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.