August 2009

John Zuarino


An Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

While looking for upcoming books I might be interested in and putzing around on Facebook one day, I saw in tiny print on a rather badly put-together publisher's website the name Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I immediately wrote a pleading email for a reviewer's copy. It makes me wonder how we reviewers come off when we get overexcited about a title, like we expect one book to transform our perceptions of literature and possibly even our own writing in the process. And if we can get an in-person interview with said writer, then that's a whole other ballgame.

But sometimes that excitement is just spot on. Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories covering a range of topics including the female immigration experience, Nigerian academia, and unrequited love. Adichie also expounds on the Nigerian Civil War, which was the centerpiece in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

The language in The Thing Around Your Neck is beautiful and flowing throughout. Highlights include "Ghosts," in which a professor at Nsukka meets the ghost of a former colleague after the Biafran War; "Cell One," which chronicles a boy's gang activity through the eyes of his little sister; and "The Shivering," in which Adichie told me the character Chinedu is actually sort of a love letter to one of her closest friends.

I met with Adichie at her hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we discussed the new collection, the problems with turning research into fiction, and the upcoming film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun.

Let's start off by talking about the writing process. Between the short story and the novel, do you find one format more liberating than the other? How do you approach them?

I don't think I find any form liberating. I sometimes sense that when people talk about short stories the assumption is that the short story is somehow less accomplished than the novel. And I don't think so at all. Sometimes people talk about starting out with the short story and then moving on to a novel, and I just think I find both forms to be equally difficult. It's very difficult for me to know why I am drawn to the short story for a particular subject. I think the particular subject wants to be a short story. It's very hard to know why you do what you do.

But I do find both forms equally frustrating when they're not going well. When they're going well, they're fantastic. And I have short stories that took me forever to write. One of the stories in the book took me four years -- "Cell One." I started it, and I just didn't know what to do with it. I kept going back over the years, and it just didn't work. Then one day it did. The idea is that the short story takes a week to write. That didn't work for me.

"Imitation" is one of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck that focuses on the lives of women after immigrating to the United States. Why do you revisit this theme in the anthology, and how do you hope to further explore it?

Hmm…well, being a woman who spends a lot of time in the US….

I think in a lot of my work, I define myself as a very happy feminist. I'm very interested in gender and how it affects life choices, just how gender affects things, and I think it does to a large extent. I've spent quite a bit of time in the US. I love to watch, and I never mind my own business. I love people's stories, the stories of women in the US. I'm interested also in immigration and how complicated it is. Because sometimes the story of immigration we get in the US is of someone coming from Mexico who's slipping across the border, and there's a big struggle. It's sort of ridiculous. Within immigration, there's so much diversity, there are so many different stories. And so in the book I cover the woman who's married to the Big Man so that she has many privileges of class. And then there's the woman who has absolutely nothing. Their experiences are extremely different, but they are both still struggling. Gender affects the way that they experience immigration, but also that sense of leaving home, that odd thing where you leave home but the new place isn't really home, and you realize the old place can never really be home again. I'm interested in that crazy, odd case.

But you know, I think I write about men too.

"Cell One" touches upon the subject of cults on the university campus. The image of the old man being forced to parade in the nude down the hallway of the police station was one of the most jarring in the collection. What do you hope to convey with the image, and what significance does it hold for you? You just said that this one went through so many revisions. Was that image one of the original aspects of the story?

It was. A lot of my work is based in fact. If you went to a Nigerian university, reading "Cell One" would seem very familiar.

It's much better now. It's set in the late 90s. There were gangs, which we call "cults," exploding all over campuses in Nigeria. "Cell One" started with a story I had heard about an old man who was humiliated and the way that the Nigerian police want to arrest somebody's son. If they can't find him they arrest the father. It doesn't matter if the father is old and sick. In some ways the story started with that image, but I also wanted to write about the cults because in some ways they don't make sense. Much of the world doesn't make sense anymore, but I think in all cultures we have particularly young men who went through rituals and rites of passage, and in some ways the cults represent that. These young men go through initiations, and some people die and they get really violent. Looking at it, I think these young men are privileged. They're fortunate to have a good education. And that they make choices like joining a cult, it has always puzzled me. I think the story was also about that, you know, this young kid who has no reason to be the way he is. Some people make choices, and you look back at their lives and it sort of makes sense why they would make these choices. But it just seems to me that the young boys that I knew growing up were just different. "Cell One" started from there, but the image of the old man was very haunting for me. Also it sort of gives the main character a chance at redemption, which is really important for me. I'm very suspicious of excessive happiness. I don't do great joy because I'm very suspicious. But I like redemption. I like the idea of calm and believable redemption and slight hope.

Your novel Half of a Yellow Sun was just optioned for a film. How do you feel about that, and are you involved in the film process at all?

No. I have friends that have gone through it. Apparently the idea is that it's better not to be involved. And you know I spent four years obsessively writing Half of a Yellow Sun (I nearly went mad), and to imagine somebody doing something with it… I might go a little crazy. But also I'm really happy because the production company is a good one, not that I know much about film. They made The Last King of Scotland, which I thought was well-made despite being one of those White Man goes to Africa and discovers his Moral Center stories. But anyway, the woman behind the production is just really amazing. She's just the best one can possibly get. I met her, and I felt completely at peace, and I felt she's going to do the best that she can. At the same time I'm sort of removed from things. I'll go see it when it comes out, and I hope it'll be good. The script writer is my friend, and he's also Nigerian, so I'm not too worried.

So maybe you'll be nicely surprised when you walk in.

You know, I just might be. And the most exciting thing is that they're actually shooting in Nigeria, which means Nigerian actors will get some parts, and that can only be good for us in Nigeria. It's very exciting.

Speaking of Half of a Yellow Sun, I was wondering what kind of research you had to put into the novel, especially having two timelines working opposite each other throughout.

I joke a lot about nearly killing myself, but it really was very intense. I think I went out of my way to read everything that I could find that was published on this period of Nigerian history. I asked tons of questions of everybody: my parents, my relatives, friends of relatives. It became really difficult to turn all of that into fiction because I had huge files of research. I found things that were so exciting, I thought, "I didn't know the French government did that, it has to go into the book!" But then the problem was to find a way to use all of that and still make it a novel. The first draft was a disaster because it was just about how much research I had done and what I had found out. In the end the lesson was about discipline and saying to myself that it needs to be about the characters, because I realized in the first draft what was happening was the events were driving the narrative. I just thought, "No, it's not working. It has to be the characters driving the narrative." All those things I found out, I had to keep them in my head.

One thing I did right from the beginning was to have a structure where I start in the beginning, then move to the war when terrible things start to happen, and then to move back to the beginning. It's important for me as well because I didn't want to lose the humanity in my characters. I didn't want to be immersed in this place where all I felt for them was pity or horror. It was important to go back and just remember when these people were ordinary and they didn't have to deal with a bomber plane. All they had to deal with was "What do I have to eat?" or "Which party am I going to go to?" That sort of thing.

I didn't really have too much trouble with the structure. The most difficult thing about that book was turning research into fiction. Turning things that were interesting to discover into believable parts of human narrative.

To find a way to fictionalize reality.

Yes. In a way that wouldn't sound dry or like an account, something from a textbook.

What are you working on now?

Oh, I can't talk about that. Lately I've just become burdened with this crazy superstition that if I talk about anything, it'll disappear.

You've mentioned that Chinua Achebe has been greatly influential in your work. How do you think he has affected your writing?

When I say that I often mean that I feel he gave me permission to write. Before I read Chinua Achebe, I was quite young, maybe nine, and I had been reading all of these British books for children, which is what was very easy to get when you're nine years old in a university town in Nigeria. So I was writing little chapbooks with my mother, and they were called things like "A Macintosh Lane," and everybody was white and English. I had never tasted an apple, and all my characters ate apples. I had never seen snow, and all my characters made snowmen. And only because in all the things I read, these are the things that happened. So in many ways as a child I internalized ideas that a story had to be something that had white English people in them. I was reproducing that.

And then I read Things Fall Apart. Of course at the time I was too young to realize what an incredible shift it was for me and my perception of literature, but looking back now I realize that when I read it, that's when I started to understand that I could write about people who were like me, growing up in Nsukka and eating mangos instead of apples. Since then I go back to his work often. Chinua Achebe's novels have always been very personal for me. It's not just the value to literature, but in some ways it's about personal history. I read his work and I think this is my history. This could have been my grandfather or my great grandfather.

When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?

I never realized. When I was six I thought I was a writer. In some ways it has to do with the fact that I grew up in Nigeria. In Nigeria you become a doctor. We value engineers or doctors or lawyers. Writer? Hmm. It was always Why? Why would you want to become a writer? Sometimes when my American friends talk about finding it difficult to define themselves as writers, they assume that there's something presumptuous about saying "I'm a writer." For me, because of where I came from, I didn't have that. I just said "Oh, I like to tell stories, I like to write them down." If anything, what I made the conscious decision about was to try and be published. It's a really difficult thing. I had been writing forever, and if I hadn't been published I would still be writing, but the choice I made was that I wanted to be published. I was fifteen, and I had a poem in a magazine in Nigeria. It was a huge deal for me. So maybe that's when I decided that I wanted to be published, because that's a decision that one has to make. It's something you pursue. It's a matter of physically sending things out.

The need to push yourself and seek it out.

Yeah. I think that's the decision I made. But writing is something I knew I would always do. It's just something I love to do.

Which of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck did you find most interesting to work on? Most enjoyable? Or the most personally affecting to work on?

I love all my babies, I can't choose.

Well, maybe it was "Ghosts." It was fictionalized, but it's sort of in the spirit of my father. I adore my father. I think it's a story I'm likely to go back and read.

Do you read your own work often?

No. It's horrifying to do that.

Many have labeled you as a "feminist writer" or an "African writer." Are you able to relate to these titles? Do you find them problematic at all?

I think labels can be problematic. I went through a period of resistance to labels. I often said, "Don't apply that to me." But I also realize that if you're practical and realistic, we live in a world in which labels still exist. The hope is that we'll get to a place in, I don't know, two hundred years when labels will no longer matter. But they do. The difference is in the context. I can tell for example that when somebody says "feminist writer" it simply means "she's concerned with gender-power issues." Or when somebody says "feminist writer" and there's a sneer in their voice, you know that it's sort of a patronizing thing. It's often the context and how it's used. It's also the same way that "African writer" is a label of race sometimes, but other times in a particular context you realize that this is a put down. It's the same with "black writer."

I think it's very similar to when people label someone as a "gay writer," and that can mean either you're tackling gay-related issues or your book is banished to the gay section of the bookstore where nobody will ever find you.

Exactly. And the problem with things like that is if you're a person who isn't a heterosexual white male you get labels. The problem with them is the assumption that they're not quite equal. There's the black section of the bookstore, and the reason I detest that section isn't because I don't want people to find black literature easily. It's that there's a sense that that section isn't really the best literature.

A few years back you also did a book tour with Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng. What was the experience like?

Dave has become a friend, and I absolutely love him. I think he's amazing. He actually came to Nigeria last year to do a workshop, and everybody fell in love with him. It was really disgusting. It was fun. I was sent a copy of What is the What, and I just remember thinking, "So now you have this white American man writing the story of this African kid and how horrible it was." I wanted to dislike this book. So I start reading it with all of my anger, and I'm waiting to find something to be appalled by. And then I'm turning page after page going "God, this is really good! Oh God, I actually like this book!" I was just overwhelmed. It's a book I really respect and admire. I was a bit horrified that I liked it so much. So it was actually fun to do events with them.

For me, on the one hand Valentino and I have being Africans in common, but on the other hand Valentino's life is unimaginable. I can't imagine it. I grew up in the middle-class in Nigeria with an academic background, and here's Valentino's story of his village being raided. For him to emerge human from it is such a courageous and peaceful thing.