Award-winning author Chimamanda Adichie discusses her fiction and her approach to her writing in an e-mail interview.
Chimamanda Adichie announced her arrival on the world stage with Purple Hibiscus (2003), which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award besides being short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Jo hn Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Not to forget being on the long list for the coveted Booker. That year she also received the O.Henry Prize for short fiction. With her second book Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set during the Biafran war in Nigeria, she swept the Orange Prize. Her stories have seen light of day in prestigious publications like Granta among others.
Born in Nigeria, she moved to the United States at the age of 19. Her parents worked in the University of Nigeria — her father as a professor of statistics and her mother as the university registrar — a setting she paints with ease in her latest work The Thing Around Your Neck. Here, she talks about her work and the reactions to her books: both from within Nigeria and outside.
Could you tell us something about the kind of books you grew up on?
I grew up reading a lot of British children’s books. Then I discovered African literature as a young teenager. I read everything: Mills and Boon romances, thrillers, mysteries, although I never got into fantasy and so could not finish Lord of the Rings or Narnia.
Given the patriarchal set-up and attitudes to “useful careers”, what was the reaction within your family to your being a writer? And how do they deal with your being famous?
My family was supportive. I was given empty exercise books to write in when I was in primary school. But I was also expected to find a ‘real’ job that I could do while I wrote on the side. Now, I think they are proud. My parents joke now about being introduced as “parents of Chimamanda” rather than “Professor and Mrs. Adichie”.
The Biafran war was over before you were born, so how did you approach writing Half of a Yellow Sun?
The story was really a way of taking small steps, taking a giant issue piecemeal. It wasn’t alone. I explored the theme of the Biafran war in other short stories. My story, “Ghosts”, is another take on the war, as is “That Harmattan Morning”. So in a sense I’ve been preoccupied with this in my fiction for some time, and to that extent the short story is somewhat similar. That said, the novel is quite different from the story. The characters are different; there’s also a difference in how I think in my approach to the work. Then there is the scope, which is so much bigger. It’s a huge canvas. It’s about how people change.
Biafra is a subject that we are not honest about, don’t talk about. We should be asking WHY the war remains a sore subject. I have received some responses from defensive Nigerian readers who ask: oh, you didn’t write about the people who suffered in Lagos. And some Igbo readers who say: oh, why did you show our warts as well? But what makes me happiest is getting feedback from Nigerians, Igbo and non-Igbo, who found the book meaningful, who read it without imposing their own preconceived notions on it. It has Biafran sympathies for which I don’t apologise but it does not romanticise the war and what I’ve tried to do is hold on to the human angle in telling the story.
What were the reactions from your people and your country to the novel?
Purple Hibiscus, my first novel, did very well in Nigeria. It was enormously popular, and is now on the syllabus for the West African Examinations Council, which is the exam you take at the end of secondary school.
The book has done very well in Nigeria. It has admirers and detractors. I think that part of its success is that I deal with a part of a history that has long been shrouded in a formal silence. I think also that people can engage with because it happens to be a book about human beings, rather than about propaganda.
But what I really hoped that the stories would do is present the different meanings of what it is to be a Nigerian navigating the American current. Sometimes, when we talk about immigration, there is one generic story, but I also wanted to deal with class and how class affects immigration, and how class often determines the kind of immigrant that one is. A lot of the stories are not about me, obviously. But a lot of my fiction is based on fact; it’s about people’s stories; it’s about what I hear about, or what I read about, and things that have, in fact, happened. I then take on the fiction writer’s hat and change things around for my own purposes.
Your reactions to being an Igbo but writing in English… Do you think you’ll ever write in your own language? Do you think English is necessary to reach a wider audience?
English and Igbo are both my first languages. I grew up speaking both. I was educated, in Nigeria, entirely in English and so English is the only language I am equipped to write in.
Do you write keeping an audience in mind? Especially since your writing is rooted to your Igbo culture what do you think of the reaction to your writing in the West?
I don’t think of audience when I write. To think of audience is to risk self-censorship
Could you tell us something about other writers who have influenced your writing?
I remember reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when I was nine. I didn’t realise at the time but I know now it made me understand that I didn’t have to write about white people.
And speaking of women, what is your own attitude to feminism? Do you think it means different things in different cultural contexts?
To write a short story is to have very little space, to compress emotion, and because of that, I think that the form requires a kind of incredible focus that the novel doesn’t necessarily require. My attitude to feminism is this: I am a happy feminist. I think all fair-minded people should be. Sometimes it becomes a problem of word-choice, as many people have come to associate feminism with hairy women burning bras and so don’t want to be called feminists, even though they believe in the basic idea of feminism: that while men and women have their biological differences, those differences should not be used as a reason for any political, economic or social disadvantaging of women.