Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Posted by Goodreads on May 1, 2013
"Here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers," remarked Chinua Achebe upon reading Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by a young, fellow Nigerian. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has made good on that early praise. The award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck—who was named on The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 Fiction list—has wasted no time in establishing herself as a leading light in today's globalized literary world. Now, with her latest novel, Americanah, a bighearted, nuanced take on love, immigration, and identity—set against sweeping social and political currents from Nigeria to America, from 9/11 to the age of Obama—Adichie has emerged as one of her generation's most important voices. Here she speaks with interviewer Anderson Tepper about history, home, fiction,

Goodreads: Let's begin with the romance of Ifemelu and Obinze, two characters in Americanah who first meet as teenage classmates in Nigeria. Tell me what you were hoping to capture with their journey and what is perhaps unconventional about their particular love story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think love stories are universal—I believe we humans all fundamentally need food and love—but what makes each love story interesting is specific detail. Their love story is about a particular slice of middle-class Nigerians, many of whom left the country during the military dictatorship. I also wanted to write about first love, how it can linger and endure. Theirs is a lush, unapologetically romantic story, but also practical—about a world where your ability to be with the person you love is affected by whether or not you get a visa, whether or not you can pay your rent.

GR: While Ifemelu is in the United States, she has a series of relationships that range across the social and racial spectrum—from Curt, the wealthy, footloose relative of the white family she's babysitting for, to Blaine, a politically conscious African American professor at Yale. What do these different men come to mean to her?

CNA: Both men make her grow, open her to experiences she would never otherwise have had. Curt makes her see a free-spirited privilege. Blaine's academic world is less free-spirited but no less eye-opening.

GR: Even Barack Obama, whose groundbreaking 2008 election campaign becomes a touchstone for both Ifemelu and Blaine, represents something important to her, if only an ideal.

CNA: Yes, as I think it did for many Americans. I very much wanted to try and capture the absurd euphoria that greeted Obama's first election, a euphoria I very much felt. I was not in the U.S. at the time, but I followed it very closely and was in tears. But when you sit back and think about it, why were we crying, really?

GR: Race is such a loaded subject in America. But for Ifemelu, her own blackness and its perception by others is something of a revelation. Tell me about her blog, "Raceteenth, or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black," and her unique approach to race.

CNA: In Nigeria race is not a conscious and present means of self-identification. Ethnicity is. Religion is. But not race. And so Ifemelu discovers, in America, that she is black. More than that, she discovers the negative assumptions that often accompany blackness. She also finds the awkwardness about race very funny. Most of all, she realizes that there is a lot people think but never say about the subject. So she decides to write this blog in very direct language, but also with humor, to lay bare some of the silliness and also to start conversations and bring about—hopefully—a better understanding. What is unique, if anything, is that she is writing as an outsider, a person who is black by American standards but who is not American and so has a relative privilege in being able to say certain things.

GR: When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, she ultimately starts a new blog, "The Small Redemptions of Lagos." I believe at one time this was a possible title for the novel itself. What made you decide to call it "Americanah," which refers to so-called Americanized Nigerians?

CNA: "Americanah" was my original title. I liked the playfulness and irreverence of it. Then I changed it to what I thought was the more poetic "The Small Redemptions of Lagos"—until a good friend told me it sounded like the title of a small book sold under the bridge in Lagos.

GR: That leads us to a question from Goodreads member Adira, who asks, "How has your viewpoint on your homeland changed since you've come to America? Also how did your time in America impact the construction of the characters for your new novel?"

CNA: America—a place I like very much but do not consider mine—made me see Nigeria more clearly. Being away from home made me both see more of Nigeria's flaws and also made me more emotionally attached to Nigeria. I would not have been able to write this novel if I had not spent time in the U.S. I used many of the notes I made from observing and watching America! Still, I consider it a Nigerian novel, because it is America seen through very Nigerian lenses.

GR: The immigrant worlds of Ifemelu and Obinze are very different—hers in America, as a student and then blogger and writer on a Princeton fellowship; his in England as an undocumented worker. Then, of course, there are the experiences of the African hairdressers in Jersey City, which brings up another major theme in the book: the cultural politics of hair. Several Goodreads fans were eager to explore this subject further. Goodreads member Kathryn, for one, wanted to know, "Do you think that if African women were to seize back their identity and power through embracing their natural hair it might also be a step toward taking back power in relationships and the workforce?"

CNA: I wish! And we would have all women wear afros and undergo chemical processes to stiffen hair that doesn't stand up! More seriously, I don't think hair can be that powerful. There are black women who choose not to be natural and who are perfectly confident. What I want to make a case for is that natural black hair be just as mainstream and equal and valid an option as straight hair. Not something exotic, not something that "means something."

GR: Meanwhile Goodreads member Nandi was curious, "What's the craziest hairstyle you've ever had?"

CNA: That depends on how we define crazy. I once colored my afro a bright (and unintended) orange.

GR: Speaking of the writing of this book, tell me about your daily routine and writing habits. You did a small, evocative piece for The New York Times on the view from your window in Lagos and the inspiration of the street scenes outside. Did you do much of the writing of Americanah in the United States or in Nigeria? And did you write the story chronologically or skip between Ifemelu and Obinze's sections?

CNA: I wrote it chronologically. For me, the joy of writing fiction—which I deeply love—is the magic of discovery. I am discovering as I write. I don't always know how things will end.

I wrote the book in both Nigeria and the U.S. I don't have a routine. I like silence and space whenever and wherever I can get it. When the writing is going well, I'm obsessive—I roll out of bed and go to work. I write and rewrite a lot and shut everything out. When it is not going well, I sink into a dark place and read books I love.

GR: I'm curious also about your different role or persona as a writer, both in America and abroad. In Nigeria you are more of a public figure, even a celebrity. Do you feel there are different expectations for you as a writer in the United States and Nigeria? Are your readerships much different?

CNA: I once read a novel by an Indian writer, set in India, and then in discussing it with an Indian friend I was stunned by how many layers and nuances I had missed. Still, it didn't get in the way of my loving the novel. I think Nigerians read my work differently, which isn't that surprising. I feel grateful to be read in so many parts of the world, but the Nigerian readership has the most emotive significance for me. I like that my work has given me a public voice of sorts in Nigeria and that I can speak about things I care about.

GR: Along those lines, Goodreads member Nathan Chadwick recalls the impact of the late Chinua Achebe, comparing the way "you both write so eloquently about the idea of identity." He adds, "Your recent remarks at his passing were very moving. You are quickly becoming one of the great voices and ambassadors from Nigeria of your generation. [Does] this extra awareness make it more difficult to tell these stories without caution creeping in?"

CNA: No, I don't think of audience when I write fiction because I don't want to self-censor. When I am sitting at my desk, I don't really actively remember that I am supposed to be a "great voice." I'm just hoping my bloody sentences work. I think my only responsibility as a writer is to be true. True to myself. True to the story.

GR: There's now a wealth of new writers capturing the diversity of stories from Nigeria and Africa, from Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and A. Igoni Barrett to Binyavanga Wainaina, Taiye Selasi, and Nadifa Mohamed, to name a few. This, of course, was the subject of your popular 2009 TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. You've helped explode the myth of the single African story in so many ways.

CNA: That makes me happy. It's changing, but there's still a long way to go. Binyavanga Wainaina's essay "How to Write About Africa" has helped a lot, too. He is, in my opinion, an original, that rare thing—a person of great talent and truth, without affectation, and with a deep love of the continent we share.

GR: Tell me more about some of the writing workshops you've started in Nigeria. Goodreads member Christina Colegate is particularly interested in whether you've had "feedback from other women in Nigeria who have been inspired to write their own stories after reading your work." She wonders, "Given your focus on ensuring there are a variety of African stories told, have you seen an increase in the number of women writing and being published within or outside Nigeria?"

CNA: Yes, I have heard from many young women who suddenly think of writing as a viable option—even if it's something done on the side. There are more women writing, and I want to see even more. I'm thinking of doing a separate workshop— if I can get the sponsorship—for women only, where we will talk not only about literature but also lip gloss and politics and feminism.

GR: Who are some of the writers you are reading right now? What books will you be taking with you on your Americanah book tour?

CNA: Two books that I recently read and loved are Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire, which is a brilliant, perceptive, multilayered contemporary story of China, and Emily Raboteau's Searching for Zion, a really beautiful and honest memoir. Some books that I am looking forward to and will dip in and out of as I travel are James Salter's All That Is, Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, and David Goodhart's The British Dream.

GR: Thank you, Chimamanda!

Interview by Anderson Tepper for Goodreads. Anderson is on the staff of Vanity Fair and has written on books and authors for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and The Paris Review Daily. He is also on advisory committees for both the Brooklyn Book Festival's international stage and PEN World Voices, where he has moderated conversations with the authors Nuruddin Farah, Ben Okri, Rian Malan, and José Eduardo Agualusa, among others.

Learn more about Anderson and follow what he's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary Interesting interview!

message 2: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Brody I think her writing is superb. Her short stories knock me out and her novels leave me breathless. She is a force!

message 3: by Ross (new)

Ross Just started to read "Half of a Yellow Sun" so a very timely interview for me.

message 4: by Kate (new)

Kate Beatty I´ve just finished reading 'Americanah'. It´s wonderful - a real tour de force!

message 5: by Rajesh (new)

Rajesh I've read "Purple Hibiscus" written by her and i liked it much.

What she represented / dealt in that book is so TRUE. I suggest this book as well for read.

message 6: by Diana (new)

Diana Lovely interview, she is so natural even with her choice of language.

message 7: by Kaykay (new)

Kaykay Obi Nice interview! I hope to read Americanah soon.

message 8: by Camatin1 (new)

Camatin1 Danny Love and the Food !Great articles.

Would love to read it more.

message 9: by Foluke (new)

Foluke Adeniran Love her works and her diction. Would love to read Americana as well.

message 10: by Shadra (new)

Shadra Bruce Adichie is by far one of my favorite authors. While I love everything she has written, Purple Hibiscus is a book I've read several times. Her writing sticks to your bones.

message 11: by Lucy (new)

Lucy Our library bk group read & loved Half of a Yellow Sun, and I'm looking forward to Americanah. This interview only reinforces my respect and admiration for Ms.Adichie.
I would've liked to ask her opinion of the ongoing & bloody Christian-Muslim conflict; so sad after all Nigeria went thru pre- & post-independence.

message 12: by Cloudnine (new)

Cloudnine Fairmane C9fm Excellent work

message 13: by Abdillahi (new)

Abdillahi Wonderful Adichie I love her books. They reflect our social life in way that no other author can put together. Americanah is my #1 book on my reading list for summer!

message 14: by Janet (new)

Janet Nyarinda I READ purple Hibiscus .. and i loved her style, the flow is so natural.. cant wait to read Americanah!

message 15: by Mogorosi (new)

Mogorosi Moremedi Great Interview i'd love to read the book.

message 16: by Celestina (new)

Celestina I am so proud of you my sister

message 17: by Rwandekwe (new)

Rwandekwe Abdon You are simply wonderful. Keep it up my sister

message 18: by Angelique (new)

Angelique absolutely love!

message 19: by Nestory (new)

Nestory Mapesa VERY FUNNY

message 20: by Ganiyu (new)

Ganiyu Yusuf olatunji olaniyan Hallo Freunde I need this book. Where can i get it in Nigeria please message me .

message 21: by Mary (new)

Mary Nice work.

message 22: by Ganiyu (new)

Ganiyu Yusuf olatunji olaniyan Danke schon

message 23: by Julia (new)

Julia Amazing interview! I find Ms Chimamanda to be extremely inspiring and I'm really anxious to read her book! It sounds great.

message 24: by Similoluwa (new)

Similoluwa Oni My name is Simi and I just finished reading Americanah and its 1:51am here in Nigeria but I just had to find a platform to let out all the pent up admiration I have for that book and Chimamanda. I have been reading novels since I was about 7years old(american apple paperback novels and Nigerian story books), novels written by Danielle Steele, Nora Robert, Francine Rivers, basically anything I could lay my hands on. and I am a member of wattpad so I have probably read thousands of novels, but this is my best novel. when I got to the last page, I didn't want it to end, I wanted it continue. I read purple hibiscus when I was younger and I remember when I was listening to Adichie's Ted talk on feminism, how I was wondering. how did she get so smart and original, she is so real. she brings alive regular things that happen in the life of an average Nigerian and makes it look so brilliant in simple yet, artistic words. I was thinking I want to be like Chimamanda, but then I realised that to be truly inspired by you is to be me. I love you so much and I believe I am your number one fan. I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

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