Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Straddling Continents

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © Karen JacksonTORONTO: “In the West we have constructed a narrative where African wars and poverty are meaningless, with no real political or historical context, which suggests misery is this atavistic thing,” says Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “But what gets forgotten is at the same time all this is happening, people are falling in love, people are still living their lives. That is what I’m trying to do with my fiction, to tell the stories with a bit of complexity, with balance. There needs to be balance.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become, perhaps reluctantly, the “it” girl of African literature.

“I’m not interested in being a spokesperson or in being anything more than a writer,” she says when reached by phone from Toronto, where she is touring North America to promote her latest book, The Thing Around Your Neck.“The most important thing is that I have a readership.”

It’s a readership that’s growing larger every year.

The 32-year-old Nigerian author grew up in the former house of perhaps Africa’s most famous writer, Chinua Achebe (author of the renown 1958 novel Things Fall Apart), on the grounds of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where her parents were professors. Her first book, 2003’s Purple Hibiscus, tells the story of a 15-year old Nigerian girl growing up in a wealthy, hypocritical household run by a tyrant and who escapes to a better life with her aunt. It immediately put her on the literary map, particularly at home in Nigeria, where it is now taught as part of the school curriculum.

But it was 2006’s Half a Yellow Sun – an astounding historical epic about the bloody 1967 Nigerian-Biafran Civil War – that made her reputation, winning her both the Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom and a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant here in the United States.

The dozen stories in The Thing Around Your Neck span a decade of writing. They retain a tight focus on Nigeria, but range across various {a wide array} themes: from how U.S.-style gang violence subsumes a small university community in “Cell One,” to a grieving mother who endures and observes the indignities of applying for a travel visa in “American Embassy,” to the title story, which depicts the discomfort a young Nigerian immigrant feels in her new life in America.

Discomfort, if not displacement, is a theme that comes up often in the stories. Asked whether she feels out of place herself, Adichie – who divides her time between Maryland and Lagos – replied, “In some ways I don’t see myself as an immigrant – I have spent quite a bit of time in the U.S. When I’m back in Lagos, my friends constantly tease me about ordering steamed vegetables in restaurants, which is something they don’t do in Nigeria. So, I suppose here I’m Nigerian; in Nigeria, I’m American.”

Adichie says that in contemporary African society, class supersedes race as the factor that binds most Africans together or puts them into conflict.

“I think often times class is more difficult to talk about and ethnicity is much easier,” she said, “But a person who has gone to a good school in Nigeria and a good school in Johannesburg, their interests are the same, they have the same world view. It’s the same with politics. When we talk about political corruption in Nigeria or Africa, we’re always talking about it as if it is ethnic, but that’s not the case. It’s about class. The African political classes all travel to London together, they all have homes in the States together, and they do their back dealing together.”

Rather than forsaking her homeland, Adichie is pouring some of her own success back into Nigeria’s writing community. As Tolu Ogunlesi, a contributor to Publishing Perspectives, points out: “Chimamanda is an inspiration to a lot of young people in Nigeria. She’s hugely popular and I have reason to believe that a lot of young people have taken up writing because of her. A visit to her Facebook page confirms the awe she commands in young Nigerians.”

Among Adichie’s other achievements is the establishment of an annual writing workshop in Lagos and in Eastern Nigeria for young writers, which has brought writers as varied as Binyavanga Wainaina, Dave Eggers and Jason Cowley to Nigeria to teach. “No one else is doing that,” said Ogunlesi who participated in the 2007 workshop.

It will be the work of these new young writers who have benefited from her largesse, as much as her own books, that will prove her lasting legacy.

WATCH: The author speak at the 2008 Christopher Okigbo International Conference at Harvard University.

BECOME: The latest of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s more than 6,000 fans on Facebook

READ: The story “Cell One” which appears in The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck has already been published in the UK, US, Canada and other countries around the world. It will be published in Nigeria in July by Farafina.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.