In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda 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.This article highlights excerpts from the Q&A session at the 2009 event where she read short story “Cell One” from The Thing Around Her Neck and delves into short story writing.
Q: The Thing Around Your Neck – What do you mean by that title?
Adichie: The thing about fiction is that I like to see the possible interpretations of the story. It’s also why there are literature departments in universities; people read one text and have all kinds of interpretations. I’ve read people writing about Purple Hibiscus, often in academic settings, and I just think, really? – Point is, it really depends on what you make of it. I just like the title.
Q: What do you think are qualities of a good leader?
Adichie: “A sense of the government as human beings is important. His question was based on this piece I wrote in Next newspaper where I was going back to my hometown from Lagos and we drove. I hadn’t driven back in a while, usually we’d fly, but my brother and I drove. It was Christmas, and at Christmas the police sort of get more ‘active’. We were stopped many times, and each time we were stopped, they’d ask us to give them money, and we really didn’t want to be late. So when they’d stop us, my brother would bring out the money…I know these people are underpaid so we’d do the ‘spreading the wealth’ thing. At some point a man became very aggressive and told me my papers were fake. I stood there in the sun for an hour because I refused to give him the money since I knew my papers weren’t fake. Finally he let us go. Then this policeman stops us and my brother is bringing out money and the guy says, no let me see your papers. He looks at the papers, gives it back and says safe journey.
For me, it shows that there’s still hope. This man was in the sun, he was underpaid like all officers, but he just refused to take money, asked for our papers and said safe journey. I was so moved by that. He’s obviously an example of what I think our leaders should be. Things are difficult, our infrastructure is messed up. However, there are people like that policeman and my father who will never do such things…The problem in a country like ours is the people who should lead don’t want to play the game in getting to positions of leadership. The more pertinent question is how to get the people, because they are there. How do we get them to reach positions of leadership? One answer would be to form political parties to reach out to do the kind of grassroots mobilization which is possible.
Q: Are your short stories based on real happenings?
[Chimamanda threw the question back to the enquirer with a “what do you think?” to which she responded, “tell me”- just to give you a sense of the kind of rapport at the event]
Adichie: “The reason I ask is it’s very easy to broadly say yes or no. Often it depends on which story; there are some which are based in a more direct sense on things that happened to me or people I know. Some start with my reading an article, which then becomes the starting point for a story. It really depends. The ‘Headstrong Historian’ started from my father telling me stories about my great grandfather. And I read a book about the history of West Africa…With each of the stories, there’s a story behind the story.
Q: How did the Nigerian community react to Half of a Yellow Sun?
Chimamanda noted that since the Nigeria-Biafra war was not spoken about (even in schools) people asked her to leave it alone when she mentioned her book. The book wasn’t supposed to be political, but the issue was important to her since she grew up in the shadows of Biafra. It was inspired by her grandfather who was fiercely loyal, and she wanted to make sense of ‘the thing’ that had taken him. Some people who were around during the war felt she didn’t have anything to offer since she wasn’t there when it happened. There are pre- and post-war stories, and she grew up in a space of inherited loss. She’d read about the period since she was 9 and at 15 she wrote a ‘terrible’ play. She was aware that her book would essentially be documenting history so she wanted to make sure she got the facts right. Coincidentally, she read everything she could about the topic.
“I was pleasantly surprised at reception in Nigeria, especially young Nigeria…The first book reading ended in a shouting match, but there was progress; people were finally beginning to talk about it.”
Q: “You’ve rigged yourself. Now, you can only do better” – What’s next?
Adichie “A woman wrote to me after reading half of a yellow sun and said the book blew her away… And then, ‘But Chimamada I feel really sorry for u now because there’s no way you can top this.’ That answers the question If Half of a Yellow Sun was that, then I can only go downhill and I will go gracefully.”
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.
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.