which her forthcoming novel is based, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” was published in Granta and subsequently won the David T.K. Wong International Prize for Short Story Writing.

Not to be pigeon-holed into only writing fiction, plays, Adichie has already distinguished herself as one of the continent’s emerging intellectual voices, with her strong opinions on everything ranging from Nigerian politics, religious, and literary culture to her strong belief that “the best hair braiders are Nigerian.” She has contributed op-ed articles for British newspaper the Guardian, including the controversial “Blinded by God’s Business,” which addresses the questions of whether, why, and how Nigerians choose to invest in young Nigerian writers by buying their books. In an interview with South Africa-based magazine, Chimurenga, Adichie states forcefully that “I think it is unhealthy for our society that this new sleek, crass religiosity has taken centre stage. Somebody should pass this law in Nigeria: Don’t TALK God, ACT God.”

As if it were not enough to publicly address the taboo subject of Nigerian religiosity, Adichie has taken on an even more formidable challenge in her forthcoming novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, one of the first fictional accounts of the Biafran War, when the secession of the Igbo Republic of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967 sparked a civil war that claimed over one million lives, including those of many women and children who died of starvation when the trans- port of food and medical supplies to the newly formed Biafra was severely restricted. The novel, which Adichie has been writing and researching for the last four and a half years, is close to Adichie’s heart as she lost both of her grandfathers during the war. Born seven years after the end of the war, she doesn’t consider herself what Nigerian art historian and scholar Olu Oguibe calls one of “Biafra’s children.” However, Adichie says that “I have always been haunted by stories of my parents’ life in Biafra; it is not so much as if I lived through it, as it is that I inherited the shadows of the war and will always live with those shadows.” In the short story on which it is based, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Adichie tells the harrowing tale of two young university students who fall in love during the war and the subsequent death of the young man on the war front. If the novel builds upon this power- fully moving story, we have much to look forward to. Speaking about the process of writing about the war, Adichie says that “what has struck me the most is how much material from my research I have not used.” She goes on to say that “I learned that there is nothing, nothing at all, that the human heart cannot absorb.”

At home, Adichie’s accomplishments, especially her prestigious literary awards, have been a point of national pride. Purple Hibiscus has generated a great deal of excitement and hope that the renaissance in African literature represented by writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ayi Kwei Armah has returned with the success of Adichie’s first novel, both at home and abroad. Thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of Farafina Books publisher Muhtar Bakare, Nigerians living in Nigeria have been able to buy and read Purple Hibiscus. Using his own imprint and funds, Bakare bought the West African rights to Adichie’s novel, published it in Nigeria and set the price at 500 Naira (less than $4 USD), competitive considering the fact that most glossy magazines re- tail for about 600 Naira. In addition to making the book widely available and affordable, Bakare went on to set up a book tour for Adichie where she read excerpts of her work at schools and universities. Book reviews of Adichie’s novel have appeared in major Nigerian newspapers and Adichie has spoken to audiences on the radio and television. Here, the new idea of a literary celebrity is being created and Adichie has written about the experience of modeling authorship as a new ambition for the young people who attend her readings. Writing on the important step forward that Bakare’s publishing ventures signal, Adichie says: “Most publishers in Nigeria still think they are doing writers a favor by publishing fiction; an acquaintance of mine asked for his royal- ties recently and was told that he should be grateful for being published in the first place.”

Although she has spent the better part of the last ten years studying, living, and working stateside, Adichie still considers Nigeria and especially Nsukka, “the dusty university town that houses my memories,” home. Living, working, and writing in the States is for now the best option given that, despite some improvements, teaching, fellowship, and residency opportunities in Nigeria are relatively scarce. Adichie writes that “Writing in the US, a place where I am a ‘foreigner,’ means constantly having to explain my- self. Living here means being constantly homesick. But there are conveniences and certainties about life in the US that I feel grateful for. Ideally, I would live full-time in Nigeria but I obviously can’t, if I want to continue doing what I am doing. I couldn’t make a living in Nigeria teaching Creative Writing.”

For now, we are lucky to have one of Nigeria’s best young writers in our midst. Speaking of her hopes about how the world will read and come to know her, Chimamanda says its best: “In some ways, my writing becomes a strike back at mortality, but I don’t think in grand terms like ‘legacy.’ The hopes I have for now that I am alive are the same as those I have for when I am dead: I want to be read, and I want to be taken seriously.”