6 questions with . . .
AUTHOR CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
Being born into a “typical middle-class African family” with a university professor for a father meant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was taught the importance of education early on. This was a plus for someone with an insatiable appetite for consuming the written word. Nevertheless, when it came to choosing a life path, becoming an author seemed outside the realm of respectable career pursuits, even for a family of academics.
“I grew up in a family that valued reading,” says Adichie in a phone interview from a tour stop in Philadelphia. “But they particularly valued education in that very classic, middle-class African way where every child was expected to become a doctor or a lawyer. I’m the fifth of six children and everybody else did the sensible thing and became sensible scientists. And I was the strange one who was a little nonconformist.”
The 31-year-old Nigerian author is quickly building a reputation for providing a new voice in African literature, offering a glimpse into a world of prosperous and educated Africans that the West rarely sees. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the prestigious Orange Broadband Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck (Knopf Canada, 218 Pages, $29.95) is being praised for its honest, witty but often harrowing portrait of her home country and the immigrant experience in America.
The author took time to chat with the Herald recently.
Q: After releasing two awardwinning novels, what made you want to release a collection of short stories?
A: I don’t really see it as moving away from something or turning a new leaf or anything because I have always been writing short stories. The short story is not the less-accomplished sister of the novel. It’s a form in itself.
In writing a short story, I’m often aware that there is a greater sense of urgency, that I have less space to compress emotion and character and all of those things. With a novel you sense that you can fall down and get up and still in the end succeed at doing something. With a short story you get the sense that you can’t fall down and get up, you just need to get it right.
Q: Virtually every review that is written of your work points out that the Africa you are writing about is quite different than what we generally see in the West. Did you set out to change people’s perceptions?
A: It’s not what I want to do. I think it’s what my writing ends up doing in some ways. I really don’t set out having someone else define my agenda in the sense that I don’t look at what is happening in Africa and say “I’m going to challenge that.” I just write the stories I know. And it just happens that the stories are not about the expected African (topics). And even in writing about war, I am interested in human relationships and in love and in food. I’m not so much into the stereotype of the big man, bad African leader and the helpless people — that kind of very easy, one group is the killer and one group is the killed sort of thing. .
Q: Some of the stories do include disturbing scenes of violence. The police officer flogging a man in The American Embassy or the brutalized prisoners in Cell One, for instance, are described as something that is happening in the background in Nigeria. Where does this come from?
A: That’s my dark vision, my artistic vision. I’m interested in the dark side of what it means to be human and how we humans find these things to do to each other. To me it’s both interesting and horrifying. And, I suppose if you look at fiction in a clinical way, it needs conflict.
Q: You live part-time in the U.S. and some of the stories chronicle the immigrant experience over there. Do these stories reflect your views of living in America as an immigrant?
A: Not really. I’ve found that since the book came out I’ve had to defend my affection for America. I do very much like America, I have to say again. I just happen to know about America because I’ve spent a lot of time here. I think this is true for anywhere else, just the situation that you find yourself in when you leave home and you are in a new place. There are things you like and things that you benefit from, but at the same time there are very many layers of loss involved in leaving home and things you can never get back. The idea is that you can never really go back to that home because that home doesn’t exist anymore. And the new place you are in really isn’t home and home becomes an idea that comes with a sense of dislocation.
In The Thing Around Your Neck, a character describes Americans as being both ignorant and arrogant. This is not an uncommon view of the U.S. Does it come from experience?
The idea of ignorance and arrogance I think came from when I first came to the U.S. I was very surprised at how little people knew of where I came from. I was very surprised by the sorts of question I got from fellow undergraduates whom I just assumed should know. I was surprised that for many people Africa was just a vast, single country where you had lions and giraffes and people were surprised that there were cultural keys that I found familiar. They found that surprising. You can’t expect people to know everything, but what I found galling is that people had assumptions that I just found incredibly arrogant. It was done with a kind of “I-know-your-story” type of attitude when they really didn’t know my story.
Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe described you as being “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.” Do you see your work as the continuation of some sort of cultural tradition?
I like to think that if I had been born 150 years ago that I would be telling stories. What stories do is deal with the reality we have. My great, great, great grandfather and grandmother would tell stories based on their life. For me, this is my reality.