A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux
Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

By Parul Sehgal, Tin House Summer Issue, 2013

Sinclair Lewis wrote that “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.” Few writers have so flagrantly flouted these pressures as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck. Her new book, Americanah, will be published in May by Knopf and, like its predecessors, it’s a thrilling and risky piece of writing that takes on taboos, shatters pieties, and combines forthright prose, subversive humor, and a ripping good story.

The fifth of sixth children, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a university town in Nigeria, in a house once occupied by the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who became a great influence on her.

“It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Adichie studied medicine briefly and moved to the United States at nineteen, eventually receiving an MFA from Johns Hopkins. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was well received; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a sensation. An unflinching look at the horrors of the Biafran War of the 1960s, it earned her an Orange Prize and comparisons to Achebe. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.”

“Here is a new writer endowed with the gift of the ancient storytellers,” Achebe praised her. “She is fearless.”

In Americanah, Adichie fearlessly takes on what is so euphemistically called “American race relations.” Our heroine, Ifemelu, a Nigerian transplant to the United States, writes a blog, the tartly titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which she scrutinizes Obamamania, white privilege, the politics of black hair care, interracial relationships, and the allure and savagery of America.

Adichie and I chatted over e-mail.

Parul Sehgal: I just finished the book and find myself moping and missing Ifemulu beyond all reason. She feels terribly real to me. Where did she come from? More broadly, how do your characters announce themselves? As a gesture? A voice? An argument?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: All of those, and more. Sometimes a character just forms in my head; other times a character is based on somebody real (although the character often ends up being quite different from the “real” person). Ifemelu is a more interesting version of me. Both Ifemelu and Obinze are me, really.

PS: How so?

CNA: I think I have Ifemelu’s questioning nature, Obinze’s longing. Like them, I’m always looking to learn. A bit of a romantic, but I hide it well.

PS: Ifemelu is the “Americanah” of the title, yes? Can you unpack this term a bit?

CNA: It’s a Nigerian (actually, perhaps more regional than national, it’s more often used in the southeast, where I am from) way of referring to a person who affects Americanness in speech or manner, or a person who is (genuinely) Americanized, or a person who insists on her Americanness. It’s not exactly a polite word, but it isn’t derogatory either. It’s playful.

PS: Obinze and Ifemelu are that real literary rara avis: a happy couple. With romantic happiness so difficult to render on the page, I very much admired how you made them come to life. Did you have models, literary or otherwise, for their relationship?

CNA: Well, I had the old and grand tradition of the Mills and Boon romance novels that I read as a teenager! More seriously, my vision as a writer is dark. I am more drawn to the melancholy, the sad, the nostalgic. And so I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to write a love story, a love story that would be both unapologetic and believable.

PS: Let’s stay on love a moment more. Ifemelu writes on her blog that the solution to the problem of race in America is romantic love: “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.” Now, I find Ifemelu utterly persuasive and charming and—sometimes, I must confess—a bit of a bully. For all these reasons, I’m inclined to agree with her. Do you?

CNA: I have been told that I am a benevolent bully, so I suppose Ifemelu gets that from me. I do agree with her, very much. I completely believe in the power of love. I think that race, as it has been constructed in America, makes it almost impossible for people of different races to have a real conversation about race, let alone understand how the other person feels. Storytelling helps. Storytelling can be an entry point.

PS: But why are we at such an impasse?

CNA: Race is, I think, the subject that Americans are most uncomfortable with. (Gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion are not as uncomfortable.) This is an American generation raised with the mantra: DO NOT OFFEND. And often honesty about race becomes synonymous with offending someone.

PS: As an outsider (albeit one who’s lived in the U.S. on and off since you were nineteen), did it feel like a risky topic to take on?

CNA: In a way, it did. I am more or less expected, or maybe permitted, to write about African pathology, but I don’t think I am expected to write about American pathology. But in other ways, it isn’t very risky because I am a foreigner. I am a bit removed and there is a certain privilege in that remove.

PS: And this extends, I suppose, into how Americans write (or, rather, don’t write) about race. As one character, the formidable Shan, points out, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country . . . if you’re going to write about race you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.” Americanah is an incredibly blunt book about race. You go deep into colorism, debates about “good hair,” all sorts of inter- and intra-ethnic prejudices, how racism enrages, yes, but also plain exhausts. Tell me about taking on this subject and your approach.

CNA: I wanted very much to write an honest book. I knew I could have done it differently, in a way that was safer. I know the tropes. I know how race is supposed to be addressed, but I just wanted to write the kind of novel about race that I wanted to read. I do realize that there is a certain privilege in my position as an outsider, a foreigner, somebody who is not an American. I am really looking in from the outside. I became fascinated by race when I came to the U.S. I still am. I am fascinated by the many permutations of race, especially of blackness, since that is the identity I was assigned in America.

PS: You give Ifemelu a similar line: “How many other people had become black in America?” Was it a specific moment for you? Did you resent it? Embrace it?

CNA: At first I resented it. A few weeks into my stay in the U.S., an African American man in Brooklyn called me “sister,” and I recoiled. I did not want to be mistaken for African American. I hadn’t been long in the U.S., but I had already bought into the stereotypes associated with blackness. I didn’t want to be black. I didn’t yet realize that I really didn’t have a choice. Then my resentment turned to acceptance. I read a lot of African American history. And if I had to choose a group of people whose collective story I most admire today, then it would be African Americans. The resilience and grace that many African Americans brought to a brutal and dehumanizing history is very moving to me. Sometimes race enrages me, sometimes it amuses me, sometimes it puzzles me. I’m now happily black and now don’t mind being called a sister, but I do think that there are many ways of being black. And when I am in Nigeria, I never think of myself as black.

PS: I was very moved by your TED talk on the “single story,” in which you describe how dangerous it is for one narrative to be told about a people or place, and how pernicious, in particular, has been the single story about Africa (“a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner”). Your books, diverse as they are, all seem intent on undermining the single story—about Africa, certainly, but also about war, childhood, fathers, love. Americanah homes in on and complicates the single story of the immigrant. Obinze, a Nigerian immigrant in London, notes that Westerners “all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the ominous lethargy of choicelessness.” What do you mean by “choicelessness”? What are its wages?

CNA: I don’t start out writing to challenge stereotypes. I think that can be as dangerous as starting out to “prove” stereotypes. And I say “dangerous” because fiction that starts off that way often ends up being contrived, burdened by its mission. I do think that simply writing in an emotionally truthful way automatically challenges the single story because it humanizes and complicates. And my constant reminder to myself is to be truthful.

I grew up in a very comfortable, even relatively privileged family. Yet I experienced my reality as one of limited choices: go to university, become a doctor, specialize, practice, marry. And then there was the competing idea of “abroad” as a place of endless possibility. Abroad, you could be anything. And I think it’s that idea that drives the need among middle-class Africans to leave.

PS: Were there aspects of this book that were especially challenging or pleasurable to write?

CNA: The whole book was challenging to write. I still stare at the manuscript, thrilled and amazed that I actually finished writing this. I loved writing about black hair. I’m mildly obsessed with natural black hair.

PS: Why?

CNA: I stopped straightening my hair with relaxers more than ten years ago. At first I was just tired of relaxers burning my scalp and then I started to really like my natural hair. I began to learn, and am still learning, how to take care of it. Because I didn’t know how to. When I was growing up, straightened hair was admired; natural hair was not. I loved getting my hair straightened with a hot comb and, when I was a teenager, with a relaxer. So I had no idea what to do with my hair. It’s almost absurd, how much I now enjoy trying new potions and products. So in the novel I had to restrain myself because I really just wanted to make the whole book about natural hair!

One day, in Lagos, I ran out of my hair products and decided to try honey and olive oil on my wet kinky hair, and it left me with really soft coils and then I thought: I have to put this in the novel! There’s also a growing natural hair community that is very active on YouTube and when the writing was not going well, I would spend hours watching these women demonstrate how to get the perfect twist-out or how to use a new shea butter product. And of course, hair is quite political for black women. At least for a certain segment of the educated middle class. People make assumptions based on hair. Which can be very funny. Like a woman with dreadlocks is somehow more “conscious,” even “soulful.” Not always true, needless to say!

PS: The dangers of the single story! I’m fascinated by your rendering of your white characters. They’re an exasperating bunch—so casually cruel and ignorant—and yet they’re never just foils. Tell me about creating such ambiguous characters. Were you consciously trying to avoid the single story about racism/what a racist looks like?

CNA: I think one of the problems with the language of race in America is how singular it can be. So a racist, in the public imagination, can be only one thing: racist. Which is why people will often say, “Oh, she’s not racist, she’s kind and she gives money to charity” or something, as though a person cannot be racist and kind. I love Curt and Kimberly, both of whom are based on real people, and don’t think of them as racist. The racist characters, I hope, are human, even if they appear briefly, like the carpet cleaner, because, well, racists are human.

PS: I’ve noticed that you find all sorts of ways to smuggle literary criticism into your novels, not least because your fiction has always been full of writers and writing workshops and writing professors. In Americanah, Ifemelu notes (with some disdain) that her boyfriend, Blaine, loves “novels written by young and youngish men packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” It’s hard not to read this as you playfully commenting on contemporary American fiction. Can you tell us a bit about what you’re seeing in recent writing; are there trends you do and don’t respond to?

CNA: I suppose I was playfully commenting on American fiction. I think of literature as a big house with many rooms of the same size, but each decorated very differently. Some rooms do not appeal to me, even though I can see—in an objective sense—their value. I am quite old-fashioned in my literary tastes. As a lover of fiction, I am drawn to social realism, psychological depth, character, and emotion. I love fiction that has something to say and doesn’t, as it were, “hide behind art.” I love novels that feel true, that are not self-conscious experiments. I read a lot of contemporary American fiction and find the writing admirable but often it says nothing about American life, is more about style than it is about substance (style very much matters, but I struggle to finish a novel that is all style and has nothing to say).

PS: So who do you love? Is there a writer you like that you didn’t expect to care for? How about an up-and-coming or little-known writer you’d recommend?

CNA: Ama Ata Aidoo and Chinua Achebe are very important to me. I admire many contemporary writers: Claire Messud, Sigrid Nunez, Lorrie Moore, Edward St. Aubyn, Jamaica Kincaid, Amit Chaudhuri. I didn’t think I would much care for Sam Lipsyte’s work, it didn’t sound like my sort of thing, then I read his work and admired and enjoyed it very much. Up-and-coming writer I admire: Danielle Evans.

PS: A few novels conspicuously appear in Americanah and act as counterpoints, notably Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter, his 1948 novel about an English couple settling in—and coming apart—in Sierra Leone. Does Greene have special significance to you?

CNA: I love both novels. The Heart of the Matter is close to my idea of a perfect novel. It is beautifully written and has a wonderful grave quality.

PS: Ifemelu writes a blog about race that has a vast and very engaged readership. You’re read so widely and deeply here and in Nigeria, and I suspect you know something of what it’s like to write for such an audience. What’s it like?

CNA: It’s wonderful to be read because that is the hope that drives writing—otherwise, why publish? Sometimes it’s almost frightening as well. I haven’t lost my sense of wonder. I once got on a plane in Nigeria and quite a few people on the flight were reading my novel and I was simply thrilled. But I don’t think consciously of my audience when I write. I am very afraid of self-censorship, and I think it happens unconsciously when you become too aware of your audience. I also don’t read reviews, because I am worried that I might “respond” to reviews when I write.

PS: It’s fascinating to juxtapose Americanah with Half of a Yellow Sun, with its rigorous research into a suppressed history. By contrast, Americanah feels ruthlessly of this moment. You seem to be writing history as it happens (e.g., Obama’s inauguration). Was this freeing? Terrifying? And are you one of those writers who writes to figure out how you feel about something or do you come to the page with your conclusions formed?

CNA: Both. (I love “ruthlessly of this moment.”) I do know how I feel about race in a macro way, but I don’t always know how I feel in a micro way, and writing fiction about it is my way of exploring, questioning, even learning.

PS: What are your days like now that this novel is complete? Do you plunge into a new project or do you rest?

CNA: I mope. I read—fashion magazines, in particular.

PS: What’s coming down the pike?

CNA: Peplums are not going away, which I’m pleased about because I love peplums. And I notice some silly trends, like long shorts, that don’t flatter anybody. I find women’s magazines fascinating and very entertaining. I keep thinking: Do the women writing this actually believe themselves? What average woman wants to try neon orange eye shadow?

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