In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie treated fans to a reading of her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck which had just been released at the time. The lecture event organised by the D.C. Young African Professionals Network and the Center for Global Development was more of a conversation between the award-winning author and moderator Uzodinma Iweala writer of Beasts of No Nation. Adichie (whose first name means “My God Will Never Fail” ) jokingly mentioned that she regards Iweala as a smart younger brother and likes to harass him, so you can imagine the kind of dynamic between those two at the event. The questions he asked were great and she was both engaging and down-to-earth.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Purple Hibiscus (2003) writer lives between the United States and Nigeria and has since published Americanah (2013), which is being adapted into a film starring Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, and We Should All Be Feminists (2014), which is required reading for all Swedish 16-year old students. In many ways, Adichie has become a guiding compass and voice on issues relevant to Africa, its Diaspora and the literary and creative industries. This article highlights excerpts from the 2009 event where she read short story “Cell One” from The Thing Around Her Neck. Adichie also talked about Africa’s many narratives, her writing process, the concept of truth, the African Diaspora, foreign aid, among others. Undoubtedly, a treasure trove of timeless insights into one of Africa’s best contemporary writers.
Africa’s “Single Story”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted that she sometimes worries about being repetitive on the issue highlighted in her famous TED Talk:
“I worry about just singing the same song over and over, because I find that I’m often in situations where I have to say this over and over, where I’m saying, look, people cannot insist that Africa is one thing. Also, I think it’s important for me to say that. But in insisting that Africa isn’t a single story I’m not trying at all to deny or evade certain things. There are many problems where we come from, I think we all know that. But for me, what’s problematic is when most people focus on one thing; it just turns the whole thing into a lie. It’s also about how the story is told.”
As an example, she talked about a recent episode of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360:
“I’m watching CNN and Anderson Cooper is covering Congo. And he has a Belgian expert. Of course, we know the history of Congo, so the irony of a Belgian being the expert in Congo is a problem in itself. So you have the Belgian expert, and then u have Congolese sort of lined up behind him. And they never talk. And the Belgian expert explains Congo to us, and the Congolese are just sort of there as a backdrop. I was so offended by this, because I was really interested in Congo, I was interested in the rapes for example, in what was going on. But having that Belgian explain to me, while the Congolese – who might as well have spoken for themselves – weren’t allowed to, I found took away from the truth. For me, that’s why I insist that there isn’t a single story.”
What is “Truth”?
For Adichie, it’s complex:
“We’re talking about the feeling we have within our souls. Now we’re gonna have to go into this philosophical thing about what’s the truth. I like to look at truth as multi-faceted…Going back to that example, I think that we should hear the Belgian speak. I’m all for that. It would be fantastic if we hear the Belgian and the Congolese. For me that’s the idea; that truth is full of counterpoints.”
How Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie approaches truth as a fiction writer:
“I don’t like to analyze, so I find it really difficult [to write non-fiction]. In approaching fiction I want to retain my creative lens. I could invent something, but I’d just rather not.”
On her writing process:
“I usually start with the character. At the same time I try very hard not to lie, if that makes sense, because I think that it’s very easy to say things like ‘love conquers all’; I’m not sure that’s entirely true. It’s very complicated. You start with a character and start believing that these characters love each other, and want it to work. I start with a character and hope that I will be honest about the truth and let it go where it will. I find that I just don’t usually do happy… I seem to be suspicious of happiness. I start these stories and I mean well, but somehow there’s disaster. And it’s just never the intent.”
Us Versus Them: Africa Vs. the West
Can a person be “African” and still subscribe to Western ideals? For Adichie, a pan-Africanist and world citizen, it doesn’t have to be either-or:
“I think it’s a very complicated question. I feel very strongly and comfortable about this African identity that I’ve taken on. I say taken on because, in many ways, it’s a choice that one makes. I’ve made this choice to take on this African identity. My politics in the past 10 years has become decidedly pan-African, and again, it’s a choice. On the other hand, I like Sweden. I’ve had a fairly good time in Stockholm… I think that sometimes we shouldn’t see the question as either-or, the idea that somehow we have options; that you have to pick A and you can’t have B or C and D. But then also it would be dishonest to pretend that there isn’t in a large political sense, in talking about power, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. There is. We can’t, for example, pretend that African leaders really have a say in what goes on in the world. They don’t.”
The Question of Identity
Adichie spoke about her perceptions on the issue of identity – a theme she delves into in Americanah – and how some people are surprised that an African can actually speak and write English well:
“I remember a professor in my college reading an essay that I had written. Sometimes a professor wants to read one or two in front of a class… I don’t think he expected me to look like I did. So he read the essay and he said ‘who wrote this?’, and to confront me, ‘you wrote the essay?’ For me it was one of those moments, a moment I’ll never forget.”
That moment made Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie more aware of identity, leading to its incorporation in her work:
“In some ways I think fiction is one’s way of making sense of things that don’t make sense. It informs my fiction; that whole idea of ‘what are you?’, and ‘what’s your identity?’. Again, I don’t set out writing fiction to make a point – about how the world is full of inequality, even though it is. I hope it’s more thoughtful and a bit more complicated. Things always are complicated, there’s just never anything that is easy.”
What about expectations within one’s own race?
“On one hand you might complain that the professor was surprised you could write a decent sentence. But then you find that the person next to you, who also looks like you, is surprised that you can write a decent sentence.”
The Americanah author highlighted the interplay between society and individuals in a relationship, noting that identity is sometimes imposed by the world:
“I’m often cynical, but deep inside I’m a hopeless romantic.I believe in love, I believe in the possibility of human affection. I believe very much in the possibility of connection, between a guy from Sweden and a woman from Ghana for example. However, I think, with relationships, it’s easier when you have certain things in common. And I think often it’s less about the people involved, and more about the way the world sees you.”
Adichie draws on Toni Morrison to address black women’s anger regarding black men-white women relationships:
“She said a lot of people think the anger is about the whole idea of there being very few eligible black men, and now they’re going to white women and the black women stay alone… Toni Morrison argues that the basic reason the black women are angry about this union is because black women have a fundamental feeling of superiority over white women. I’d never quite thought of that. She suggested that while black men look at white men in awe, black women just never looked at white women in awe. I found that fascinating, so maybe it sort of comes into play.”
Obligation to Country and Continent
Like most people who live in relatively developed cities in Africa or other parts of the world, there’s the issue of family obligation or obligation to one’s homeland. Adichie touched on this and mentioned that her sense of obligation comes primarily from acknowledging her privilege:
“I have lots of cousins in Nigeria and I do Western Union. I think a lot of people here identify with that. It’s so interesting, in thinking about the way that my non-African friends look at it. It had never really occurred to me to question the kind of entitlement that relatives have. Sometimes it increasingly becomes annoying, ‘You know I really don’t owe you anything. How can you call me up at 3am telling me to send you money?’ On the other hand I really believe in family. I think it’s a sense of obligation that comes from what I like to call ‘acknowledging my privilege’. I’m just very fortunate in many ways and it’s not necessarily because I did well in school. I think about my cousin who, if she had had the opportunity to go to Nsukka primary school, probably would have done as well. But she didn’t because she was in the village… So I feel there’s that obligation because I have to acknowledge the privilege I have.”
On developing the literary scene in one’s country and the African continent as a whole:
“When it comes to Nigeria and Africa, I feel the same way. There are people who are really talented, writers in Nigeria for example who have these crazy ideas about how publishing works because they don’t know any better; nobody’s told them. But since I know how it works I feel an obligation to tell them how it works. Sometimes people say give back. Giving back sounds so cool. But I don’t really see it like that. For me, it’s a practical thing. I get angry about how Nigeria is. I read This Day and I find the writing atrocious. I’ve read the Kenyan one as well and it’s the same thing. And then I realize it’s atrocious because the best have gone…It’s a practical thing. I want to do this work and I want to do more non-fiction. We have to change it, but we’re not going to change it unless we all participate. I’m really heartbroken about Africa, and I think a lot of us are. It becomes the reason to just try and do one kind thing.”
On Africa & Foreign Aid:
Adichie pointed out that some communities depend on aid for their very livelihood, hence stopping foreign aid in its entirety wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do. For her, what should be addressed is how the aid is structured: “I don’t like pity; I think things should be done in a dignified way.”
On Coping with Ambition and Success
The award-winning author described herself as “happily ambitious”:
“I really don’t know how; the most honest answer would be that I’m happily ambitious. When I came second in primary school I cried, because I needed to come first. I’ve always been happily ambitious, and I also think, particularly for women, ambition is a fantastic thing. In general women are socialized to be in the background, which I completely disagree with.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made a distinction between why she writes, and how her ambition informs her decisions:
“Writing is something I deeply love. I made the choice to research being published because of my ambition, but I didn’t make the choice to write because of my ambition. I made the choice to write because I loved and I love it, and when it’s going well it’s the thing that makes me happiest. I’m sort of a loner, I just love to be alone and usually it’s at night, and I just feel transported. I really feel that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, if that makes sense. At that moment and only at that moment do I believe in things like spirits, and do I believe that my great-grandmother is watching.”
On the pressures of success and how she copes:
“… with successes, I feel very lucky. The problem with this kind of success – which I feel very grateful for -but I think, Good Lord people are reading me in Sri Lanka and Japan, and sometimes I think why?… The success is lovely; there are times when I sort of feel really happy. On the other hand, I don’t always think about it. I often forget, because I’m just sort of sitting there hoping to write a sentence. I don’t really remember that I won the Orange prize, and I’m sitting there and thinking “I hate this thing that I’m doing, that the sentences are not working.”
Dealing with her toughest critic:
“Also, there’s the pressure of wanting to please yourself. I’ve always found that I’m a difficult person to please in many ways. I find that I often don’t please myself. If anything there’s the pressure of knowing that when my editor asks, ‘How are u doing Chimamanda?’, she really means, ‘Are you working?’ But those things don’t worry me as much as me worrying me. Thinking, am I going to be happy with what I do next? And I write something and think its just crap. It’s always difficult, there are times when it’s not such a bad thing, but there are times when I could do without it.”
This article was originally published on November 4, 2009.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.