Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
MNK: Your first novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Press 2003) met with critical acclaim—and has come out as a paperback, too. The novel was chosen as Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book in 2005, and was a finalist for the Orange Prize, which is almost unheard of for a debut novel. You began work on that while you were a college senior. Did the book undergo many changes from that early writing until its publishing?
CNA: I merged two characters into one. I made some transitions clearer. I cut away passages that were too obviously trying to ‘explain’ things – I had characters having long and unnecessary conversations about Nigerian history, for example. But I didn’t make any major changes. I felt very fortunate, too, to have a good editor Antonia Fusco at Algonquin.
MNK: Purple Hibiscus is a coming of age novel, with family struggles set in the context of economic struggles and political tensions in Nigeria, with many references to Igbo culture. The political situation in Nigeria has been a recurring theme in your work. You majored in Communication and Politics. Do you see yourself as a political writer?
CNA: I think “political writer” is a loaded label. Because I write realistic fiction in a place of scarce resources made scarcer by artificial means, it means that I have characters whose lives are affected by political situations. But I always try to approach the political in an oblique way, because I think it is how it affects the life of ordinary people. I am not interested in the grand schemes of politics, I am interested in how government corruption trickles down to mean that old men die away slowly because they are not paid their pensions and how petrol is so expensive that people cancel trips to their ancestral hometowns, and how women decide to marry men they dislike because they cannot find jobs and how our values are being shaped and changed by our economy.
MNK: Your family is from Abba, a town in Anambra State, but you grew up in Nsukka, a University Town. Your mother was Registrar of the University of Nigeria and your father retired as Professor of Statistics, but was also Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University. Did that mean that you were in some way a public figure—growing up in a place where there’s a tight community?
CNA: I certainly wasn’t a public figure. My parents were prominent members of the university community at Nsukka, but it was a very small place. My father, as Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, was a pioneer staff of the mathematics department and was Deputy Vice-Chancellor for some years. I am immensely proud of his intellect, but I am even prouder of his gentleness and integrity. My mother is more outgoing, sociable, vivacious. She was the first female Registrar of the university and her dedication to her work inspired me, as did her refusal to be seen as any less competent than a male Registrar. I remember people sometimes asking me, “Are you the Registrar’s daughter?” Then they would invariably go on to ask if I could get them some favor or the other – admission into the university, bed space in the student hostels, that sort of thing. She retired three years ago.
MNK: Your fellowship at Princeton, the Hodder, is for someone who has “published one highly acclaimed book and is undertaking significant new work that might not be possible without the ‘studious leisure.’” I take it the project you’re working on is the second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, part of which was published in Literary Potpourri and then in Zoetrope’s All Story—and translated into Italian. This story won the PEN/David T. K. Wong Award for Short Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Half of a Yellow Sun is set at the time of the civil war in Nigeria, about fifty years ago. In one of your interviews you said you asked your parents about that time, and, I’m sure also did a lot of research. This is a topic you’ve been involved with for a long time. Is your play about the Nigerian Civil War, For Love of Biafra, published by Spectrum Publishers, Nigeria, in 1998) the same play you referred to having written when you were sixteen? Where does the novel go that the play does not? Do you have some of the same characters?
CNA: I don’t like to talk about the play because I was so young when I wrote it and I cringe reading it now. I hadn’t thought of similarities until you asked this question but I realize now that both the novel and the play are really about how love can complicate the identities we construct for ourselves. I DO have a character called Mohammed in both but he isn’t quite the same character. I think the play was my very first approach to a subject that I have always wanted to write about. I then wrote the short story years later, when I felt I was almost ready to start the novel. The novel doesn’t have the one-family focus of the play, and there is a greater male presence in it: two thirds of the novel are told from the points of view of men, one Nigerian and the other English.
MNK: What are some of the challenges you face writing about a period of great turmoil that occurred long ago? How are they different from writing about contemporary life?
CNA: I imagined so much more. I worried about maintaining a balance; I wanted to portray the horrors without lapsing into a shock-value-for-shock-value’s-sake kind of portrayal. I worried that I was not getting the emotions right, at first, but I came to realize that human beings change very little, that people in 1920 longed to be valued in the same way as people in 1990 do. It took a lot of work and re-writing to get the details of that period to seem effortless. I wanted to avoid dumping information on the reader, as though I were saying – look how much I discovered in my research. Writing about contemporary times takes a lot less second-guessing of ones self.
MNK: Your short fiction is also recognized for its excellence. You were a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for your 2001 Story, “You in America” from Zoetrope: All-Story Extra. Aside from the awards for “Half of a Yellow Sun,” another of your stories was an O. Henry Prize-winner in 2003-- “The American Embassy,” which had appeared in Prism International in the Spring of 2002. How do you personally feel about writing short fiction rather than the novel?
CNA: I love both. I think that different subjects call for different forms.
MNK: Did you intend the story “Half of a Yellow Sun” to be a part of a novel when you wrote it?
CNA: No. It was supposed to be my tentative first step towards the subject of the war; I knew I would write the novel but the subject itself was so huge, I felt I needed to take a small bite first.
MNK: You started writing as a poet. Does your background in poetry affect your writing prose?
CNA: I hope so. I love poetic prose and I try to pay attention to my language and the rhythm of my sentences.
MNK: You’ve said that the elements you most enjoy about fiction are: “character, pacing, language, emotion, plot and attention to detail.” In your own writing, which of these do you find yourself working on consciously, and which are, at least in early drafts, instinctual?
CNA: I work on all of them, really. I think, though, that plot and pacing would be less instinctual.
MNK: You’ve said that after September 11 you “would turn the TV on and then cry and cry. Until I stopped watching because I felt I was exploiting other people’s grief.” Although your characters are fictional, they have historical counterparts, people whose lives have been similarly affected. I don’t see this as “exploitation.” And readers of your work are led to empathize with your protagonists—many of whom are women—whose cultural background is quite different from theirs. You write about the universal, set in a particular place and time. How does this fear of exploitation connect with being a writer whose characters suffer greatly?
CNA: I am always worried about this, perhaps because there are historical (or real) counterparts to most characters; not that I base characters on people but rather that I write about characters living lives that are led by real people. I thought about this often while writing Half of a Yellow Sun and now I am trying to convince myself that what matters is truth. I wrote a book about my own truth because I want to honor the memory of a place and a people and hopefully it will also be ‘universal.’
MNK: And a personal question. Your first name Chimamanda means “My God is Unfailing.” Have you had to remind yourself of that from time to time?
CNA: Yes. Often.
MNK: Your second name, Ngozi means “Blessing.” I can see how you have been a Blessing to your parents and family—and to those of us who have been enriched by your writing.
CNA: And you, dear Miriam, were a kind and encouraging teacher. I will never forget how you read my poem “My Grandmother’s Funeral” in class at Drexel. Thank you.