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Write the Power

25 Oct 2006

An interview with award-winning young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the International Festival of Authors.

Recently, AfroToronto.com had the opportunity to speak with a rising young literary star from Nigeria whom Chinua Achebe (Nigeria’s most illustrious living author) refers to as an author that “came almost fully made.” The author in question is 29-year-old native of Enugu, Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She was recently in Toronto briefly as part of the 27th annual International Festival of Authors to read from and promote her new book: Half of a Yellow Sun. Only her second book, the buzz around Half of a Yellow Sun already presages the similar success which followed her first book, Purple Hibicus (published in 2003), which was short listed for the coveted Orange Fiction Prize of 2004 and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers'' Prize for Best First Book (2005).

As we are being escorted by the festival’s staff to a beautiful interview suite, I meet a very humble, yet confident, young woman who brushes off the hype by simply stating that: “I’ve always been very focused on writing. It’s actually the only thing I care about (laughs). … That’s the only thing I can do fairly well so I have to.”

A promising medical student who left medical school after two years to go on to complete a Masters degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows about having the courage to pursue and stand for what she believes in. When I asked her about the family pressures which she might have endured when deciding to leave medical school, she says that her parents already had her sister who is a doctor so they were more accepting of her choice. In Adichie’s words: “It was courage I guess but it was also this absolute terrible fear that I was going to end up with this horrible life of being a doctor and be so not happy.”

With a mind intuitively aware of the history of the ravages of class and colonialism in her country and continent, Adichie finds her mission in writing as a catalyst for social change. Even her own decision to break ranks from the established expectations of her privileged upbringing was part of this larger struggle. As she point out: “You do well in school, you become a doctor. Again we learn that very young. … I just wish that people were taught to be more well-rounded. We churn out doctors who are very good doctors but they know nothing about their history. And these things are all connected.”

Connected to her history Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie certainly is. Her new novel, Half of a Yellow Sun takes places before and during Nigeria’s Biafra civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1970. The Igbo citizens of the short-lived independent nation of Biafra’s movement, led by charismatic leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, led to more than a million civilian deaths --- mostly through starvation. Although the conflict ended some years before her birth, Adichie feels a strong connection to this watershed period which played a defining role in her own family’s history.

While in Toronto, she sat down with AfroToronto.com to talk about her story and her mission as a writer.

AT: How did you get into writing?

CNA: I’ve been writing really for as long as I can remember. I never really had a moment where I decided that I would become a writer. … When I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it opened my eyes. I [knew I could] write about people like me. And then I started. … I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember but I think I started taking it seriously when I was about 16. I wrote my collection of poetry. Really bad poetry.

AT: Do you use fiction to educate about political realities?

CNA: I should say that I don’t ever try to educate … I think it’s a disaster that afflicts writers of fiction thinking that they can educate because then you really end up teaching. I happen to be interested in things like class. I’m a product of colonialism, how can I not be affected by class? And it makes me very angry how we continue to live with it. How really, I don’t think we’ll ever get [rid of it]… Because we’ve been taught to devalue ourselves, our culture, our languages …. Even for people like me who like to think that we’ve come back to revise history for ourselves. It’s really a struggle to realize and to remind ourselves that our language is really as important as English. …. Because these are things that are very subliminal that we’ve been taught [from early school days]. For instance, in Nigeria we say things like “It’s from abroad” therefore immediately it’s superior. “Abroad they do it like this” and we don’t ask questions. ...

We need to have Black Africans writing about the experience of other Black Africans. We’ve had a long history of having Africa be written about in a particular tradition. And even Africans start to buy into that [European] tradition.

AT: Speaking about the power of language. Does Igbo figure greatly in your writing? Would you write a novel entirely in Igbo?

CNA: I would like to but I can’t. Again, it goes back to what we said about [the effect of colonialism]. … Not only is the language of education entirely in English, but it’s also an education system that doesn’t encourage learning your own language. … I chose to pursue Igbo until the final year of my secondary studies -- which most people did not do. That’s why I can write a bit okay and not very well in Igbo. Learning Igbo was seen as uncool. … I can’t do a novel in Igbo. My Igbo isn’t that perfect. It isn’t that advanced, it isn’t that complex. My vocabulary is very basic. But I am thinking about writing a short story. ...

Some middle-class parents in Nigeria say proudly that “my child doesn’t speak Igbo.”  The parents would speak Igbo to each other, speak English to the child, and the child talk in English back. There really isn''t an effort. To me, I think we should speak English. But we should also [know our language]…It doesn’t have to be a win-lose. We can speak both completely and be better off.

AT: You’re currently doing some graduate work at Yale University in African studies. How do you see the challenges of writing about Africa from a more centric perspective within that institution?  We all know how about expectations when writing dissertations, things like footnotes, as in quoting only accepted and reputable scholars which often  approach Africa as “the other.”

CNA: This system is not mine. This system of education. This system of footnoting each other over a long progression of incestuous intermingling isn’t mine. ... But if it was our system, I think that we would do the same thing. … But the reason I think it’s important for Africans to know and get into that kind of system is so we can write back. In some ways it’s important. Which is also why, for example, I’m interested in listening to Fox News and the extreme right-wing … because I need to know what’s on the other side. One needs to be balanced … On the other hand there are non-Africans who have done fantastic works on Africa. Sometimes I wonder why Africans don’t do that kind of work on Africa. And again it’s colonialism. We’re raised to seek to be a lawyer and not an anthropologist.

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