This weekend is the 15th annual Texas Book Festival in Austin, the highlight of the literary calendar here in Texas where I live. I had the privilege to serve in 2004 as the fellow who booked the 200+ authors for the event that year. It was an unforgettable experience that gave me real insight and appreciation for the work publicists and booksellers do each day. This year will be returning to host a pair of sessions. First I’ll be interviewing Jeff Lindsay, author of the “Dexter” novels, on Saturday. On Sunday, I’ll moderate a session with novelist James Hynes, whose latest book, Next (Little, Brown), is one of the best explorations of Austin and male middle-aged sexual and professional angst I’ve ever read.
In the lead up to the fair I interviewed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the Austin American-Statesman for an article which is reprinted below. If you’ll be in Austin, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you and we can try to meet up.
Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of The Thing Around Your Neck (published September 9, 2010)
In his seminal essay “How to Write About Africa,” published in Granta magazine in 2005, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina offered several guidelines for authors writing books about the continent:
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title … Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize … In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving … Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.”
Wainaina goes on to explain the importance of AK-47s, breasts, sunsets, colonialism and of quoting Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. “Because you care.”
However facetious Wainaina’s advice, his point is well made. African writing has too long catered to the appetites of a global audience for clichés. The 54 nations of Africa encompass some 2,000 different tribes, but the West persists in thinking about the continent as one large place, its nations and peoples indistinguishable, and its daily life filled with little more than war, disease and death. However, that may finally be changing, albeit slowly.
Some of the credit for this change is due to the emergence of a new generation of writers willing both to confront the struggles of the past and document the more prosaic realities of life on the African continent today. Most prominent among them is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who will be making her first appearance in Austin at this year’s Texas Book Festival.
The 34-year-old author grew up in the former house of perhaps Africa’s most famous writer, Chinua Achebe (author of the classic 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 who grows up in a wealthy, hypocritical household run by a tyrant and who escapes to a better life with her aunt. It immediately put Adichie 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 of a Yellow Sun — an engrossing historical epic about the bloody 1967 Nigerian-Biafran civil war — that made Adichie’s 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.
This year she was chosen as one of The New Yorker magazine’s top 20 writers under 40. She divides her time between her home in Maryland, where she is married to a man she describes as “Nigerian, American and British,” and Lagos, where she is in the fifth year of running a series of high-profile writing workshops she launched to train young African writers.
Reached by phone in Maryland, she said her Texas Book Festival appearance will largely focus on her latest book, the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck.
Published in 2008, the collection spans a decade of writing and ranges in subject 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, comes up often in Adichie’s writing. Asked whether she feels out of place herself living on the East Coast, she said, “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 said that her own experience of living in two worlds has made her empathize with Americans who might initially treat her as someone exotic, no matter how irritating it might be: “Someone in the Midwest recently said to me that they have a hard time pronouncing African names and asked for help. I pointed out to them that I have a hard time pronouncing African names from the south of Nigeria. While I believe that sub-Saharan Africa shares a commonality due to its own colonial past, there are parts of Africa I find exotic myself.”
Despite the persistence of these awkward encounters, Adichie has faith in the power of writing to edify. “I quite often hear people say how surprised they are that the people in the books are ‘just like me.’ Yes, it sometimes annoys me, but I realize to them Africans may seem like a different species. I think reading helps people start to think for themselves about Africa, to be more critical and not just see (Africa as a place of) AIDS and people killing each other.”
Wainaina, who now runs the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, has had a particularly strong influence on Adichie and is someone she calls “a good friend.”
“He’s right when he says that it’s somewhat more interesting when you write about something other than conflict,” Adichie said. “But for me it isn’t that you shouldn’t talk about terrible things, but you also need to talk about the other side — people falling in and out of love, struggling with money, personal problems and politics. That is, ultimately, what I strive for in my writing: to show the day-to-day reality of individuals. I’m not interested in being a spokesperson or anything more than what I am, which is a writer.”