An Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recipient of a 2008 MacArthur Grant, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of two novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006); The Thing Around Your Neck, a short story collection, will be published in June 2009 by Knopf. Half of a Yellow Sun, nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, won the Orange Prize in 2007. Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Orange, and won the 2004 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her work has appeared in many publications, including New Yorker, Iowa Review, and Zoetrope. Adichie grew up in Nigeria, where she attended medical school for two years at the University of Nigeria before coming to the United States. She received her MFA from Johns Hopkins University and an MA from Yale University in African Studies. A 2005-2006 Hodder Fellow at Princeton, she currently divides her time between Nigeria and the United States. Renee Shea interviewed Adichie in Ellicott City, Maryland, in July 2008. In September 2008, Adichie returned to Nigeria to teach a ten-day creative writing workshop, with plans to stay in Nigeria after the workshop.
Renee Shea: You’ve written about how important encountering Chinua Achebe through reading was to you because you realized that “people like me could live in books.” Is that experience what you hope to bring to the students in the workshop?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think it’s important. Just reading the entries for my workshop—sometimes it’s very sad to see that people don’t know very much about their own writers. I’m reading the entries now—it’s depressing. I know people in Nigeria who say, “I don’t read Nigerian fiction”—and they say it with pride.
RS: Will you be teaching the students fiction or memoir writing?
CA: I want to do both. I’m using a lot of reportage, especially from the New Yorker and creative nonfiction books. What my idea is—and I have only three days . . . each of us [teaching] is doing what we want—is for [participants] to have a published writer listening to them. But what I hope to do in my own space is to have them see that they can write fiction and nonfiction using the same tools so that we can start to tell our own stories. I am really hoping that in the next five years a fantastic writer who does nonfiction will emerge from Nigeria. I think we’re writing more and more of our own fiction, but we’re still having our nonfiction written for us. There was a piece about Nigerian politics in the New Yorker by an American and a long piece about Nigeria in a UK magazine written by an English person. I just want us to get to the point where a Nigerian is doing that work. That sort of writing creatively about facts I don’t see us doing, and I’m hoping that I can change that.
RS: It seems so difficult today just to get people—especially young people—to read, let alone write.
CA: It’s true everywhere. In Nigeria, people ask what can we do to make people read like they do abroad. I tell them, it’s a problem everywhere. When I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University and taught freshman writing, students just didn’t read. I would ask what are you reading, and they’d say Catcher in the Rye or something they had to read for school. When I asked what do you read for fun, they would be blank.
RS: In May, you finished an MA at Yale University in African Studies.
CA: The year was interesting, and I met very lovely people. I was grateful for the library, but the program was not right for me. It took doing an academic program to make me realize that. I felt strait-jacketed, not very connected to the real world in many ways. I respect academic programs, but they are not for me.
RS: I read that you chose to do this program because you didn’t think you’d make your living as a writer. You certainly don’t have to worry about that anymore.
CA: Well, I don’t know about that. Actually, the reason I did the creative writing program at Hopkins was that I thought I would have to teach. It was a practical decision so I would have the MFA. The reason I did African Studies at Yale was that I wanted to learn. I had gaps in my knowledge, but whether or not I have learned is debatable. So going to Yale wasn’t about getting a job but about wanting to immerse myself in knowledge.
RS: I’m betting you’ve had job offers, especially to be a writer-in-residence.
CA: Before I went to Yale, I wasn’t ready. I worried about passing jobs up, making a horrible mistake, thinking no one would ever ask me again. I realized that when I do start teaching, I want to focus on African literature, mainly fiction with a grounding of history and politics—so I wanted to learn about all of that. What I love is fiction, what I love is storytelling. But because I’m very rooted in a realistic tradition, I want to read about real things that happened—yet I want to read about the emotional lives. I thought going to Yale would help me when I start teaching. I hope so.
RS: So you just weren’t ready to take a teaching job here?
CA: Actually, where I would take a teaching job would be here in the States. Teaching creative writing in Nigeria as a way of earning a living doesn’t make sense; the same creative writing programs do not exist. I like the flexibility of American programs.
RS: You’ve gained terrific visibility with several stories and other pieces published in the New Yorker—and you’re only 30. You must be pleased to be in such a prestigious publication.
CA: I’ve had some of my stories rejected by the New Yorker before one was finally accepted. Actually, I didn’t really like many of the stories I read [in the magazine], but then I started reading more and found some things I did like. But, of course, I wanted to be published in it, and it was really nice. Because “Cell One” is a story I especially liked, and one that took so long to write, I felt, I don’t know, a sense of satisfaction.
RS: And they pay well!
CA: Yes, they do, but even if they didn’t, it has so much prestige. The second story [“The Headstrong Historian”] I did not think was at all New Yorker material, so when my agent said she’d sent it there, I thought, why?
RS: Maybe it’s not a typical New Yorker story, so you’re part of what’s changing their landscape. Will the new book include the two New Yorker stories?
RS: Are the stories interrelated?
CA: No, it’s just a collection of stories.
RS: Are they all set in Nigeria?
CA: No, most are set in the U.S.—except for “Cell One” and “The Headstrong Historian.” I’ve written quite a bit about Nigerians in the U.S. When I set out to write about America, I didn’t feel called to do a novel. I like stories, the kind of prose that is in touch with poetry.
RS: Were all these stories written within a few years?
CA: We put together all the stories I’ve published, and then I selected twelve of them. So there is a story in there that I wrote in 1999, and then the most recent is an unpublished one. It won’t be published prior to the collection coming out. The title is called “The Thing around Your Neck” from an old story, a story I renamed. I redid it and renamed it.
RS: Did you edit the other stories very extensively?
CA: Oh, yes, though mostly small changes. Sometimes I was restraining myself because I felt the need to rewrite some of them, which would have been a disaster. I don’t know quite where editing stops and rewriting starts. My work is never finished. Even as I read something that’s published, I still want to change it.
RS: Fierce editing at the New Yorker is legendary. I once heard Elizabeth Bishop talk about how entire passages of her poems were “edited.” Was that your experience?
CA: Horribly, yes! They “fact check.” How do you check facts for fiction? I respect and understand the need to meticulously fact check nonfiction—but for a story? That’s one reason I like fiction—I can play with facts! It seemed quite silly. Someone said you can’t have a cola nut tree because cola nut trees are said to exist only in northern Nigeria. I said, no, we have one in my family compound.
RS: During our last interview you talked about the fact that you hadn’t met Achebe and were disinclined to do so. But since then, things have changed—I’ve seen your photo with him!
CA: It’s funny. It was an anticlimax. I met him about a week before that picture was taken. He was honored at the National Arts Club, and I was still hesitant to say hello, but I was made to do so by some kind people around me. So I went up and said, “Good evening, Sir”—in the classic tradition of the well-brought-up Igbo girl. And he just looked at me, so I said, “I’m Chimamanda,” and he said, “Oh, I thought you were running away from me.” He must have heard something, so I immediately switched to Igbo—sort of playing an emotional card—and said, “No, that’s not so, I just have so much respect for you.” Which is true—it was a question of wanting to keep away from my hero.
RS: Have you talked to him since?
CA: During another event in New York, I greeted him. And then he did something really sweet and moving. Just before it is my turn to speak, he reaches up and holds my hand and says, “Jisie ike”—which means good luck.
RS: I’ve seen him several times over the years, and the grace and compassion you describe seems very much a part of him.
CA: It is. He’s a man of such integrity. He’s so moving. I was really in tears, and, yes, I am emotionally stupid, but I was crying listening to him speak at that event. It moved me and made me proud.
RS: In “The Headstrong Historian,” you take up the later life of Obierika, one of his characters from Things Fall Apart.
CA: I just took the name. It’s a name I quite like. It means heart . . . obviously, though, reading it in Achebe’s work was the beginning of loving the name.
RS: You’ve described fiction as “the soul of history,” and you’ve written about the “emotional truth of fiction,” so is the emotional truth of history fiction?
CA: I think I said that during one of those moments when you sort of have to say something profound and then it haunts you for the rest of your life! But I think I read somewhere about fiction being the soul of history, and it struck me when I was working on Half of a Yellow Sun because I have always preferred fiction about historical things to reading nonfiction.
RS: Yet, it’s the nonfiction you’re trying to nurture in Nigeria’s younger generation?
CA: Yes, but I think it’s the sort of nonfiction I read. I read this book called Indian Summer which is written by an English person [Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann]. It’s history, nonfiction, but she uses the tools of fiction—she does character, and she does emotion—and I loved it. For me, it’s less about the categories we put things in and more about what we achieve with them. By the end, I left feeling I knew this man called Nehru in a way I wouldn’t have if I had read sort of a straight history.
The idea is not to get more people in Nigeria writing history texts—good God, no!—it’s to get more people writing with ideas, with emotion.
RS: For their own Nigerian audience?
RS: Your fiction has already begun to be written about in academic journals. How does it feel to realize that at this age you’re already the subject of dissertations and literary criticism?
CA: I’m not that young, and I’m older in my head. This sort of thing, I don’t know what it means, but it’s nice. But what’s the nicest is having people who read your work and have it matter to them. Getting an email from someone in Malaysia can move me to tears because I think this person read my book and wrote me because it matters. That’s what’s most important.
RS: I found an article where a number of Nigerian writers were asked, “Is Chimamanda the New Achebe?” and Obiwu Iwuanyanwu commented that your “direct model in Africa is none other than Nadine Gordimer.” Is that true?
CA: I didn’t realize that he had said that. I would say he meant it only half jokingly, but academics need to make a living. I wonder if it’s not that classic thing of an African female writer. I often get Ama Ata Aidoo or Flora Nwapa. I have a deep respect for Gordimer and what she stands for and what she is. Her fiction is, to use that overloaded word, amazing, in many ways.
RS: I’ve used that piece you suggested to me, “How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina to start discussions about white writers writing about Africa. Do you think Doris Lessing escapes the criticism Wainaina’s satire levels at these writers?
CA: I don’t know enough about her. I remember reading The Golden Notebook, but it’s been a while. I like to think that she went beyond stereotypes. I’ve never felt that Lessing lived in a specific time and place. I met her once in London, and she was very sweet. I think it’s so much fun—the way she’s dealt with the Nobel. But I don’t think of Lessing as an African writer in the way I think of Gordimer.
RS: But what about white writers such as Gordimer or Coetzee or Fugard? I can see Wainaina’s criticism of some of the earlier ones, such as Isak Dinesen, but do you think it also applies to more contemporary authors who write about Africa?
CA: I think these writers are African in a way that Isak Dinesen never was. That said, the Africanness of Coetzee is different from that of, say, Ezekiel Mphahlele simply because of race. Race is a very complicated thing in Africa and I think that I, as a West African, don’t feel equipped to fully understand it. I grew up not really understanding the concept of race while my contemporaries in Kenya and South Africa were very much aware of race because they grew up in countries that were racialized in ways that West Africa was not—and this is not to say that West African countries did not have their own problems, race was just not one of them.
RS: You’ve written a number of shorter pieces, the one in the New Yorker about food [“Real Food,” September 3, 2007] and several that have appeared in newspapers even while you were in graduate school. Are you asked to do these, or are you always writing?
CA: Both. With the New Yorker, for example, they asked if I’d like to contribute, and I said yes. It’s short, but sometimes I think the shorter pieces take even longer. Actually, one of the things that I didn’t like about being at Yale was that I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted. I really felt stifled by reading so much academic writing.
RS: I read your piece “The Color of an Awkward Conversation” last June [Washington Post, June 8, 2007]. Did you write this in response to Barack Obama’s speech about race?
CA: Not really. I wrote it because race has become something I feel interested in increasingly. I actually wrote this a long time ago when I was babysitting in college. So I went back and revised it. It was originally much longer. That, by the way, was not my title. I called it “Discovering Blackness.” That’s what I called it the first time I wrote it and when I sent it to my agent.
It was republished in the Dallas Morning News—and they put my email address at the end without my permission. I started to get all sorts of emails and thought “Wait!” You know people read you, and if they really care, they’ll find you online, but on the first day I got about 25 emails. So when I went to the web site and saw my email, I was horrified. I got emails saying things like “You should be grateful you’re no longer being lynched in this country,” and “Go back to Africa.” I was quite shaken, so I called my agent and asked to my email taken off. But then I said to myself maybe that is my point—we need to have a conversation—look at this!
RS: I read an article recently in College English [“Thinking Globally, Teaching Locally: The ‘Nervous Conditions’ of Cross-Cultural Literacy” by Lisa Eck, May 2008] about teaching literature that is outside one’s own culture or that of one’s students. Using the example of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, the instructor said she challenges students to understand by offering two conflicting statements: This novel is about you; this novel has nothing to do with you—so students engage with both the universality and the distinctiveness. Does that make sense to you?
CA: I think it’s interesting to identify, then be careful about identifying. That captures it really: we’re all the same, but we’re not. I think that particularly in the left-leaning U.S., there is a tendency to say that we’re all basically the same—and we aren’t. What literature does is remind me that it’s the sameness of human emotion: we all want to love, we all love—but the details are different, the way we perceive those human emotions. I remember when we were at Hopkins, someone said to me, “Oh, in this story that you wrote where an educated Nigerian woman makes a choice to become a second wife, it’s not believable. No educated woman would make that choice.” Well, I know many educated women who have made that choice in Nigeria, and I remember sitting in that classroom and thinking that even with literature, it’s difficult because this person has an idea what all educated women would do. My character clearly wanted something and went about it in a way that this American woman wouldn’t have, so she saw it as false.
I grew up reading a lot of Russian literature, which I quite liked at the time. I knew nothing about Russia. I think that was a good thing actually because it made it possible for me to just imagine in a way that is magical. I tell this story all the time: I was reading books, books in which characters were eating bagels, and I had no idea what bagels were, so I thought this thing called bagel was simply fantastic and I wanted to have one. I pronounced it “bay-gel” with emphasis on the last syllable. Then I finally saw a bagel—and was disappointed!
If fiction is done well and if you’re open-minded when you come to it, it gives you an opportunity to make you see why, to make you believe in what the characters are doing, which might be quite different from what you would do.
RS: Has either of your novels been optioned for a film?
CA: Yes, Half of a Yellow Sun. I’m very removed from it, but I did ask that a Nigerian do the screen play. His name is Biyi Bandele, he lives in England, and he writes fiction. He has a new novel that is coming out early next year; it’s already out in the UK. It was important to me to have someone who knew Nigeria to be the screenwriter.
RS: Is a major studio producing it?
CA: It’s the people who made The Last King of Scotland.
RS: Are you working on something new?
CA: You can’t ask me that, Renee. I’m a superstitious Igbo woman and I won’t talk about that . . .
RS: Fair enough, but let me ask you this. As you are starting on new work, even new stories, do you feel you’re getting better or trying new things stylistically or structurally?
CA: It’s an interesting question, but I don’t know. I think when I write, the rhythm of the sentences is often dependent upon the subject. The stories sort of tell me how to tell them, that’s what I’ve found.