Born in Nigeria in 1977, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in the university town of Nsukka, living for a time in a house once occupied by Chinua Achebe. After briefly studying medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria, Adichie moved to the United States to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins and in African studies from Yale. A 2005-06 Hodder Fellow at Princeton, Adichie has been widely heralded as one of the new global voices in African literature. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second, Half of a Yellow Sun (Fourth Estate), won the Orange Prize for Fiction, one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious annual literary awards, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Adichie’s work has been translated into thirty languages, and her short stories have been published in journals such as the New Yorker, Granta, Iowa Review, and Zoetrope. She received the O. Henry Prize in 2003 for her short story “American Embassy,” which appears in the recent collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate). After receiving a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Adichie now divides her time between the United States and Nigeria. She was interviewed by Susan VanZanten.
Image: You’ve said, “I didn’t choose writing, writing chose me.” How did this happen? How did you discern this calling to become a writer? Would you identify it as a vocation?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I have writer friends with elaborate and exciting stories about how they came to writing, but I just don’t have that. I wrote from when I was six. Even then I knew that this was something that truly mattered to me. When I was ten, though I had a lot of friends, I remember looking forward to when I could go up to my father’s study and be alone and write. It was considered something odd for me to want to do when it was sunny outside. Now, as an adult, I realize it’s what I care about. It gives me a sense that this is what I am meant to be doing.
Image: Would you use the word vocation to talk about that?
CNA: I think so. I’ve often said that even if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be published I would be writing. I love that I am published, and it was a choice that I made to try and get published. But publishing is very different from writing.
Of course one wants to be published. Otherwise I would just write in my diary and put it in a drawer. But publishing is public, which is why I feel a sense of distance from my books after they come out. I get stupidly emotional about my own work when I am with it alone. I don’t show people what I am doing until I am done, until I feel comfortable enough to let it out. The writing part is very private and gives me that marvelous high when it’s going well, but when I finally send something out to my editor, that’s when I have to put on my practical glasses and think about the work in a less intuitive and more pragmatic way. My editor will say, “I don’t think this character would say that.” And I will think, “Well, in my head she did, but all right.”
Image: Initially you wrote poetry and plays, but you seem to have found your voice and your genre in fiction. What is it about fiction in particular that attracts you? Why are you a storyteller?
CNA: Why indeed. Because poetry’s too hard to do well. Also, my process isn’t an entirely conscious thing. I just do. But I will say that fiction is true. This is something my friends who write nonfiction and I argue about all the time. I feel that fiction is much more honest than nonfiction. I know from my limited experience in writing nonfiction, particularly memoir, that in the process of writing I am constantly negotiating different levels of self-censorship and self-protection, and protection of people I love, and sometimes protection of people I don’t necessarily care about but I worry that the reader might have biased feelings about. When I write fiction, I don’t think about any of that. Radical honesty is possible in fiction. With fictional characters, I don’t have to think about protecting anybody.
Image: So you don’t worry about people you know seeing themselves in your fiction?
CNA: They do, invariably, but no, I don’t worry about that. The funny thing is that often when I do base characters on people, they don’t know, and when I don’t, they’re convinced that I have.
Image: Many western readers in a post-secular culture don’t understand the pervasive role that religion plays in African life. Your fiction vividly depicts the presence and weight of religion, with its accounts of traditional Catholicism, African Pentecostalism, Islam, a more liberal Catholicism, and indigenous beliefs. What was it like to grow up as a Catholic in Nigeria in such a spiritually teeming world?
CNA: It was indeed spiritually teeming. But is America actually a post-secular society? I’m not sure. I think it’s quite religious as well, but it manifests itself in a different way. It’s less direct. I even think that in many ways the anti-religion movement is in itself a religion—and sometimes it is more strident than any religious movement.
What’s interesting about Nigeria, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, is how there’s a geographical element to religion. In Igboland where I come from, in southeastern Nigeria, the Presbyterian missionaries came from one side and the Irish-Catholics came from another, and they reached an agreement in the late 1880s or 1890s to respect one another’s turf (though I recently read that one of the Protestant ministers accused the Irish Catholics of encroaching on their territory and going to convert people). My grandfather converted to Catholicism in the 1920s, and my father was born in 1932, so he was baptized Catholic as a baby, and so was my mother. My family, like many families around us, were moderate Catholics. Everybody around me was religious. People went to church. It was something you didn’t question.
When I go back to Nigeria it strikes me how on Sunday people will say, “Have you been to church?” It’s expected, and they say it matter-of-factly. They’re saying it because they want to make sure. They’ll ask, “Will you come out to dinner with us? Have you gone to church, by the way?” Because if you haven’t gone to church then you can’t come to dinner because it means you’re going to evening mass. The option of not going to church doesn’t occur to people, and it doesn’t matter what denomination.
As I was growing up, we went to church every Sunday. I was drawn to religion, but I was the kid who just wouldn’t shut up. I had questions. Everybody else went to church and came home. I wanted to go to the sacristy and talk to the priest about why he said that, I’m sure much to my father’s irritation. But my parents were very, very patient people, and they continue to be. I was drawn to the drama of the Catholic Church. I would cry at Paschal Mass when we raised the candles. They would turn out all the lights and people would hold candles. When it was time to renew your vows and they would light the candles, I would burst into tears because I was so moved. I loved the smell of incense and I loved the Latin. I keep meaning to write about it. I was a happily Catholic child.
I also got into a lot of fights with Anglican friends. There was a Catholic-Protestant divide on campus, and it did affect a lot of things. Looking back now, it’s hilarious. An Anglican would say, “All you Catholics worship Mary and it means you’re going to hell.” I was very enthusiastic about those fights. I could quote the bits of the Bible that were supposed to conform to Catholic tradition, like the letter of Saint James about confession, and of course we had been taught that bits of the Revelation were about the blessed Virgin, and I would quote that as well.
Image: What about indigenous religions when you were growing up? Were they a presence?
CNA: I was among people who viewed indigenous religion with disdain mostly. I became interested in traditional Igbo religion when we would go to our ancestral hometown, and I remain interested. Like most Igbo people, we would go back for Christmases and Easters. Cousins would gather. I noticed that most of my family was Catholic but a few members of the extended family weren’t, and I remember my grandmother saying, “You can’t eat in their home because they worship idols.” Somehow the food they had was tainted. I think that’s when I started to question. I come from a culture where whenever you go into somebody’s home, they give you food; they don’t ask you if you want any, they just give it, and you’re expected to eat it. And so it was an awkward thing to go into those homes. But often those relatives didn’t give us food, because they knew. I was aware of a general Christian attitude of looking down on traditional religious adherence, an assumption that it was somehow bad. The Catholic-Protestant rivalry didn’t really have that element, because of course we had Jesus in common. People would fight about the blessed Virgin Mary and about the Rosary, but you didn’t get a sense of disdain. With traditional religion, there was.
Image: Do you think Catholicism is a western religion? How do you respond to those critics who see the growing presence of Christianity in Africa as a triumph of colonialism?
CNA: I feel ambivalent. I started to question early on, and when I got older I disliked in a visceral way the way that religion was so intertwined with western images: Jesus had to have blue eyes and blond hair, and the blessed Virgin was a beautiful blonde. Once at school during a nativity play somebody suggested that Jesus be dark, be black, and people were horrified. I remember thinking, “Well, we actually don’t know what he looked like.” People have said that Africans have made of Christianity what they will, that they have Africanized Christianity, but I am not always sure. I think they have to an extent. African Christianity has an immediacy that cuts across denominations. I go to mass in the U.S. and it seems tepid by comparison. In Africa, people are very aware of the presence of spirits. There’s the idea that we coexist with other beings in a way that’s very present.
Christianity includes ideas that are cultural rather than religious, and these ideas have been absorbed into African Christianity. This is changing, of course, but even the idea of singing Christian songs in local languages offends some people. I recently heard about a woman who was horrified because she didn’t want Igbo carols at Christmas. Only the English ones were real Christmas carols to her. But even so, the idea of Christianity as a triumph of colonialism might be too simplistic.
Image: I know you recently were doing an African Studies master’s at Yale, where Lamin Sanneh has done a lot with the spread of Christianity in Africa.
CNA: Yes, though I would listen to some of his lectures in disbelief, because his Africa wasn’t my Africa. He’s brilliant and speaks wonderfully, and his grand vision of African Christianity is wonderfully optimistic; he sees everything for the good, but I’m not so sure. In one lecture, he spoke about a Nigerian man who got sick and didn’t go to the hospital but prayed, because he felt that this was the way to cure himself. For Professor Sanneh, this was proof of the active faith people had, but I think we need to talk about the state of the healthcare system. When I was growing up in the eighties, people went to church, people were religious, but you didn’t see this kind of attitude. You see it a lot now. What’s happened in that time? Things have become worse economically. The medical center isn’t as it used to be. Before, you would go there and get free health care, good doctors; you’d get your malaria shot; you’d be fine. Now it doesn’t happen. Now it’s expensive. And so now you have a lot more people praying themselves into health. I remember pointing that out in class, and I don’t think he was pleased. I don’t want to discount faith, but I think that to talk about this thing honestly we need to talk about what’s happened to the healthcare system, and what’s happened in general in Nigeria, where our middle class is disappearing.
Image: The American memoirist Mary Karr calls herself a “cafeteria Catholic,” embracing some aspects of Catholicism and rejecting others. Do you still identify yourself as a Catholic? If so, would you be comfortable calling yourself a cafeteria Catholic? How do you make your choices?
CNA: It’s an interesting expression. There are times when I’m happy to be a cafeteria Catholic. I’m certainly not the child I was. I used to think the pope had all the answers. It really changes, and it depends on where I am, what’s happened recently in my life. I find that I am interested in the idea of faith, but I don’t know if I have faith. There are times when I am certain that I will never believe in anything, and there are other times when I find this odd longing and I think there has to be something. A friend of mine who is a priest, one of my closest friends, actually, who by the way is the reason that I haven’t entirely given up on the Catholic Church, said to me once that to seek was to find. He said to seek God is to find God. He said to me, “You’re never going to catch God and put God in a bottle. That’s what you want to do, but it’s never going to happen because of the nature of God.” And I thought, “Why does it have to be so complicated? Why can’t I capture God in a bottle?”
I suppose to an extent I am a cafeteria Catholic. The good thing—actually, it’s not a good thing—the remarkable thing about growing up Catholic is that you can never get rid of it. It’s in you. Catholics will leave the church, but it’s still there. I don’t know that I can ever run away from it.
Image: Do you still go to mass?
CNA: I do go to mass sometimes, but I’ve also been known to get up and stalk out when I felt the priest was being ridiculous. My last heated argument with a priest was in Nigeria about a year ago. After mass I went to speak to him about what I felt was his misogyny, because his entire mass was about attacking women for what they wore. He wouldn’t let you into the church if you arrived in short sleeves. “You’re showing your arms. You want to tempt men,” he would say. So I went to talk to him, and it wasn’t pleasant. I was furious. I remember feeling that this was the problem I had with religion as a whole, that this man had been given so much power. An immense power comes with being a priest, and particularly in an area like Nigeria, where there’s an automatic hero worship of religious figures and an unwillingness to criticize them.
I remember thinking, “I’m going to speak out, and I know people will support me.” I wrote a piece about it in a local newspaper, and the backlash was incredible. The editor said they had never received as many letters about anything. It was ninety-five percent against me and five percent for me. It was, “Shut up. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you have a right to criticize the priest. You must listen to the priest, and, yes, women tempt men.” It was incredible, and really demoralizing for me. I haven’t been back in that church since, and I don’t know that I ever will. It was the church where I grew up. It just happens to have new management. So it’s a very complicated relationship that I have with the church.
Image: In your first novel, Purple Hibiscus, the character Eugene is a strict, authoritative and domineering father who is a devout traditional Catholic. Some reviewers view him as a thoroughly evil character and the novel as a condemnation of Catholicism, but this seems overly simplistic. How do you see Eugene, and what is the importance of the kind of Catholicism lived out by his sister, Aunty Ifeoma?
CNA: I didn’t intend for Purple Hibiscus to be an anti-Catholic book, and I think that there are alternatives to Eugene in the book. Aunty Ifeoma is the character I most admired. I am a very keen believer in the middle ground and the possibility of coexistence, and I am suspicious of extremes of either side. Eugene was not a character who I wanted to come across as a monster. I disliked what he did and didn’t like him, really, but I also felt that he somehow demanded our sympathy—a complicated sympathy, but still. And I had observed people like him. My father would tell me stories. In Igboland there was always the figure of the mean catechist, half-educated, again invested with the power of the church. They didn’t have many priests, so the catechists did a lot. They didn’t really understand this new faith, and so they would cover their ignorance with silly violence and things that are not humane. My father talked about how the catechists would beat them for being two minutes late to mass. Actually, in my hometown, at mass you still have women—mean-looking women with big sticks—walking around and hitting kids who look like they might be falling asleep.
Image: Just like the Puritans in the U.S. in the seventeenth century.
CNA: Sometimes I read about earlier forms of Christianity, and I think, “Yes, exactly. This is contemporary African Christianity.” And that’s the problem. A lot has remained static as things were passed down. In churches in Nigeria there’s a big fuss made about covering your hair. They won’t let you into the church otherwise. I just think, my God, it’s so irrelevant. Eugene, for me, was a character who made people suffer, but who also had suffered and who, in a strange way, thinks he’s doing the right thing. I find this interesting: “I’m going to beat you, but it’s for your own good. I’m going to beat goodness into you.” And, of course, he had experienced that himself. His sister, on the other hand, represents the possibility of a middle ground. She is ostensibly a happy Catholic, but she still respects her culture and doesn’t see it as a zero sum game. There’s room for everything for her.
Image: I loved both the lyricism and psychological penetration of Purple Hibiscus, but Half of a Yellow Sun is an equally stunning though very different book, chronicling the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967 to 1971. What was it like to move to writing a historical epic, Dickensian in its sprawl and detail? Did it take a lot of research? Was it difficult to manage the changes in point of view?
CNA: It nearly killed me. I don’t know if I will ever go through something like that again. Though I should never say never. It was difficult technically, because I was turning research into fiction, which I had never done before, but also emotionally, because my grandfathers died in the war and I constantly thought about them as I was writing, particularly my paternal grandfather. I would read about something that had happened and start crying. Was it like that for him, I would wonder? What did he think while he was in the refugee camp? This was a proud Igbo man who for his entire adult life had provided for his family and done the right thing, and to have to flee from his home to a refugee camp, to lose his dignity before he died—all this was heartbreaking for me. And to think about my parents was heartbreaking as well, because they lost their innocence. Like many middle-class, educated Nigerians, they were full of an enthusiastic hope. Nigeria was nearly independent. They were going to build this great giant of Africa. My father went to Berkeley for his PhD. He was offered a job to stay on, and he didn’t consider it for a minute. “We have a country to build,” he thought. He went back to Nigeria with my mother and my two sisters, and a few months later the war started. My father and many people like him really believed in the cause, believed that injustices had been done and that the way to get justice was to have an independent nation. When the war ended, for them it was a loss of innocence. They lost hope in ideas in some ways.
Image: After Nigeria achieved independence, a series of military coups and tribal violence prompted the predominantly Igbo southeastern region to secede and become the Republic of Biafra. The resulting civil war lasted for three years before Nigeria was reunited. Is Half of a Yellow Sun a Nigerian novel or a Biafran novel, or does it make a difference?
CNA: I don’t think about it like that, but if I had to say, I’d say it’s Nigerian. I am Nigerian. We have a difficult and embittered history, and there are things we haven’t addressed, but I’m Nigerian and I have never felt that Biafra should come back or anything of the sort.
Image: You’ve been called an African writer, a Nigerian writer, a feminist writer, and a postcolonial writer. I haven’t seen any description of you as a Catholic writer, which is surprising. What do you think about these kinds of labels? I noticed that in the short story “Jumping Monkey Hill,” most of the people attending the “African Writers Workshop” are ironically named only by their national and gender identity: “the Kenyan man,” “the Senegalese woman.” That story does a wonderful job of mocking the expectations that African writers sometimes face to write a particular kind of fiction. To what extent does your historical situatedness affect your writing?
CNA: Being called a Catholic writer raises the question: what is a Catholic writer? I think it was Graham Greene who said that he was a writer who happened to be Catholic. I went through a phase of being completely anti-labeling and saying, “I won’t be called anything. I’m a writer. I tell stories.” I want us to live in a world in which labels don’t matter, but we don’t, at least not yet. When I won the Orange Prize, for example, I actually became quite irritated with all the talk about being the “first African” to win. I thought, you people are making it seem as though I scaled this enormous hurdle when I’m not sure that’s exactly true. I don’t know how many Africans have been shortlisted in the past. But I got so many emails from Africans, and not just Africans but Caribbean people as well, for whom my win became something personal. A Jamaican woman who lives in London wrote to tell me how she had saved the clippings because she wanted to show them to her daughter when her daughter was older. In that case, having people see me as a black African woman was a moving moment for me, and a moment of pride.
But then other times labels can have so much baggage. It depends on the context. Sometimes someone will say “feminist writer,” and you can hear a sneer in their voice. At other times someone will use the same words and you know they’re describing your awareness of gender and justice, and they don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s the same when someone says “African writer.” Sometimes you know they consider it a slightly less worthy sub-genre of real literature, and then it becomes offensive. But at other times you realize they’re just describing what you do.
Image: With the exception of “Ghosts,” the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck depict the lives of women in contemporary Nigeria and the United States, revolving around the complications of identity in today’s global world. Ethnic neighborhoods have vague geographic borders as a result of immigration, education, and jet travel. What do you think are the constants, the grounding center, in such a life, either for you or for your characters?
CNA: Family. I do think I’m quite different from many of the characters I write about, that in many ways I am more fortunate. I don’t see myself as an immigrant. I am Nigerian. I have a Nigerian passport, but I spend a lot of time in the U.S. I consider the U.S. my second home of convenience, and it’s close to my heart, but Nigeria is still home. Nigeria is where I feel most emotionally invested. The eyes with which I look at the world are Nigerian. Sometimes here in the U.S. I see things that make me shake my head and say, “Only in America.”
Image: How does gender affect these questions of identity? Are these questions more pressing or do they take unique forms for women?
CNA: I was asked recently why my male characters seem to react to immigration differently, about how they seem either overly enthusiastic or clueless. I don’t intend for them to be. Men also struggle. But I’m primarily interested in exploring women’s experiences, I think because that’s what I know. It’s not just my story. It’s my sister’s and her friends’ and my cousins’ and their friends’. I suppose identity is central to one’s work in how it shifts depending on where one is. I have often said that I didn’t know I was black until I came to the U.S. It had never occurred to me. I’d read Roots and I was very moved by Kunta Kinte, but I never thought of myself as black. I remember in Brooklyn, after I had been in the U.S. maybe a month, an African-American man referred to me as “sister,” and I thought, “How offensive! I don’t want it.” I had watched TV and I knew that to be black was not a good thing, so I thought, “No, don’t include me in your group. I am not part of you.” It took reading and asking questions and understanding African American history, which I didn’t have much of a sense of, to accept that identity, which I am completely happy with now.
I think that immigration into places like the U.S. for Africans is always about shifting identities. When I go back to Nigeria, one of the things I like to joke about with my friends is that I get off the plane, and the heat is crazy, but I drop my race baggage. Race just doesn’t occur to me in Nigeria. You become something else, though there are still labels. There I am an Igbo woman, and there’s the stereotype of the Igbo as a penny-pinching people, so if I’m with a group of friends from different ethnic groups in Lagos and I say something like, “Oh, that’s really expensive,” they’ll say, “Oh, you Igbo woman.” And then in my hometown, I don’t have that because most people around me are Igbo. So identity shifts. I’m particularly interested in how it changes when you leave home. In the U.S. you discover race, but gender dynamics also change. I know a number of Nigerian women who have discovered that they could do things in the U.S. that in Nigeria they didn’t think they could. With your family and friends around you, you have the weight of tradition, of “how things are done.” But then you move to a new place and you think, why the heck not? That affects gender, and particularly dynamics between couples.
Image: My favorite story in The Thing Around Your Neck is “The Shivering,” which depicts the unlikely friendship of a female Nigerian graduate student at Princeton with a less-educated Nigerian man whose visa has expired and who is facing deportation. They meet when a plane crashes in Nigeria and the man, Chinedu, comes to Ukumaka’s apartment to ask her to pray with him. To what extent is this story about faith? What kind of faith does each of these characters have?
CNA: It’s the most recent story in the collection, and also in some ways my favorite. I think it came from the part of me that longs to capture God in a bottle. When I lived in Princeton, once while I was away and my brother was staying in my apartment, a plane crashed in Nigeria and the Nigerian first lady died. Somebody knocked on the door, and my brother opened it. It was a strange man, a Nigerian. He said, “I’ve come to pray about what is happening in Nigeria.” He had seen my name on the mailbox and knew someone from Nigeria lived there.
My brother said that this was a man who in Nigeria we would never be friends with. Class is very present in the way our lives work there. Even as a child, you only needed to hear the way somebody spoke English to know that they didn’t go to a good school. It meant that people were divided, so you couldn’t be friends with the kind of person who didn’t speak English well.
My brother says that he and the man prayed, and then the man left. I asked my brother how he felt afterwards, and he said, “You know, I thought it was quite nice that he came by.” We laughed about it, but I was very moved by this story. On the one hand, one could think, “How dare he invade my personal space? For all he knows, I might be a Buddhist.” But on the other hand, it made me think about how being away from home makes you want these strange bonds.
That’s how the story started. It’s about an unlikely friendship, but also about the possibility of faith, of finding the kind of faith that works for you. The woman character grew up Catholic, very much like me, and went through the establishment religion and its routines, and I think that can be quite comforting to some people, but eventually it didn’t work for her. The story becomes about how it is possible for her to find some kind of faith, a version of faith with which she can make peace.
Image: How strong is the Pentecostal movement in Nigeria? You make references to it frequently, and I sense that the character Chinedu was Pentecostal.
CNA: Pentecostalism is huge in Nigeria—and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, from what I have seen and heard and read. I have to say I dislike the version of Pentecostalism that’s sweeping across Nigeria. Not only because it’s a strange fundamentalist brand, but also because I find it un-Christian. It’s very inward-looking. I don’t find it charitable. I don’t find it to be a brand of Christianity that’s aware of the other. I suppose it makes sense: things have become quite difficult in the past twenty years in Nigeria. As I said, people could get healthcare relatively easily in the 1980s, and they no longer can. Now you have pastors who will say, “Bring all your money to the altar, and God will give you back a Mercedes.” It’s no longer about being kind to the person who lives next to you; it’s about God giving you the Mercedes. This kind of thinking has seeped into the social fabric. You go to a cocktail party or a dinner and someone will say very casually, “I am waiting on God. I have sowed my seeds and God will give me my something.”
There’s so much wrong with Pentecostalism as it is in Nigeria, though there are a few exceptions. I’ve been to quite a number of those churches, mostly because I’m curious. There’s intense drama, people being asked to kick the devil. But I feel that it exploits poor people. The most dramatic moments in these churches are when it’s time for giving money. “Sowing your seeds,” they call it. The pastor has a private jet and wears designer suits, and he’ll prance around in front of the congregation and tell them, “God gave me this.” And I think, “Well, no, actually it’s these poor people who paid for your bloody private jet.”
Pentecostalism is spreading, and a lot of the ideas have influenced the more orthodox traditional denominations. In Catholic and Anglican and Methodist services, there’s a lot more prosperity preaching.
Something else about Pentecostalism is that it sees everything remotely associated with traditional religion as bad in a no-holds-barred way. In my hometown, a number of Pentecostal groups have been burning shrines and cutting down trees, because they believe the devil lives in them, and harassing people who aren’t Christian. This is not the way to win people to your God. You do not go and burn somebody’s shrine and think that they will find your God attractive.
Image: You’ve spoken of the influence on you of Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart, who is often called the father of African literature. Purple Hibiscus opens with an echo of that famous novel, and the final story in The Thing Around Your Neck essentially presents an alternative feminist rendition of the final chapter of Things Fall Apart. What is it about Achebe that inspires you? In what ways are you attempting to build on but also to move beyond his example?
CNA: I respect and love Chinua Achebe’s work, but I don’t want to be a second Chinua Achebe, or a third. I just want to be Chimamanda Adichie.
Achebe is a man of immense integrity. I believe him. There are some writers whose work you read and you think, “This is a performance. I don’t think you believe this.” And for me, fiction should be truth. There are times when I’ve thought, “I’m going to write this story because I want to show that I can.” But then I’ll think, “No, it’s a lie,” and I won’t, because life is short and I want to do what I care about. Chinua Achebe’s work is full of integrity. He does what he believes in. Growing up an Igbo child, I was fortunate to be educated, but my education didn’t teach me anything about my past. But when I read Things Fall Apart, it became my great-grandfather’s life. It became more than literature for me. It became my story. I am quite protective of Achebe’s novels in a way that I don’t think I am with any other book that I love.
Image: Who else has been important to you? What other books or writers do you love?
CNA: I fall in love and out of love quite often. I went through an Edith Wharton phase where I wanted to read everything she’d ever done, and then at some point I thought, if I read one more thing of hers, I will die.
I like Philip Roth quite a bit, much to the annoyance of my feminist friends. I like his technique, and the way he refuses to hide. I admire a writer who has the courage—and it does take courage—to look social realities in the face. It’s easy in the name of fiction to hide behind art, because you’re afraid somebody will say you’re a little too political, or that politics is not the job of fiction. But Roth is fearless, and I respect that.
Image: Is there anyone who stands on the same level as Achebe for you?
CNA: No, Chinua Achebe has the misfortune of standing alone. I grew up reading mostly English and Russian novels, and I liked them quite a bit, mostly the English ones, but until Achebe, I hadn’t read a book and felt it was mine. The other book I felt that way about was The African Child, a very slim novel by Camara Laye. I read it when I was in grade five, about the time I first read Things Fall Apart, and I remember there was something magical about it. It was about his childhood in Guinea, and there were things that were quite unfamiliar. There was a level of exoticism in it, but also a level of incredible familiarity. I remember falling in love with the book, with the beautiful melancholy of it. I keep meaning to go back and read it again and see.
Image: What effect has the MacArthur Genius Grant had on your life? What will it allow you to do as far as writing goes? Do you have a sense of where you will head in your writing from here?
CNA: I remember being absolutely thrilled and then, later, going into slight panic because I thought, “That’s it. I have no excuse.” My family started teasing me, “Oh, the genius,” but I loved the pride in my father’s voice when I told him. I have been traveling for quite a while. I was in Nigeria, organizing creative writing workshops. I like teaching, particularly in nontraditional environments. But I haven’t had silence and space in a long time, and I think that when I’m done with my book-hawking travels, we’ll see whether the grant is a blessing or not.
Image: You mention that you teach creative writing workshops. What do you tell young, aspiring creative writers?
CNA: To read and read and read. I’m a believer in reading, to see the wide range of what’s been written. I’m also a believer in reading what you dislike at least once, just to know. I often say to my students, “I’m going to have you read something I don’t like.” I don’t like cold fiction. I don’t like fiction that is an experiment. I find that often it’s the boys in the class who love the fiction I don’t like. I say to them, “I’ll tell you why I don’t like it. And, then, if you like it, I want you to tell me why.” Most of all I believe in reading for what you can learn in terms of not just craft and technique but worldview. It’s important to think about sentences and how one develops character and all of that, but also to think about what the story is as a big thing. Most of all, we have fun in the workshops. For me, it’s important that we find reasons to laugh. And we mostly do.