Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | Hair-raising histories

The Nigerian-born writer on the politics of living in exile, having curly hair, and why VS Naipaul annoys her

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

Writers at Work | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just 36 years old, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had a meteoric rise in the world of English literature, winning prizes and accolades for her work. She is already one of a new generation of strong, fearless writers who have taken on the burden of post-colonial history, class, race, and gender in their literary and social outpourings.

Born in Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria, Adichie moved to the US to study communications and political science. It was while completing a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, that she began writing Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, which was published in 2003. The book, about a family in the iron grip of a terrifying patriarch, was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Her second novel, Half of A Yellow Sun, published in 2006, traces the decline of a well-to-do Igbo family during the course of the tragic Biafran War (1967-70) of secession from Nigeria. The title refers to the short-lived Biafran flag and the book won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories set in the US and Nigeria, was published in 2009. Her latest novel, Americanah (2013), has firmly established her as one of the finest contemporary writers in the English language. It was voted one of the 10 best books for 2013 by The New York Times, while The New Yorker placed her among the “20 under 40” cohort of fiction writers to look out for.

We met Adichie at the opening weekend of the 37th Göteborg International Film Festival in Sweden in January. She was there for a gala screening of Half of A Yellow Sun, a film based on her novel of the same name. Sitting in her warm hotel room in Göteborg (it was -6 degrees Celsius outside and snowing), she spoke about Frederick Forsyth, V.S. Naipaul, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the exile’s visceral longing for home. Edited excerpts:

How much input did you have in the making of the film and what are your thoughts on the outcome?

A scene from the film based on her novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’
I had very little to do with the film. One day in Lagos (Nigeria), the director Biyi Bandele approached with a script he had written of my book and wished to talk to me about it. I was about to travel up north at the time and I asked him to get in the car so that we could talk about it during the journey. We spoke for nearly 5 hours, during the course of which I recognized that he and I both shared an intense love and longing for Nigeria. I was happy to leave the film entirely in his hands and let him make it the way he wished. And, by the way, I loved the film.

The film uses newsreel footage to map out the Biafran War that lies at the heart of the book. In some of the footage we can see a very young-looking Frederick Forsyth report from the war front. Were you surprised?

No, not at all. In fact, I had initially based my character, Richard, on him. Of the many witnesses to the unfolding tragedy of the Biafran War, I wanted a sympathetic outside view to the issue. Forsyth had covered the first six months of the war for the BBC but returned as a freelancer to report on the war until its tragic conclusion. His account, The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend, published in 1969, was his very first book. I had read the book and had even tried to contact him. But that meeting never came about. So the starting point for Richard was him, but then it changed—a lot—as I wrote the book.

You seem to have come into your own, having moved away from writing exclusively about Nigeria.

A cover of her book, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’
I think in Half of A Yellow Sun, which really had the most emotional significance for me, I was dealing with problems that were much bigger than myself. I had family and relatives who had died in the war. It was very hard writing about the Biafran War. I had interviewed many of the survivors of the war, including my own family members, and it was a very painful experience. But it was a book that I had to write. So I was like a dutiful daughter recording the personal tragedies of the Igbo people.

Americanah was different. I was just having fun. I was laughing and happy all the time I was writing it, so maybe that is the freedom that you are picking up on. There are two “me’s” here. There is the me in Americanah , where I was laughing all the time I was writing the book, and there is the me writing Half of A Yellow Sun , where I was in tears most of the time.

In ‘Americanah’, you dismiss V.S. Naipaul’s writings on Africa.

It was just annoyance. Somebody had said to me that A Bend in the River was the African novel, and I was just irritated by that. It was not about Naipaul personally, I have read his interviews and instead of feeling angry, I just feel sorry because I think, “How did this happen?”

How do you rate him as a writer?

A cover of her book, ‘Americanah’
I liked the first book (The Mystic Masseur). I also really liked The Mimic Men. But the other things I have read.... I think that if you are from a certain part of the world, i.e. the developing part, and you say that my people are monkeys, then you become celebrated and suddenly your book is the book that explains everything. I think that is just nonsense. The idea that A Bend in the River explains Africa is just nonsense. It doesn’t. I think most of the reading of that book as some grand narrative is because of the personality of Naipaul. I think if he didn’t represent this “media” kind of self, a Western worshipping in a blind kind of way, this would have never happened.

Many writers from other parts of the world are aware of how messed up our countries are, but that is not the only thing we know about our countries. But with him, it is a kind of singular vision. Recently, I started reading his book about Africa (A Congo Diary) and I just stopped halfway and thought—this is really bad. It is also inaccurate.

Some have compared you to Jhumpa Lahiri, another “diaspora” writer.

A cover of her book, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’
Jhumpa Lahiri, I love. I read her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, years ago and absolutely loved it. There was a strange kind of recognition and it was a book that I was happy to give people in Nigeria because there was a familiarity. I gave it to lots of people and I remember many of them said—“These people are like us,” which, for me, was lovely. But Lahiri doesn’t do politics. I don’t know about her latest book but I feel that her characters live in spaces that are really not affected by politics. My characters are, because I am very much aware of how a person’s gender, class, or race affects his or her world. Her characters don’t seem to have that consciousness.

You are an active feminist. Excerpts from one of your talks on feminism were used by the pop diva, Beyoncé, in her song ‘Flawless’.

I think the word “feminist” and “feminism” have been much maligned. The words carry too much baggage. I think we must take back this word and give it power and credibility. In Nigeria, we are told that feminism is “not African culture”. They think feminists “hate bras”, “hate men”. We have to change society—and we have to change men everywhere. You think that women are free in the West? They are not. Even here in Sweden, women are not completely free. It just takes a different form. (Laughs) I don’t want to comment on Beyoncé.

The women characters in ‘Americanah’ spend a lot of time and money on their hair. Is hair a feminist issue?

A cover of her book, ‘Purple Hibiscus’
You know, Nigerian women all want straight, long hair. They want their hair to “swing”. And this is not an “alternative”. It is mainstream. Women spend a fortune “relaxing” their hair, putting all kinds of dangerous chemicals on to their heads. This is crazy.

Our hair is curly and does not grow very long, so we have to find our own hairstyles. When my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary I was looking through their wedding photographs and I saw that they wore their hair at that time in lots of beautiful, elegant styles. The current style I have comes from one of the photographs. In Nigeria, people laugh at me. (Laughs)

However, I always make sure to over-compensate. I dress well, I wear make-up but I leave my hair in its natural state to make sure that everyone understands that I deliberately refuse to “relax” my hair. Yes, hair is a feminist issue—it is also a political issue.

You also teach creative writing.

I used to teach it in the US but not any more. I spend more and more time in Nigeria now and I do an annual workshop in Lagos. For me, it is about teaching writing but it is also a lot more than that. A Norwegian friend who comes for the workshop every year said, “You are doing a workshop but in fact, you are doing social engineering”. I loved that. Because it is me trying to get people, who already have talent, to think about how to tell Nigerian stories—what are its needs?

I see people change in the two weeks and it is just fantastic. They say, “Oh, I can’t write that. It isn’t good English,” and I say no, how do you talk at home?—write it exactly like that. I make them think about gender and class. I don’t really teach them how to write, I don’t know how to, but I have them read widely, and I like doing it. And now there is a circle of ex-workshop people, who read each other, who are publishing, and it is just wonderful.

Asha Kasbekar is the author of Pop Culture India!—Media, Arts, And Lifestyle, published by ABC-CLIO.

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