Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of three award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013), and a short story collection, The Thing around Your Neck (2009).She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Decisions, and a play, For Love of Biafra, a year later. Adichie’ short story “You in America”; and in 2003, her story, “That Harmattan Morning” was selected as joint winner of the BBC Short Story Awards, and she won the O. Henry Prize for “The American Embassy”.
She also won the David T. Wong International Short Story Prize 2002/2003 (PEN Center Award), for “Half of a Yellow Sun”. Purple Hibiscus (2003), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (2004) and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005); while her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was awarded the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her third book, The Thing around Your Neck (2009), is a collection of short stories. Last year, her third novel, Americanah, was selected by the New York Times as one of The 10 Best Books of 2013. She spoke to ABANOBI CHIKA and ODOGWU OBINNA in Lagos recently.
Mrs. Chimamanda Adichie, welcome back to Nigeria…
Before we start, please, I just want to say that my name is Chimamanda Adichie. That’s how I want it; that’s how I’m addressed, and it is not Mrs. but Miss. Ms: that’s how I want it. I am saying this, because I just got a mail from my manager this morning. It seems that there are people who attended the church service, and they wrote about it, addressing me as Mrs. Chimamanda (Esega). I didn’t like that at all. So my name is Chimamanda Adichie, full stop!
This is because it is also responsible that people be called what they want to be called.
So, how is Obinze?
(Laughs) Obinze is in the novel, called, Americanah. That’s where Obinze is.
And what about the oranges you talked about?
From the Purple Hibiscus? You know we used to have an orange tree in the house. You know those books don’t really connect: they come from all kinds of things I draw inspirations from. Actually, it is the compound in Abba [my hometown] that I loved; my grandmother’s compound down there – and there are trees around.
What actually was it like growing up?
My childhood was happy very, very, very happy. It was just wonderful, and, I think, for me, they saw from the beginning that I was very interested in reading and encouraged it. I remember when I could fill up an exercise book in my quest to write a novel, and my mother would buy me more. So, they were very supportive. And when I think that I would be writing, I feel it is I what I’m here to do. It was also that they let their child express herself, because nobody knew what could make a child successful when he or she grows up. But it’s just ideal that they had this child, who liked writing quite early. They bought her exercise books so that she could write more.
And finally something good has come out of that writing exercise…
It is now my life; it’s my livelihood. It is also the most important thing that I do. It is a thing that makes me happy. The truth is that I’m very grateful that my writing has done well. I am very grateful for the many of the things I have had. Many of them are blessings, but that is not why I write. See, if I hadn’t won all these awards, I’ll still be writing. It was actually the writing that gives me fulfilment. If it doesn’t do well, oh luck! If it does, well I’m grateful.
You started writing, but eventually you went to read medicine and later you swapped to pharmacy…
I did, because, in this part of the world, when you perform well in school, they’ll tell you that you’ll become a medical doctor. So, that’s why. When I was in the secondary school, I remember I took SSCE, and I got the best result in the history of the school. Previously, people had been getting five. As and six As; but I got eleven (11) As. Everybody in the school was so happy. Since, it was in the junior secondary school category, afterwards the school authorities would put you in either science or arts; and I remember that, even then, I was very interested in arts. I wanted to study history; I wanted to study French; I wanted to study literature, but, because I got the best result, they put me immediately in science class; immediately, no questions – and it was because of that thinking that, once you are brilliant, you are destined to go into sciences, which is a very pure fallacy. So, that’s how I was put in the science class. For Jamb UME; I put medicine, because that was what I was rather expected to do. I got in there, but my heart wasn’t there. I knew from the beginning, my heart wasn’t there. I was doing well anyway, but my heart was not there. So, that’s why I decided to leave – and I think it is the best decision I ever made.
So, you think it was not a wrong decision?
It wasn’t, of course. Someone that got admitted to study medicine on merit list, and later decide she won’t continue with it for no reason. In fact, when my father told that to his friend, the man enquired whether I was coping up at all, but my father showed him my result from the department that all bear A’s. “She passes but it’s just that she doesn’t want it.” It was difficult in the sense that I was worried about what other people and my parents would think. My heart is not in medicine. I knew I would not be a happy doctor. And it was not difficult for me but I was worried about what my parents would say; what would everybody say. But I just felt right and insisted. When I made that decision I did not know that I was going to be successful as a writer, but I was really mean, because, for me, if I had become a doctor I might have been very successful as well but that is not where my heart is. I think it is important for us to follow our hearts. I’ll be happy not to be very successful but let me do what my heart wants, yeah!
How long did you spend in medicine?
I spent one and half year.
In what way did your mum encourage you?
I said earlier that they bought me exercise books. They were just generally supportive and encouraged me often. They also listen to their children. They allow you to speak your mind. And I think it is important because many people raise children and they don’t give them confidence. Instead of teaching them confidence, they teach them fear. My parents didn’t teach us fear. I think my mother also raised me with trust which actually was encouraging. She trusted me to do things around here because she knew I wouldn’t like to let her down. So, in general, all the other children are in science and “this brilliant one says she wants to be a writer.” For them it was OK. Their concern was what we would be do-ing to earn a living and particularly me that chose writing. So, they were just generally encouraging.
What about your father’s influence on you?
All his children learned mathematics from him. But also he reads. He is a mathematician and statistician, but he reads novels. My father reads everything and I think be-cause of that he has an appreciation for literature. So, even though he is a mathematician he didn’t look down on literature. He found it interesting. He read a couple of Chinua Achebe’s novels. He reads, and that’s very important to me, because it means that I can count on him to have an opinion over what I want to do, and he will tell me the truth. For me, that is the greatest form of encouragement because when somebody is reading what I’m writing and engaging the both, yeah.
I have taken time to read your books and discovered that in your usage of Igbo language (code-mixing), you don’t explain them the next line, unlike Chinua Achebe who does. So, why was it so?
It’s because I want people to go and learn Igbo. Many of my editors, many of them disapprove of that style, but I refused. I tell them it is because of two reasons: one is because Igbo is a peaceful and beautiful language; and my language matters so much to me, and, also, I am writing about a people who are speaking both languages; another reason is that when I was growing up, I read books where characters speak French – a book in English, and you will see one sentence in French, and nobody explains that. We were supposed to try and understand. So, if you can do that with French, why not Igbo? Both of them are beautiful languages. So, I don’t take any excuses for that. There are many editors I have quarrelled with be-cause of that. I know because, if you read it carefully, you can kind of understand what it is. And, then, if you are really that curious, you can go online and learn it; you can go and learn Igbo. There are Igbo programmes in various universities. It is not that hard.
Is that why you adopted that style?
Yes, it is also just natural for me. It is not that I’m trying to prove my worth.
And it does not bother you whether your readers understand you?
Almost one million people from across the globe read Half of the Yellow Sun, and they understood, and it has Igbo words in it. So, it didn’t bother them. Also, as a writer, I read books with little bits of the languages I don’t understand, but it doesn’t really; in fact, it gives me the flavours of that language, and I like that. I think the question is a bigger question about the family and our language, because, if I wrote French in a book, I don’t think I would be asked questions about it, because the ideas are French. You can put French in an English book, it’s OK; but be-cause it is Igbo, and we think Igbo doesn’t have that much value, people will get confused. Igbo is as beautiful as any other language.
So, I urge parents to allow their children to speak Igbo language. Some Igbo educated parents don’t allow their children to speak Igbo. It’s a disaster. They should just speak Igbo. Ndi’gbo can’t even read Igbo. It troubles immensely, because we are losing so much. It is very easy to speak Igbo language. The same Igbo parents, who don’t teach their children Igbo, teach them French. It’s very annoying. I don’t even want to lose my voice talking about it because it is a very sad thing. My friends, who are Yoruba, would prefer their children to speak their language. Many of them live abroad, but still speak Yoruba. But, even in Igbo land, when you speak Igbo to your fellow Igbo, they will start speaking English in response, because we now think that our language is so low that we have to show that we have arrived by speaking English. It is just terrible.
Is there any way your novels are getting to change their mindsets?
(Cuts in) They have oh! They have! I have met many young people, who after reading my work would tell me that they want to learn Igbo; many of them in the USA, many of them in England. Many of them have also told me that each time they see Igbo in my novel, it makes them feel proud and motivated to go and speak Igbo and teach other people out there. I hope it has had some effect, though small. I think it is important.
In one of your interview published in the some newspapers, (including an interview in Sunday Sun with Akubuiro in 2007), you said you’re a feminist. Can you throw more light on that?
Oooh! Is that when I said that, because that quote has followed me everywhere in the world? That’s why I don’t like granting interviews, because whatever you say, in 20 years, you’ll still be quoted. Oh I said I’m a feminist? You know, what I meant was that: you know when people hear feminism, many things come into their head. What I wanted him to understand is that feminism doesn’t mean that you want to be a man. I’m a feminist, I’m a female; a feminist meaning that I want to look like a woman, but I want the equal respect that a man has. I think that human being should be respected based on their achievements and not based on whether you’re a man or woman. But, since I said that, everywhere I go, people are asking about that. I went to Australia, and they had read that; they knew about that. I was on stage in a hall full of people. They said they had a special present for me, and they brought in purse. I just started laughing. It was hilarious. But this is why you should be careful what you say. It was so funny. All the way in Australia!
You started by telling me that you’re not “Mrs.”…
(Cuts in) My name is Chimamada Adichie. If you want to put label for me, put Ms.
But people know that you’re married. As an Igbo girl, you know our culture…
(Cuts in again) What does our culture do? Let me tell you about our culture. This thing that you are calling our culture – that when you marry somebody, you’ll start calling her Mrs. Somebody – is not our culture; it is Western culture. If you want to talk about our culture, you need to go to people in real Igbo land. But it is true. My grandfather’s name is David. His name is also Nwoye. They call him Nwoye Omeni. Omeni was his mother. You know why? It is to help distinguish him, because there are often many wives. So, it was his mother that they used to identify him. They know that all of these people came from the same compound, but whose child is this one. You may go and ask people who is Nwoye Omeni, and they’ll tell you it is my grandfather. So, conversation about culture is a long one. I don’t even want to have it.
But, at what point would you change your name?
Yes; because it’s all fused. You cannot then come and impose something on somebody. Nobody should come and impose something on somebody, because, if you come and tell me it is our culture, I’ll tell you it is not our culture. Where do you want to start counting? Do you want to start counting in 1920, or do you want us to start counting from 1870?
But culture is dynamic…
Exactly my point, which is why this is new. If culture is dynamic, you cannot use it as conservative tool. We can-not then say it has to be this because it is our culture. My point is that it is a new thing. Things are changing. We live in a world now where women have a right to bear the name they want. So, we cannot say this is how we do it. If some women want to do it that way, that’s fine! God bless them. Some women won’t do it. I am one of those women, and nobody will come to use culture to tell me that I should do what I don’t want to do.