A Conversation with Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Abba, Nigeria and moved to the United States to attend college. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review and Zoetrope All-Story among others. She has received an O. Henry Award for her story “The American Embassy,” published in Prism International. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published last October and was recently selected for the Orange Prize longlist.

Moorishgirl: I enjoyed Purple Hibiscus tremendously. Eugene is such an interesting character a Catholic fundamentalist, an abusive husband and father, but also a champion of intellectual freedoms. What did you draw on when you were writing him?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I drew on the idea of character complexity, which applies consistently only in fiction, since many real life people are really one-dimensional and many real-life situations are really cliches. I was also interested in the idea of being sincerely wrong, of not being able to distinguish between righteousness and right.
MG: But I had some trouble with Kambili’s quietness during the book, especially when compared with Amaka.
CNA: Kambili has lived a voiceless life. Amaka hasn’t. Also, Kambili’s hushed telling made it possible to portray the events in a more detached, less intrusive and consequently, I think, more powerful way.
MG: Your book is very sensual, particularly when it comes to food. Were you nostalgic for a Nigerian feast while you were writing?
CNA: I eat mostly Nigerian food here in the US jollof rice, beans, moi-moi, plantains — so I wasn�t so much nostalgic as simply keen to celebrate the food I love. More practically, I think details like food work well when drawing a fictional portrait of family life.
MG: You received some glowing reviews (New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, etc.) Did you expect that kind of reception?
CNA: I hoped for a good reception although I was prepared for the worst, mostly because I was writing about a place [which] many agents had told me wasn’t “interesting to Americans.”
MG: Do you think that’s true? Are Americans as insular as publishers think?
CNA: I think that Americans — and I say this as someone wary of generalizations — are particularly insular when it comes to the subject of Africa. On my book tour, I was often asked variations of this question: do you plan to keep writing about Nigerian characters or will you write about regular people? That said, “Americans” is such a broad, sweeping term and perhaps the population, on average, is not as insular as publishers and agents think.
MG: I’ve seen similar comments about books from nearly every other part of the world: the Middle-East, China, South Asia, etc. Publishers seem quite convinced that readers won’t be interested, so they have this trend now of emphasizing the ‘universality’ of a story. What do you make of that?
CNA: I think this reason is troubling because it suggests that the universality and therefore the humanity of the characters [is] negotiable. I’m assuming that whatever universal means, it has to do with basic humanity. Or does it? We need to ask what ‘universality’ means, then, if readers have to be convinced of it. Is universality something to do with the human condition as a whole or just the western human condition? Apparently books about westerners are automatically universal, since no reviewer or publisher assures you of this on, say, the cover of an English novel.
We can’t pretend that Black Africa has not long been viewed as a possibly sub-human place and we can’t pretend that this view doesn’t persist or doesn’t affect how books are read and we can’t pretend that reviews exist in a value-free medium.
My aim is simply to point this out, to make people aware of it, because I have begun to question the sort of terms thrown around in fiction workshops ‘universal’ and ‘human condition’ with the assumption that the meanings are absolute. I have been told, for example, that no woman will ever choose to be a junior [second] wife, all things being equal, because such a choice goes against something called the ‘human condition.’
MG: I’d like to read you a quote from an interview with Chinua Achebe in The Paris Review. He said: ‘When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp . . . fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal. Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb, that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer.’ Do you feel a similar sense of responsibility to be a writer?
CNA: Yes, although my desire to write came long before I was sophisticated enough to understand the responsibility that came with writing as a Black African woman. Responsibility for me, though, has never meant sugar-coating and I am as interested in showing the pock-marks as I am in showing the perfect skin. But it has to be said that five decades after Achebe, the hunters still do most of the telling. The most credible ‘African’ stories in the west are told by non-Africans, people like Ryszard Kapuscinski, who are said to know Africa better than Africans themselves. Of course this matters. The Heart of Darkness image of Africa persists, the sense of Africa as the ‘other,’ a place where the west goes to test its humanness. The only difference today is that the Africans are given an odd quirkiness, which we are supposed to read as the politically-correct ‘dignity,’ and they are not called ‘savage’ although the subtexts usually suggest that they are. I have had supposedly well-educated people tell me that my characters are not ‘African enough’ because they don’t quite fit in the coded language of what African fiction should be (to the west). It is even more troubling to me that only with African books, written by Black Africans about Black Africans, are reviewers (and blurb givers) quick to reassure the reader that the stories are really ‘universal’ as well, as if ‘African’ and ‘Universal’ are perhaps mutually exclusive.
MG: Speaking of Achebe, I’ve always wondered: Is the opening line to Purple Hibiscus a tribute to him?
CNA: It was unintentional, really, but yes, I think it was my unconscious tribute. He is the writer whose work has been most important to me.
MG: Is your book out in Nigeria yet?
CNA: No, not yet. It won’t be out until next year.
MG: How did you hear about the Orange Prize longlist?
CNA: A reporter from the London Times called and said congratulations, and that he wanted to do an interview with me. I was half-asleep and wasn’t sure for a moment what he was talking about.
MG: All right, fess up, how often do you check your Amazon ratings?
CNA: The first two months after the book came out, I checked about five times a day! Now, I hardly do. I think it was the anxiety of first publication where you think nobody will buy the book and you obsess about it until you realize that constantly checking Amazon sales rankings will not make them get better.
MG: You’re working on a new novel, right? What’s it about?
CNA: It’s set in the sixties, before and during the Biafra war, and told from the points of view of a young houseboy, a university lecturer and an Englishman.
MG: You’ve dealt with the Biafra war in one of your short stories– ‘Half of A Yellow Sun,’ which appeared online in Lit Pot first and in print in Zoetrope All-Story. Is ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ excerpted from this novel?
CNA: No, the characters are different. The story was my way of taking a ‘first stab’ at the story of the war before I began the novel.