An Interview With Fiction Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Renée H. Shea

In June, twenty-nine-year-old Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the 2007 Orange Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006), a novel set during the Biafra-Nigeria civil war of the 1960s. Adichie weaves the stories she heard from her parents and family friends along with political history in the novel she describes as having "emotional truth." Told from three different perspectives and spanning a decade, Half of a Yellow Sun has garnered glowing reviews for its powerful narrative and compelling characters.

Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003) was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Orange, and won the 2004 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Currently a graduate student in the African Studies Program at Yale University, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Adichie about the effects of winning the Orange Prize.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: My sister calls me "Orange!" I think that back home in Nigeria lots of people are very excited, and more people know about me. I don’t really feel that my life has changed, but the perception of my work and me has changed here in Nigeria.

P&W: You've said that you wrote Half of a Yellow Sky because you grew up in the "shadow of Biafra" and you lost both of your grandfathers, because you wanted to engage with your history. How have your parents responded to this novel and their daughter’s retelling of the civil war?

CNA: My father was impressed because I’m young; I wasn’t alive during the war, and I think he might have been concerned about how I would do it. I remember he said to me, "I knew it would be good, but I didn’t think it would be this good," which meant everything to me. Mother, who’s also read it and liked it, would like anything I wrote!

P&W: What has been the reaction to the novel in Nigeria? You’ve said you hoped it would "start a conversation." Has it?

CNA: I think it has started, actually. I’ve been totally surprised by the reception here. Before it came out, my Nigerian publisher warned me that I was writing about things people would rather not talk about. He thought there might be angry reviews, or I might be heckled if I went to speak. But what has happened instead is that people are reading the book and talking about it. The Orange has helped because it has been some validation. People are talking about the war, their memories of it, in ways I don’t think they really have since the war ended.

P&W: That must please you.

CNA: Very much.

P&W: Nearly every review or article mentions your reverence for Chinua Achebe and his influence on you, and he has written the highest praise for your work. Have you met or corresponded with him?

CNA: No, I haven’t met him and in some ways I don’t want to. Sometimes you want some distance between yourself and your heroes. People have suggested I go interview him, but I have said no. I want to respect from afar.

P&W: But perhaps at a reading in the fall, if you see this gentleman in the audience—will it make you nervous?

CNA: It would make me very nervous! He is a friend of my parents, and his sons are my friends. Last year, at an event in New York, a fundraiser for Nigerian lawyers in America, he was the guest of honor. I was there, and his son said, "Come say hello to my dad," but I turned and fled because I was so nervous. I had no idea what I would say to him. So if I see Achebe at a reading in the fall, I think I will go into the bathroom and lock the door! I’m not usually shy, but Achebe is one person who would make me shy.

P&W: In an interview a couple of years ago, you predicted a boom in popularity of African writing here in the United States. Why do you think there is such interest?

CNA: I think it’s a number of things. Publishers are more willing to take African writers. No one wants to be the first person, and now more people are willing to read African writers and about Africa, which I think is important. Also, I think there is, within Africa itself, many changes for the better. Some dictatorships are fading and coming apart, there is so much more initiative, and many more stories are coming out. Maybe it’s Africa’s turn. We’ve had the boom in Asian writing. At some point we have to listen to Africa talking about Africa.

P&W: Do you think that some of the resonance Half of a Yellow Sun has for readers is because of Darfur or Rwanda—this image of Africa in crisis?

CNA: I hope not because I don’t see it as a book about Africa in crisis. That’s not at all what I wanted it to be. I wanted it instead to challenge the idea that Africa is just a place where people die of war, and we don’t see the other side. Rather than reminding people of Rwanda or Darfur, I think it surprises people who say it reminded them of their own stories. That’s what I like to hear—reminding you of the humanity of the African, whether caught up in a war, being in love, whatever.

P&W: You’ve written very frank articles about your feeling toward this idea of the West "rescuing" Africa. I remember one in the Washington Post when Madonna was adopting a child. Do you think your work and that of some of your contemporaries has a role in changing the view of the West as intervening to "save" Africa?

CNA: It’s not something I set out to do. I don’t sit down and say, "I’m going to write this book because I want to challenge this or that view." But by writing about the experiences of Africans—complex people in complex situations—the challenge inadvertently emerges. One of the reasons I have so much trouble with that view of the West having to "save" Africa is not that I don’t want help for my continent, which I do, but it’s because that vision seems to forget that Africans themselves have a role to play and can share initiative. What I like about the writing that is coming out of Africa now is that it really does challenge that view. For instance, if you read someone like Binyavanga Wainaina, who is my friend, you realize that rather than being a country where everybody needs help, Kenya is a country full of people who have agency.

P&W: Right now there’s such a robust community of contemporary African writers, like Chris Abani, Uzodinma Iweala, Helen Oyeyemi, Doreen Baingana. Their work seems very different in so many ways.

CNA: Absolutely, and that’s what I love about it. Which is why sometimes I am quite amused when people think we’re all the same. If you compare Iweala’s book with one of Abani’s novels, they are so different. It’s amusing to think everyone from Africa should be concerned about the same thing.

P&W: Are you consciously part of this community, keeping in close touch, reading or reviewing one another's work?

CNA: No, not really. We know one another because it’s still a small community. I’m particularly close to Wainaina, but the others I see once in a while. I suppose the way to put it is that we are certainly aware of one another.

P&W: How much did your Western audience affect your writing, specifically your use of Igbo language and culture?

CNA: I don’t think about my audience when I write. I’m fortunate because my American editor become my first eye, and I’m open to changes, but I don’t think of audience in a conscious way that makes me censor myself. I have to say that my expectations for the book in America were not very high, and I was pleased and surprised by the attention it got from reviews and the book press.

P&W: You’re in the African Studies Program at Yale right now. What was your motivation to go to graduate school—and has the Orange Prize changed your interest?

CNA: Certainly not; the Orange hasn’t changed that. I thought [by studying formally] I might find interesting things that I would not normally know. I still imagine I will teach creative writing, and having this degree in African studies might be an opportunity to focus my classes on African writing. I could teach African fiction, and I like the idea of teaching sociology or politics through fiction. But I don’t know...

P&W: I read that you intend to return to Nigeria in a few years to give back and perhaps start a writer’s colony. Is that still the plan?

CNA: Absolutely. I’m doing a creative writing workshop now. I did one last week and there’s another next week. I am hoping this is something I can figure out how to do more often.

P&W: Are you working with students or through a university or professional writers?

CNA: No, actually, it’s for anyone. I placed a call for entries in the newspapers. It turns out lots of people were interested, and I chose thirty out of more than a hundred entries. I asked Fidelity Bank if they would support it, and they said yes. They’ve been phenomenal, paying for my and other writers’ accommodations for a week and a half, travel tickets, etcetera. They have basically provided all I need to meet everyday with thirty writers and writers-to-be to talk about literature. I’m particularly happy that a bank is doing this. You know, I like both capitalism and art and rather like that both can work together.

P&W: You wrote Purple Hibiscus just three years before Half of a Yellow Sun. That’s not a long time, yet many reviewers commented on a huge shift in your grasp of narrative from the first to second novel. What happened?

CNA: I think it might be perception. When I went back and read sections of Purple Hibiscus, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s better on the level of art. I don’t know, actually, maybe it’s that Half of a Yellow Sun has a lot of personal emotion behind it.

P&W: Did you take more risks in the second novel?

CNA: In the subject matter I did, and I had more to balance. I was being what we like to call "ambitious."

P&W: You've experienced pretty phenomenal success before you're thirty. Are you worried about other people's expectations, your expectations for yourself, the challenge of the next work rivaling the previous one?

CNA: I tell everyone the relative success means that I am allowed to fail with the next book! Seriously, I only want to get better, to do better, and I am a bit of a perfectionist and find it difficult to please myself, but there is a sense in which I feel freer to fail, which perhaps I might not have if my first two books did not do well.

P&W: You’ve said that writing Half of a Yellow Sun took four years but you’ve been thinking about it for your whole life. Is that because of your family’s losses?

CNA: I’ve always been acutely aware of my family and the war and knew I would write about it at some point.

P&W: Other writers who’ve written about a history they either didn’t live or lived while very young—I’m thinking of Edwidge Danticat and the Duvalier regime in Haiti—have described themselves as "bearing witness." Do you think of yourself in those terms?

CNA: I do. If we don’t know about it, don’t talk about it, don’t think about, we’re incapable of learning from it. So, I think I am. Without sounding too grand, I think I am bearing witness for my generation.