15th January, 2021
By Nehru Odeh
Her fans can’t get enough of her. Aside from her books selling like hot cakes across the globe, she is in hot demand everywhere. Indeed one can easily gauge her rock star status by the kind of feverish excitement she induces in her fans during book tours and the intriguing way they fill up spaces just to hear her speak and read from her novels (something she does with celestial brilliance, confidence and beauty).
In line with an Igbo proverb Achebe popularized in Things Fall Apart, she has literally washed her hands and therefore now eats with kings. Not only has she rubbed minds with world leaders and address global issues, she has shared the stage on different occasions with notable personalities such as Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Zadie Smith, to mention a few. And has never failed to deliver when occasion demands.
Still, who is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Who is this lady many chose to regard as an enfant terrible, but who at 26 burst onto the scene with the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus in 2003, shook the world and has continued to wow virtually everyone, including world leaders with her astonishing brilliance, creativity and the courage of her convictions? Why is she much in demand?
Yet there are many sides to Chimamanda. In the introduction to the book, Conversations With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, edited by Daria Tunca, and newly published by University Press of Mississippi, the author recounted an encounter with Chimamanda in October 2018, which was part of a conversation to be published in the book in which she told her “Interviews get you into trouble.” According to Daria, “the Nigerian writer offered no immediate verbal response, but the expression on her face suggested agreement—or, more emphatically even, something along the lines of ‘You’re telling me.’”
I can’t agree with this more. Daria hinged the reason for the storms of controversies her interviews had generated on two things: one the fact that “Adichie is a writer who speaks her mind her on sensitive topics such as gender and politics, in a manner that might challenge some of her audience’s preconceptions, or in a way that raises moral and social questions more easily cast aside with invective than contested on the basis of sound reasoning”; secondly, some of these reactions have been sparked by the manners the interviews were edited.”
However, Daria’s views notwithstanding, no book has opened a rare window into Adichie’s mind, her worldview, why she thinks in a certain manner, why she does the things she does than this collection of engaging interviews entitled, Conversations With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Not only do the interviewers interrogate the authors on several issues bordering on her writing, childhood, political views, feminism, nation building, the nationality question, the importance of memory and why it should not be suppressed, the presentness of the past, Biafra and racism including little detailed but equally important topics such as hair and fashion, they tend to deconstruct the author, making the reader know not just more about her but also some truths they wouldn’t have known had she not spoken out: what drives her creative genius, what motivates her and succinctly put why she is Chimamanda.
And in the same way Thomas Carlyle, the British satirist, writer and philosopher in his book On Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History posits that the history of the world is indeed the history of great men, I make bold to say conversations with authors are not only stories that truly represent them, they are more revealing than even their biographies and autobiographies because interviewers draw out the author in a way biographers and the authors themselves can’t and the author cannot but respond spontaneously and subconsciously, sometimes saying things that on second thought, she shouldn’t have said.
This is what the interviewers in Conversations With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have done. They have succeeded in bringing the writer in Chimamanda out into public space. For example, a particular line of thought that runs through many of the interviews speaks to the fact that Chimamanda makes no bones about how unapologetic and committed she is to her writing, to the Muse, how writing not only chose her but also drives her creative process. Contrary to how many writers see themselves as conscious and deliberate creators who will themselves into writing, Chimamanda sees herself as not on the driving seat but rather the creative process is. The writing process itself tells her what to do when she sits hunched over a blank sheet. Perhaps that explains why she is much in demand everywhere, that passion, that devotion and dedication to writing that borders on obsession or a commitment that says “this or nothing else.”
For instance, when Eve Daniels asked her what led to her decision to pursue a writing career, Chimamanda said she didn’t choose writing bur rather writing chose her. “I didn’t ever consciously decide to pursue writing. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to spell, and just sitting down and writing made me feel incredibly fulfilled. I may have considered other careers to make a living, since I wasn’t sure I could do it from writing, but I have never thought actively about my choice to write. I just write. I have to write. I like to say that I didn’t choose writing, writing chose me,” she said.
Asked again what inspires her as a writer, Chimamanda also responded by saying writing, not herself, takes the driving seat. “This may sound slightly mystical, but I sometimes feel as if my writing is something bigger than I am. There are days when I sit at my laptop and will myself to write and nothing happens. There are other days when I have things to do but feel compelled to write. And the writing just flows out. I am never sure what triggers these “inspirations,” if that is what they are. More mundanely, the rituals and geography of specific places inspire me—the chaotic energy of Lagos, the sereneness of Nsukka, the insular calm of Mansfield, Connecticut. And I love observing people and tiny details about them. I often get the urge to write from imagining or inventing lives for people I don’t know.”
Chimamanda is unapologetic about her writing. At Felabration, an annual celebration held in honour of Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti in Lagos in 2019, Chimamanda said: “I think of myself as a writer and a story teller. That’s the thing I really do. I think that’s the reason I am living. I really need to believe that. And it’s a thing that gives my life meaning, it is something I want to be doing until I no longer can. If I can’t write I don’t want to live. But one thing my writing has done is that it has given me a platform,”
This line of thought, as I have aforesaid, runs through several interviews in the book. It shows her unwavering commitment to writing, her mission as a storyteller. Nothing makes any sense to her other than writing. When Wale Adebanwi asked her in one of his engaging interviews what was on the horizon and her outlook in life, she said: “In addition to waving a magic wand and changing the world? Writing.” In another vein, when Adebamwi asked her why she decided to write her award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, “”to tell this story which constitutes an indirect “witnessing,” if you will, to a history that remains traumatic,” the multiple award-winning writer, feminist and public intellectual said she did not choose this subject; it chose her.
Susan VanZanten also asked her how she discerned the calling to be a writer and whether she would identify it as a vocation, a question similar to what earlier interviewers had asked her. Chimamanda maintained: “I have writer friends with elaborate and exciting stories about how they came to writing, but I just don’t have that. I wrote from when I was six. Even then I knew that this was something that truly mattered to me. When I was ten, though I had a lot of friends, I remember looking forward to when I could go up to my father’s study and be alone and write. It was considered something odd for me to want to do when it was sunny outside. Now, as an adult, I realize it’s what I care about. It gives me a sense that this is what I am meant to be doing.”
In Chimamanda’s literary world, characters takes on a life of their own. They direct her what to do. Such is the power of fiction, of her creative process. She reveals that to many of the interviewers in the book. For example when Tom Hall asked whether she does the same thing in her essay-writing and novel -writing process, she said when she writes essays, she is more deliberate but with fiction it’s a lot much more intuitive. “I like to say it’s much more magical for me. Characters take on a life of their own. Sometimes I want a character to do something; the character doesn’t. And of course, when I tell this story to people who don’t write fiction, they look at me as though I’m crazy. So, in some ways I think that my nonfiction is about my worldview, and my fiction is about that much more magical, difficult-to-pin-down, thing about the world. Because the world is messy, and the thing that’s interesting about being a creative person—and that’s what I like to think of myself primarily as—is that the world doesn’t always align with your ideology. So, in my essays, it’s really about how I want the world to be, but my fiction, I think, is about how the world is.
“There are times when I have wanted to write, and I’m sitting in front of my laptop, and nothing is happening. Then there are other times when I have other things to do, and a story just won’t leave me alone.”
This also falls in line with what Chimamanda said while responding to a question Lia Grainger asked her. “There are some writers for whom it’s easy. Well, actually, I don’t know, I just like to imagine that’s true to make myself feel even worse. [laughs] I think that my process is always . . . I’m obsessive. I write and I rewrite and I rewrite and I rewrite.
“It’s very strange to talk about the writing process. I don’t think I like it. And I also don’t like to listen to it. Some of my writer friends love to, and I think, let’s just stop. A, it can come across as . . . there’s a sense that there is a certain self-indulgence about it, and then on the other hand, because the process itself is not entirely conscious, because you are struggling, and you’ve been there for two hours and you’re staring at your laptop screen and you just hate every sentence you’ve written, and then something happens and you write a sentence you like, but you’re not entirely conscious of it.
“Some people ask, why did you make that choice to do that? And I think, I don’t know. For me, writing fiction is not the analytical process that some questions assume that it is. Why did you make the choice to have a character do that? And I think, the character spoke to me. I think that’s what art is. Sometimes we assume that everything is deliberate and there is a reason behind it, and that’s when you become a critic—you’re no longer a creator. I don’t like to think that way, because I don’t want to ever fall into thinking like a critic. I think that’s a danger for writing,” she maintained.
Chimamanda sees herself as a storyteller, and nothing else. She is under no illusion she is something else other than a storyteller, an idea she reiterated in several interviews in this interview. Not for her the various labels some writers ascribe to themselves, labels such as novelist, writer of political fiction etc.
She believes her first responsibility as a writer is to tell stories about the human condition, about people who live, fall in love, make love, suffer pains and even fight; even though the fact that she writes realistic fiction sometimes make her seem as someone writes political fiction. “I’m a storyteller—that’s all I want to be; that’s really the only thing that I do relatively well, tell stories. But I also realize it would be dishonest for me to say that I’m just a writer and it doesn’t matter, and my stories don’t mean anything. Maybe in a fantasy world, yes. But one has to be realistic. I’m writing about a place of scarce resources. I’m telling stories that are set in recognizable places, and a lot of things there are contested. I realize that my fiction becomes political, whether or not one intends it to be. There is a sense in which I accept that, but I don’t let that define me and define my work,” Chimamanda said while responding to Eleanor Wachtel.
The author also echoed a similar feeling when Lia Grainger asked her whether “political writer” was a title she embraced. “I feel ambivalent about it, because I’m very often asked about my “political fiction,” and I think, “Can we just talk about the characters and how
they love each other?” Because for me sometimes political fiction means it’s the kind of book that you don’t finish because it’s boring. It’s the sort of book that is like medicine: it’s good for you to read it but you don’t really care. But that’s just my perception of political fiction, the sort of fiction that isn’t about character. It’s about ideas, and the ideas push the narrative and the characters are sacrificed, and it’s not the kind of fiction I want to do. But then on the other hand, I realize that writing realistic fiction set in a place like Nigeria where everything is contested makes it political in its own way, so I feel ambivalent about it. There are times when I think, “Why can’t it just be fiction?” We all write, but I realize that labels are necessary sometimes,” she said.
What makes Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spectacular and unputdownable is the fact that the interviews are engaging and intellectual. Not only do the interviewers take on the award-winning writer on issues such as, literature, feminism, fashion, racism and politics, they also display an in-depth knowledge of her books, around which the conversations revolve. One of such books is Half of a Yellow Sun and the issues it throws up, issues such as the Biafra, the nationality question, the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, nationhood and nation building,
While responding to questions about Half of a Yellow Sun and the issues it throws up, Chimamanda expressed the reason she had to write a book about the civil war, a dark part of Nigeria’s history that many for reasons best known to them would want Nigerians to forget so that the country can forge ahead. However, Chimamanda reiterated that a remembrance of the nation’s ugly past is necessary for nation building. This view of hers is similar to what British historical sociologist, Anthony D. Smith, posits in his book, Myths and Memories of the Nation. In that book, Smith makes a strong case for the importance of the past in the creation of the present.
Indeed Chimamanda is unapologetic about Half of a Yellow Sun, a book she believes chose her. “There is a deeply politicized feeling among many Nigerians that Biafra should be forgotten, that we should all behave as if it never happened and that those who do bring it up are troublemakers, or secessionists or whatever. Biafra is a very important part of our history, and many of the issues surrounding the war are still unresolved, but what worries me most is that we seem to think these issues will go away if we simply pretend they are not there,” Chimamanda told Dan Wickett.
Chimamanda also said something similar in her conversation with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: “I tend to divide the questions in categories. There are those people whose family were Biafran, who are still burning with this kind of neo-nationalist zeal. And there are those who are like me, who are sort of skeptical of things, but who feel strongly that we should talk about it. And there are those who are just furious with me for writing this book, because “let’s let the past be the past”—and it was one of these people who was saying: “Why do you insist on bringing up the past, that is gone?” And I remember thinking: For you it’s past, but for so many people I know it’s living memory. And I think that’s the approach I brought to the book.”
A salient aspect of Conversations With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author’s humanity, her concerns not just for herself, her homeland but also for others and the determination to be herself and to be honest to self, which dot every page of the book. As someone who speaks her mind (a trait Daria attests to in her introduction), Chimamanda doesn’t hold anything back. She expresses her mind and says it as it is.
However, a particular part of the book that strikes me and which speaks volumes about the author’s humanity and honesty to herself, others and her fiction is at the tail end when the editor, Daria Tunca brings up the issue of interviews getting the author into trouble. Daria not only refers to her conversations with journalists several of which have given rise to controversies, but also to the interview that she conducted with Hillary Clinton at the PEN America World Voices Festival in April 2018, when she questioned her use of the word “wife” as the first descriptor in her Twitter profile and the backlash it generated back home in Nigeria. Chimaman again spoke her mind, about how those reactions hurt her, thus betraying her honesty, which perhaps explains her greatness as a writer and why she is much in demand. That honesty can’t be bought in the market, as Nigerians say, and it is indeed the mark of a great writer.
“One of the decisions that I have made lately, knowing I’m now a famous person, is that I’m going to be an honest person, publicly. This means that I don’t want to pretend that things that hurt me don’t hurt me. I have many friends and relatives who think that I shouldn’t let people know that something is getting to me, because it means giving those people power. But I disagree. It’s the reverse: I don’t want to give them the power of my having to pretend that something that hurts me doesn’t hurt me,” she maintained.
Conversations With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is indeed a compendium of knowledge and offers fresh and rare insight into the life of a great writer that is not in the public domain. I recommend it to everyone who wants to know more about Chimamanda and intends pursuing a writing career.
– Nehru Odeh, journalist and writer, is the author of The Patience of an Embattled Storyteller, a book that foresaw the adoption, rape and murder of females by terrorists in Nigeria. He writes for TheNEWS.