Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A conversation with James Mustich

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, is a tale of a teenage girl and her brother whose lives are transformed when they escape the fanatical authority of their father and take up residence with their aunt, a university professor, during a time of political upheaval in Nigeria; it was awarded the 2005 Commonwealth Writers? Prize as Best First Book. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War, lived up to the promise of her debut, winning the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. In 2008, Adichie was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Her newest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, a volume of short fiction, has been greeted with wide acclaim in both England and America. The author, who now divides her time between Nigeria and the United States, spoke with me by telephone in early May, as the U.S. publication of the collection approached. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. –James Mustich

James Mustich: Your new book, The Thing Around Your Neck, collects twelve stories. Most of them have been previously published, if I’m not mistaken.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Yes. All but one: “The Shivering.”

JM: Ok. Over what period of time were the stories written?

CNA: The oldest was probably written in 2001 or 2002.

JM: Do you compose stories at a regular pace? Is it something that you do when you’re between novels, or as the spirit moves you?

CNA: The latter.

JM: So it’s an ongoing form of composition for you?

CNA: It is, yes. I find short stories to be completely different from novels, obviously, but I don’t think that short stories are the younger and less accomplished siblings of novels. They’re equals, in a way.

JM: When an idea comes to you, do you know from the start that it’s a story rather than a novel, or do you only discover the form once you’ve initiated the writing?

CNA: This is the kind of question that assumes that one is entirely conscious of one’s process. I don’t think I am!

JM: Fair enough. Let me ask this, then. Your novels encompass wide canvases of character and action and historical context, even as you create an intimacy between your characters, or among the characters, in the midst of this broader setting. But in your stories, there is an intimacy of focus that seems different in kind; the wider world is implied but not there within the tale’s purview. I’m wondering if there are certain types of incidents that are easier for you to explore in that form, or certain types of emotion. If that’s the same question and you still don’t want to answer it, that’s fine.

CNA: I think it might be more about the form of the story rather than about the subject. To write a short story is to have very little space, to compress emotion, and because of that, I think that the form requires a kind of incredible focus that the novel doesn’t necessarily require.

JM: Because of that focus, there’s not the same distance that you take in a novel. I’m thinking of the difference between the original story “Half of a Yellow Sun,” and the novel, in which you seem to be working at a greater distance from the material.

CNA: I suppose so. But that particular story in some ways was different from every other short story I’ve written, because I wrote it knowing that I was taking a step toward the novel. I don’t mean to diminish the story, but it really was for me a way of taking baby steps towards what I really wanted to do, which was to write a novel.

JM: So in that instance, it was more like an artist’s study for a painting. You knew the material was going to lead you to a novel, as opposed to some of the other stories that we’re talking about.

CNA: Right.

JM: Several of the stories in the new book take place in Nigeria, but many are set in America, which is a departure from your two novels. They struck me almost as imaginative but investigative sorties into America, at least into the immigrant experience here. Does the scale of a story make that easier than a novel would?

CNA: I don’t know.

JM: The view of America in the book is somewhat dispiriting…

CNA:

JM: I wonder if you might talk a little bit about how America is represented in the stories, and if that representation conforms to your own experience.

CNA: I’m not even sure that I agree that the stories portray America as dispiriting. It wasn’t to me. My vision is a dark one — I am sort of more drawn to dark than I am to light, both in my writing and my reading. I think dark is often more interesting. So in some ways, I think that my work is not necessarily a reflection of my personal view of many things. It’s more a reflection of my artistic sensibility, which, as I say, is a dark one. I quite like America.

I’ve found that since this book came out, I’ve had to defend my affection for America, which is an odd position to be in. I am often asked, “In your stories, the characters don’t necessarily have a good time in the U.S. — do you hate America?” Then I have to find myself in the position of saying, “No, in fact I quite like the U.S., but I am drawn to writing about the minuses much more than I am to the pluses.” And I did have, and continue to have, experiences that aren’t fantastic in the U.S

But what I really hoped that the stories would do is present the different meanings of what it is to be a Nigerian navigating the American current. Sometimes, when we talk about immigration, there is one generic story, but I also wanted to deal with class and how class affects immigration, and how class often determines the kind of immigrant that one is. A lot of the stories are not about me, obviously. But a lot of my fiction is based on fact; it’s about people’s stories — it’s about what I hear about, or what I read about, and things that have, in fact, happened. I then take on the fiction writer’s hat and change things around for my own purposes.

JM: A lot of the characters seem to be held in a kind of suspension in the stories, which is very gripping. In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” the woman writer who is its central character reads a story to her colleagues in the writer’s workshop, and the Englishman in charge tells her: “The whole thing is implausible . . . . This is agenda writing; it isn’t a real story of real people,” when in fact the reader knows that it is just that.

That’s a specific example of what I think happens in several of these stories, in which the character is trying to take control of his or her own story against forces which are trying to tell him or her that they’re in some other story.

CNA: Hmm.

JM: You’ve said that you’ve been in situations where people have spoken about whether your fiction is authentically African, and you’ve thought to yourself, “This is the result of 200 years of history: we can sit here and be told what our story is.” A variation on the theme of taking control of one’s own story seems to animate many of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck.

CNA: There are two things I would say. One is that “Jumping Monkey Hill” is the one story in the collection that is quite autobiographical, and it is a story that was propelled by rage, because I was furious. The second is that I remember reading somewhere — and I don’t remember who said this — that it seems that every writer keeps rewriting the same story. What you say is interesting, because these are stories that I didn’t write thinking I would have them in a collection-I just wrote them because they came to me. And to then realize that they are quite related makes me think that maybe I have been writing the same damn story over and over.

JM: Well, in the reading, they’re not very similar — there’s a great variety of character, and of language, and of narrative voices. But I was struck by a certain commonality. There’s a telling moment in the title story that got me thinking this way: a young woman, a Nigerian immigrant, is talking to the American young man of some privilege and education with whom she is developing a relationship, and — the story being told in the second person — you write:

You asked him where he ended up finding himself, and he laughed. You did not laugh. You did not know that people could simply choose not to go to school, that people could dictate to life. You were used to accepting what life gave, writing down what life dictated.

What several of the characters in the book have in common is the way they are suspended in situations, if only for the moment, in which their circumstances are dictating a plot that they may or may not want to be a part of. The moral quandary for them is how to take control of their own story. I don’t know how else to put it.

CNA: Yes, actually I do think that’s a fair reading of my work, and in some ways also of my worldview. I am constantly aware of how incredibly important stories are. I think it’s important who tells them, how they are told, how the telling is conditioned, how history controls that conditioning, and how power plays a huge role — all of those things. So I do think it’s a fair reading of the story.

To go back to “Jumping Monkey Hill” for a moment, I think that in addition to its questioning the idea of somebody deciding for you what your story really is, it’s also for me about a question I’ve been interested in for a while, the question of reality versus fiction. On the one hand, should fiction really mirror reality? (I’m talking about realistic fiction, of course.) Because so many things happen in your life, and you realize, “If I wrote this in fiction, nobody would believe it.” But then, on the other hand, we sometimes read reality into fiction, if that makes sense, and that can cause another set of problems.

JM: Given people’s perception of African literature, or, rather, what they believe African literature should be, do you find it constraining that considerations of your work gravitate toward this kind of “What is she saying about reality?” question, rather than toward the kind of exploration you just mentioned, an imaginative investigation into the question of fiction versus reality?

CNA: Oh, absolutely. I also find that it doesn’t matter what I write. Whatever I write, somebody is somehow going to find a way to show that I’m really writing about political oppression in Africa. Often I’m asked, “Were you trying to use that as a metaphor for the politics of your country?” And I think, “Well, no. No, it was a story about a woman and a man. It was not about bloody political oppression.” But I also realize that it’s almost impossible to shake off. If you come from this particular region in the world, there are assumptions that come with your work. But the hope, of course, is that even if somebody does insist on finding political imagery and metaphors in your work, they also, in addition, recognize the humanity of the characters.

JM: I want to read another quote — in part just so it gets into the interview for readers who haven’t yet read the book. In the wonderful story that closes The Thing Around Your Neck, “The Headstrong Historian,” there’s another take on what we we’ve been discussing; it expands the theme of people taking possession of their own stories onto an historical level. The title character is named Grace. You write:

It was Grace who, as one of the few women at the University College in Ibadan in 1950, would change her degree from chemistry to history after she heard, while drinking tea at the home of a friend, the story of Mr. Gboyega. The eminent Mr. Gboyega, a chocolate-skinned Nigerian, educated in London, distinguished expert on the history of the British Empire, had resigned in disgust when the West African Examinations Council began talking of adding African history to the curriculum, because he was appalled that African history would even be considered a subject. Grace would ponder this story for a long time, with great sadness, and it would cause her to make a clear link between education and dignity, between the hard, obvious things that are printed in books and the soft, subtle things that lodge themselves into the soul.

First of all, that is very beautifully expressed. I wonder if you might talk a little about this theme of education and dignity, and how the dialogue between them contributes to the sense of individual stories people carry around with them.

CNA: I have a nephew, who is American really — my sister has lived here for a while, so my nephew, who is 16, has a Nigerian name and he understands a bit of Igbo, our language, but he is entirely American. I watch him. He’s learned history in school, a wonderful kind of history where the kind Pilgrims came and the Indians gave them turkeys and everything went well. Again, I think about the power of stories: that what it does for you to learn that kind of story is to give you a kind of unquestioning confidence. It gives you a platform. And when you’re older and you choose to question, it’s fine, because you have that almost perfect platform.

I think the curse of many people from formerly colonized countries, particularly in Africa, is that you have this absurd education that doesn’t tell you anything about yourself. So I have lots of friends who know everything about the monarchy of England, but can’t tell you a single thing about what West Africa was like in 1870. What happens is that for people who are interested in knowledge, who start to read more and to formulate questions — they find they have nothing to fall back on, because their education did not equip them. And I think that’s my story. What I find myself doing now is trying to fix the gaps in my knowledge; I was fortunate to get a very good Nigerian education, but I think that there are many, many gaps — a lot of these gaps conditioned by the colonial system that we had and we continue to have.

That story, “The Headstrong Historian,” came from my attempt to imagine the life of my great-grandmother, a woman I am told was fierce, and who was considered stubborn because she wouldn’t shut up and she challenged people and all that sort of thing. Whenever my father talks about her, I imagine that she was magnificent. I also have convinced myself that I took after her, and this makes me happy, whether or not it’s true.

At the same time, I had been doing a bit of research on the history of education in Nigeria, and I had been struck by a number of things. By the connection between slavery and education, for example — how a lot of the people who were active in bringing education to Nigeria had been involved in slavery: they either were ex-slaves or had been quite active in the abolitionist movement, for example. Also, I was struck by how education and religion came hand in hand, and how education was not just about being taught math and grammar; it was also about, in my opinion, actively dispossessing people. So you went to school in 1910, for example, in eastern Nigeria, and you were taught that what your grandfather and father believed in and worshipped were evil. For me, it’s interesting to think about what that must have done to people psychologically. Of course, I don’t mean that everybody was traumatized; there are people who were fine and happy. But I think this created a legacy, and I don’t think it’s a very healthy legacy.

JM: You went to Yale to do graduate work in African Studies after you had some success as a writer. I suppose that was in some way inspired by your interest in the things we’ve been talking about. Was it a satisfying experience?

CNA: There were people who said, “You’re from Nigeria. Why did you have to go to Yale to study West Africa?” Well, because the best books about West Africa are not in West Africa, they’re at Yale. The best scholarship about West Africa is not in West Africa, it’s in places like Yale. So it makes absolute sense to want to go to Yale to study Africa, even though one is African. And it wasn’t a bad experience. It just made me realize that academia is not for me. It did not answer the questions I had. Academia, in many ways, is about academia. Then, on the other hand, New Haven is not a bad place to be, and I met really brilliant, wonderful, kind people, so it wasn’t an entire waste.

JM: Let’s talk about the legacy of Western or colonial education versus the legacy of native traditions. In the story “Ghosts,” which I personally found especially moving, and lovely, the main character is a retired mathematics professor. He says at the beginning of the tale, “. . . I am a Western-educated man, a retired mathematics professor of seventy-one, and I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people.” As the story develops, he runs into a person whom he had believed, for decades, to be dead, and then he also reveals that his wife, who has more recently passed away, has been visiting him as a ghost. And he welcomes her spectral presence despite the fact, as he puts it, that “We are the educated ones, taught to keep tightly rigid our boundaries of what is considered real.” And when he informs the resurrected figure from his past that his daughter has died, he switches from English to Igbo, to share the information. “Speaking of death in English,” he explains, “has always had for me a disquieting finality.”

The story, in a succinct way, hints at many larger themes invoked by the clash between his Western education and the Igbo culture that is still quite vivid to him, obviously — vivid in a way that determines how he talks about things that are of vital importance to him. I wonder if you might talk about that a bit.

CNA: That’s very good actually. The story is very close to my heart as well, because in some ways it’s a love letter to my father. I am very much a Daddy’s Girl. I adore my father, who is this really lovely, reserved, quiet man. My mother is still, by the way, very much alive.

I find myself increasingly insisting with my friends that we have to acknowledge the privilege of a good education. If you go anywhere in Nigeria and you happen to speak English properly, people will look at you differently. People accord you a kind of honor that you don’t necessarily deserve; people also will sometimes assume that you know better than they do, which also isn’t really true! I’ve been interested in the sorts of questions this raises. I belong to a class of educated people who often mock beliefs that are not logical. So somebody will say, “Ha-ha-ha, she got sick, and she went to see the medicine man, and she really believes that will help — ha-ha-ha.” When I was younger, for me it was an automatic thing to laugh at that kind of thing. But then, as one gets older, one begins to wonder how different that kind of belief is from belief in, for example, the Roman Catholic God, or the Anglican God, which is the sort of god that the people in my circle believe in.

In the end for me, really, it’s about longing for middle ground. It’s about longing for respect all around, if that makes sense, so that it’s possible for one to remain happily Catholic or whatever one may be, without automatically disparaging people who live in rural areas, for example, and who choose to believe that the reason they are sick is because a witch flew out of a tree and came to take their soul — or something like that. The fact is that people just find stories to make sense of their realities. For me, the story “Ghosts” is about this man who should be a person who automatically thinks that ghosts are ridiculous, but instead, actually, finds that a ghost has become a source of joy for him.

JM: The story very simply evokes how things that are sources of joy and of wonder, and even sometimes of pain, go far beyond “the rigid boundaries of what is considered real.”

May we talk for a moment about the language itself? You were educated in English, so you didn’t have to choose to write in English. In fact, in an interview I recently read, you made a point of saying that when you started to write, you realized that “English was mine.” But your consciousness has to some degree been informed by another language as well. This may be presumptuous, but in reading your work closely, as I have in the last couple of weeks, it has struck me that there’s something about the mind of a writer living in two languages that amplifies the English in a way that’s very satisfying.

CNA: I grew up speaking English and Igbo at the same time, so I consider both my first languages. In fact, I grew up speaking both at the same time literally. This is true, I think, for a lot of middle-class people from formerly colonized countries — that you invent a language where you’re speaking English but throwing in Igbo words, for instance, or you’re speaking Igbo and you’re throwing in English words. My siblings and I, for example, speak an Igbo that’s very different from my father’s, because our Igbo has become Anglicized, and my father’s is still quite beautiful and rich with ornate proverbs that we don’t know, unfortunately.

I hope that my writing somehow acknowledges my language experience, this fluidity — the fact that English is mine, but it’s a particular kind of English. I want to write about characters who speak mostly English, I suppose, but who also are very much part of another language, and who sometimes have their English conditioned by Igbo. Also, obviously, class plays a role. If you listen to people in Nigeria who are not very well educated, for example, you find that often when they speak English they are translating directly from the Igbo, resulting in very quaint and charming expressions. Which, in my opinion, is still very much English, but it’s a particular kind. I think this is the reason why academics talk about the different Englishes in the world; people have a language imposed on them, and then they take it and do new things with it.

JM: I’ve read that at one point, for some part of your childhood, you lived in what was formerly Chinua Achebe’s house.

CNA: Yes.

JM: That’s a remarkable coincidence.

CNA: It is. And it is entirely a coincidence. It’s quite remarkable. I don’t think I realized that at the time, of course, but it’s also become quite useful to me, because I think in some ways it’s the most important part of my biography now.

JM: Did you read his work when you were young?
CNA: I did. Chinua Achebe’s work actually was very important to me. I read Things Fall Apart, of course, and Arrow of God remains my favorite novel. I read him when I was young, and I have since realized that reading him was for me a huge mental shift in my understanding of what literature was — or should be. I had been reading a lot of British books, and everybody was white; so, when I started to write, I started to write about people in England — and I had never been to England. I was maybe eight. In the little stories I wrote, I was reflecting what I was reading. Then I read Chinua Achebe and a writer from Guinea called Camara Laye, who was also very important to me. When I look back now, I realize that reading them changed my idea of what literature was, and that I started to write stories that made sense to me.

But I don’t think that I was really actively aware of the coincidence. I knew that the Achebe family had lived in that house before us, and I knew that his daughter had carved her name into the window ledge — even though it had been painted over, you could still see her name. But not until just before I got published did I realize how significant this little detail was.

JM: He has a new book coming out this fall, a collection of autobiographical essays. It’s his first book in a while. The Education of a British-Protected Child is the title.

CNA: Yes. Very exciting. I can’t wait.

JM: What about contemporary Nigerian or African writers? Do they speak to you more than contemporary American or British writers? There seems to be quite a flowering of novelists in particular, and memoirists as well. Do you feel part of a movement in any way?

CNA: No, not when I’m alone at my table struggling to write a decent sentence. [LAUGHS] No. But then, when I’m doing interviews, and somebody asks, then I start to think, “Well, I suppose I am part of a tradition.” But I do think that there’s a difference, that my approach to the Chinua Achebes and the Camara Layes and all of those African writers I read who were published in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, is different than my approach to contemporary African literature. Perhaps because there had been nothing before them; the novelty of their work was what made it so important.

I don’t see my contemporaries in the same way. I think I am as equally drawn to the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, for example, as I am to Dave Eggers. There isn’t that novelty anymore. I have, fortunately, come to see that African literature is legitimate, and so for me in some ways, I suppose, it has lost its luster. [LAUGHS]

JM: The image of you at your table, as you put it, “struggling to write a decent sentence” reminds me of my two interviews with Philip Roth, whose work, I’ve read somewhere, you admire.

CNA: Yes.

JM: Whenever I would ask him questions about what he might be getting at in a book, or where his latest novel might fit in the larger corpus of his works, he invariably, and most good-humoredly, would lead me back to the moment of the writing: how his focus was always composing sentences that would make the page come alive, without thought of larger themes or the relation of one book to another, even if they involved the same character. It was quite striking to me (and perhaps this should have been obvious) the way in which, for him, writing was writing as an active verb, and it was an act that was not related to the way one might read the books critically. I wonder if you feel the same way.

CNA: I do, absolutely. I do. I’ve often said that people who do literary criticism need the job, and writers should just write and let those people do their job.

JM: American readers may be surprised by a certain kind of cultural familiarity in your work. In “Cell One,” the first story in the book, which is set in Nigeria, you write of “Boys who had grown up watching Sesame Street, reading Enid Blyton, eating cornflakes for breakfast . . .” And you have said of the film of The Sound of Music that for you “it has become childhood: this happy, sun-splashed time.” Do you feel any sort of tension in writing about Africa with these seams of common experience showing? It seems to me that our understanding of Africa, my understanding and that of many of my fellow Americans, is woefully one-dimensional, shaped by the images we have in our heads from watching the news. You reveal a much richer life, suffused with experiences we may share as well as with those we clearly do not.

CNA: Yes, which is why you should switch the bloody news off, especially when Africa comes up, and go read a book instead about Africa, especially if it has been written by an African who’s lived there. That was very unkind, but I felt I should say it.

JM: Well, it is a problem, isn’t it?

CNA: I really do think that it’s a huge problem, this idea of Africa as one story — and I encounter it all the time. I realize that my stories are strange to people. When I was in graduate school in Baltimore, I was told that a story I’d written wasn’t authentically African. I was told this by a well-meaning American. I remember thinking, “You get to tell me what is authentic?” But on the other hand, one understands why. I remember thinking that if I were not a woman who grew up in Nigeria, if I had lived here in the U.S. my entire life, and watched the news and read the newspapers, I too would feel the same way about Africa.

For me, really, I’m writing stories that are true. In other words, I want to use details that are in fact true, if that makes sense. Of course, there are different Africas. There are things I read about people who live in Namibia, for example, and I just can’t identify with their lives, in much the same way, I’m sure, that somebody in New York City would have trouble identifying with a woman living in poverty in Appalachia, for example. There are differences. What I hope that fiction does — and not just mine, but fiction in general from the continent — is to start to shake some of those ideas of one story, start to show that there are many stories, that a lot of middle-class people from Africa — from different parts, from Egypt, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from Kenya — they read the Famous Five series, the Secret Seven, the Hardy Boys, and they aspired to the sorts of things that TV, for example, taught them to aspire to. I go back to Lagos and see that young Nigerians are — in my opinion, depressingly — more American than many Americans, because they have these images beamed in from MTV and the like.

I’ve always wondered what it must be like to be an American and to travel the world and see the state of the cultural dominance of the U.S. I remember once getting a newspaper in Lagos, and the major headline was something that Bush had done. And I remember thinking that the reverse would never be the case. It’s one example of American power and cultural dominance.

I hope that our fiction starts to make obvious that people in Africa have much in common with people in the U.S., but that they are also different. I’m not at all saying we’re all the same, because that’s a big lie. But there are many, many connections.

JM: What has the reception of your work in Nigeria been?

CNA: Purple Hibiscus, my first novel, did very well in Nigeria. It was enormously popular, and is now on the syllabus for the West African Examinations Council, which is the exam you take at the end of secondary school. Its success has been gratifying. I was a bit more worried about Half of A Yellow Sun, because, of course, in that novel I was digging around in places that people didn’t necessarily think I should be digging around in — there are people who thought it better to leave the past alone, that type of thing. But Half of A Yellow Sun has done quite well as well. And I think it started a conversation. It’s really lovely. One time I was at the airport. I was going to visit my parents, who live in the east. I was just thrilled to see four different people at the airport reading Half of A Yellow Sun. This, by the way, is not a country of readers — at least not novel readers. Nigerians will read newspapers and gossip magazines, and that’s it. So that made me doubly thrilled to see four people reading my novel in a country of people who don’t much care for fiction, which I think is the case for most of the world. It was a good feeling.

JM: When I spoke to Philip Roth, he had a quite bleak assessment of the condition of fiction, and the future of fiction; he really feels that the novel is on its last legs. What is your sense of the future of the novel, or of literary culture?

CNA: Whenever I read accounts of the death of the novel, I think, “Really?” It would never occur to me. In the end, it’s about stories, isn’t it? And we will continue to tell stories, because it’s a human need, a human urge.

I also think that sometimes, for those of us who are practitioners of the art, it’s safer to be pessimistic — to say, “Oh, nobody’s reading,” and that sort of thing. In fact, I often find my hope in a country like Nigeria, where, despite the fact that many people do not read, there are people who do, and will continue to read, because they are looking for stories, and will connect to stories that other people will continue to find ways to tell.

JM: Last question. Have you read anything recently that has particularly excited you?

CNA: I’ve actually been reading quite a bit of nonfiction. But a novel that I read recently and really admired is called DeNiro’s Game. It’s by a Canadian-Lebanese writer called Rawi Hage. I think the title is unfortunate, because it made me immediately think it would be one of those New York wiseguy books. But it’s actually a moving, brilliant novel about two friends in Lebanon during the civil war. I just found it very beautiful. Also a book called My Father’s Wives, which is by an Angolan-Portuguese novelist named José Eduardo Agualusa.

JM: Thank you very much.

CNA: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed this.

-May 6, 2009

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