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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?

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A scene from the film based on her novel, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

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’
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A cover of her book, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

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’
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A cover of her book, ‘Americanah’
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