Who will fill the void now that Chinua Achebe is gone? This writer wonders if Chimananda Ngozie Adichie is the answer.
Even as I, along with countless other fans of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe grieve the loss of one of the greatest post-colonial voices, I can’t help but look to the future with hope as his rightful ‘literary daughter’ Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s new novel, Americanah, readies for launch. If Achebe was the literary moral compass forever guiding us North, Adichie peels out the outer layers of politics and goes deep into that space where we see clearly the characters of her works speaking to us, as real people, living real lives.
This literary feminist rock star’s voice was first heard in 2004; although, much to my own regret, I discovered her only in 2007. At a sale in a large bookshop under stacks of new writing from around the world, there it was — the image of a girl’s lips and her braided hair in the background and a flower in the bottom — the words Purple Hibiscus written in, yes, purple. It was by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Something about the book drew me in; perhaps it was the title that reminded me of Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple or that, in the last few pages of the book that had short snappy interviews with the author, she mentioned the works of Chinua Achebe, Gustave Flaubert, Amit Chaudhuri and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among others as her favourites.
The first chapter of Purple Hibiscus is an intimate scene that plays out in the home of a Nigerian family after Palm Sunday. The voice of young girl Kambili, the narrator, shone throughout the book. I have since been hooked. It is a coming-of-age novel with a voice of impeccable clarity. The story of a young girl’s awakening to the realities of her personhood, family and country. I have since read everything that is available or accessible written or spoken by Chimamanda. I have devoured them with great joy and immense admiration. This even includes The New Yorker’s fiction podcast where Adichie much to my joy, read Figures in the Distance, the first chapter from another great writer, Jamaica Kincaid’s masterpiece, Annie John.
Meanwhile, I moved on to her seminal work of fiction; one that would increase my interest in contemporary Nigerian writing. I was now sure who my favourite Nigerian writer, after Chinua Achebe, would be. Half of a Yellow Sun is an unputdownable, heartbreaking work of fiction set in the Nigerian civil war, about the dreams of a short-lived nation, Biafra. In a sense, Chimamanda — who even grew up in the house Achebe lived in — prepared me, with her realistic fiction, for reading the master writer’s final work, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Critics often — rather distastefully if I may add — argue that, if you read these works, you get the perspective of the side that lost and that there is bound to be bitterness. But when it is a loss of this scale — the loss of a vision, the death of hope and a new beginning — the bitterness is understandable; nay, justifiable.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie compels you to relate to so many varied characters — a young uneducated boy Ugwu, an intellectual Odenigbo, fiery independent women Olanna and Kainene, an expat Richard — that, in the hands of a lesser writer, or human being, would have fallen to disgrace. But it doesn’t. The result, at the end of this brave beautiful prose, is a lump in your throat and an understanding of what Nigeria is; what colonialism can do to a country — well, at least the idea of a country as conceived by its erstwhile masters. It conveys a sense of universality where, like many other post-colonial literary works, the reader is led to understand why, despite our differences, we are united by our colonial past.
In her TED talk, Adichie speaks about the danger of a single story — a talk unlike any other from a writer. She speaks about the dangers of seeing things from one dominant point of view, that of the West’s. The idea of writing about people with dark skin eating mangoes, instead of boys with blue eyes biting into pears, strikes so close to home that she might as well be talking about our own growing-up years.
I read somewhere that her literary voice is like that of a songbird, never too harsh, making it seem deceptively, like writing is an easy affair. It is true. In 2009, her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, offered readers a peek into Adichie’s various styles and short vignettes of the life of Nigerians spanning continents and time.
Now, as I run my eyes hungrily through Achebe’s works — Home and Exile, No Longer at Ease and Things Fall Apart (my personal favourites) — I have Americanah, all set for launch in May, to look forward to.