For all you Chimamanda Adichie fans out there, the wait is finally over! I really wanted to put this up earlier, but smart me, left the cable for uploading the sound file onto my computer, so couldn’t exactly transcribe it. I must say that the event (hosted by the D.C. Young African Professionals Network & the Center for Global Development) was less of a lecture, and more of a conversation. I’ve been to a number of similar events, and she’s definitely the most engaging and down-to-earth speaker to date. And the moderator Uzodinma Iweala (Author, Beasts of No Nation) was great as well, asked all the good questions! Chimamanda (whose name means “My God Will Never Fail” ) jokingly mentioned that she regards Uzo as a smart younger brother and likes to harass him, so you can imagine the kind of dynamic between those two at the event.
Alors, for those of you who don’t know Chimamanda Adichie, she’s a Nigerian author who currently lives between the U.S. and Nigeria. Author of award-winning Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2005) and now her latest book, a collection of short stories, called The Thing Around Your Neck. You can find out more about her here.
Adichie read “Cell One”; set in Nsukka, the university town where she grew up.This is pretty long, but it’s all good stuff. To make it easier, I’ve structured the article thematically. Enjoy!!
Africa is not a single story
[Adichie noted that she sometimes worries about being repetitive on the issue.]
“I worry about just singing the same song over and over, because I find that I’m often in situations where I have to say this over and over, where I’m saying, look, people cannot insist that Africa is one thing. Also, I think it’s important for me to say that. But in insisting that Africa isn’t a single story I’m not trying at all to deny or evade certain things. There are many problems where we come from, I think we all know that. But for me, what’s problematic is when most people focus on one thing; it just turns the whole thing into a lie. It’s also about how the story is told.”
[As an example, she talked about a recent episode of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.]
“I’m watching CNN and Anderson Cooper is covering Congo. And he has a Belgian expert. Of course, we know the history of Congo, so the irony of a Belgian being the expert in Congo is a problem in itself. So you have the Belgian expert, and then u have Congolese sort of lined up behind him. And they never talk. And the Belgian expert explains Congo to us, and the Congolese are just sort of there as a backdrop. I was so offended by this, because I was really interested in Congo, I was interested in the rapes for example, in what was going on. But having that Belgian explain to me, while the Congolese – who might as well have spoken for themselves – weren’t allowed to, I found took away from the truth. For me, that’s why I insist that there isn’t a single story.”
Chimamanda: “We’re talking about the feeling we have within our souls. Now we’re gonna have to go into this philosophical thing about what’s the truth. I like to look at truth as multi-faceted…Going back to that example, I think that we should hear the Belgian speak. I’m all for that. It would be fantastic if we hear the Belgian and the Congolese. For me that’s the idea; that truth is full of counterpoints.”
[Uzo asked her about her approach to truth, given the fact that she uses fiction (which is somewhat ironic).]
Chimamanda: “I don’t like to analyze, so I find it really difficult [to write non-fiction]. In approaching fiction I want to retain my creative lens. I could invent something, but I’d just rather not.”
[On how she goes about writing her fiction]:
Chimamanda: “I usually start with the character. At the same time I try very hard not to lie, if that makes sense, because I think that it’s very easy to say things like ‘love conquers all’; I’m not sure that’s entirely true. It’s very complicated. You start with a character and start believing that these characters love each other, and want it to work. I start with a character and hope that I will be honest about the truth and let it go where it will. I find that I just don’t usually do happy… I seem to be suspicious of happiness. I start these stories and I mean well, but somehow there’s disaster. And it’s just never the intent.”
Us Vs. Them: Africa Vs. the West
[On the question of being African yet subscribing to Western ideals, Adichie noted that it doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’. Especially since the notion of being a ‘world citizen’ is increasing, and at the same time, some Africans think that the West is intruding.]
Chimamanda: “I think it’s a very complicated question. I feel very strongly and comfortable about this African identity that I’ve taken on. I say taken on because, in many ways, it’s a choice that one makes. I’ve made this choice to take on this African identity. My politics in the past 10 years has become decidedly pan-African, and again, it’s a choice. On the other hand, I like Sweden. I’ve had a fairly good time in Stockholm… I think that sometimes we shouldn’t see the question as either-or, the idea that somehow we have options; that you have to pick A and you can’t have B or C and D. But then also it would be dishonest to pretend that there isn’t in a large political sense, in talking about power, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. There is. We can’t, for example, pretend that African leaders really have a say in what goes on in the world. They don’t.”
[Chimamanda spoke abouther perceptions on the issue of identity, and how some people are surprised that an African can actually speak and write good English.]
“I remember a professor in my college reading an essay that I had written. Sometimes a professor wants to read one or two in front of a class… I don’t think he expected me to look like I did. So he read the essay and he said ‘who wrote this?’, and to confront me, ‘you wrote the essay?’ For me it was one of those moments, a moment I’ll never forget.”
[According to her, that moment made her more aware of identity, and led her to incorporate the question of identity in her work.]
“In some ways I think fiction is one’s way of making sense of things that don’t make sense. It informs my fiction; that whole idea of ‘what are you?’, and ‘what’s your identity?’. Again, I don’t set out writing fiction to make a point – about how the world is full of inequality, even though it is. I hope it’s more thoughtful and a bit more complicated. Things always are complicated, there’s just never anything that is easy.”
[Chimamanda also discussed the element of expectation within one’s own race.]
“On one hand you might complain that the professor was surprised you could write a decent sentence. But then you find that the person next to you, who also looks like you, is surprised that you can write a decent sentence.”
Inter-racial relationships – another theme in her writing
[She highlighted the interplay between society and individuals in a relationship, by saying that identity is usually something the world imposes on you.]
Chimamanda: “I’m often cynical, but deep inside I’m a hopeless romantic.I believe in love, I believe in the possibility of human affection. I believe very much in the possibility of connection, between a guy from Sweden and a woman from Ghana for example. However, I think, with relationships, it’s easier when you have certain things in common. And I think often it’s less about the people involved, and more about the way the world sees you.”
[On the issue of black women’s anger towards black men-white women relationships, she discussed some interesting elements of a Toni Morrison essay she read recently.]
Chimamanda: “She said a lot of people think the anger is about the whole idea of there being very few eligible black men, and now they’re going to white women and the black women stay alone… Toni Morrison argues that the basic reason the black women are angry about this union is because black women have a fundamental feeling of superiority over white women. I’d never quite thought of that. She suggested that while black men look at white men in awe, black women just never looked at white women in awe. I found that fascinating, so maybe it sort of comes into play.”
Obligation to country and continent
[Like most people who live in relatively developed cities in Africa or other parts of the world, there’s the issue of family obligation or obligation to one’s homeland. Adichie touched on this and mentioned that her sense of obligation comes primarily from acknowledging her privilege.]
Chimamanda: “I have lots of cousins in Nigeria and I do Western Union. I think a lot of people here identify with that. It’s so interesting, in thinking about the way that my non-African friends look at it. It had never really occurred to me to question the kind of entitlement that relatives have. Sometimes it increasingly becomes annoying, ‘You know I really don’t owe you anything. How can you call me up at 3am telling me to send you money?’ On the other hand I really believe in family. I think it’s a sense of obligation that comes from what I like to call ‘acknowledging my privilege’. I’m just very fortunate in many ways and it’s not necessarily because I did well in school. I think about my cousin who, if she had had the opportunity to go to Nsukka primary school, probably would have done as well. But she didn’t because she was in the village… So I feel there’s that obligation because I have to acknowledge the privilege I have.”
[On the issue of helping develop one’s country or continent this is what she had to say]:
Chimamanda: “When it comes to Nigeria and Africa, I feel the same way. There are people who are really talented, writers in Nigeria for example who have these crazy ideas about how publishing works because they don’t know any better; nobody’s told them. But since I know how it works I feel an obligation to tell them how it works. Sometimes people say give back. Giving back sounds so cool. But I don’t really see it like that. For me, it’s a practical thing. I get angry about how Nigeria is. I read This Day and I find the writing atrocious. I’ve read the Kenyan one as well and it’s the same thing. And then I realize it’s atrocious because the best have gone.
It’s a practical thing. I want to do this work and I want to do more non-fiction. We have to change it, but we’re not going to change it unless we all participate. I’m really heartbroken about Africa, and I think a lot of us are. It becomes the reason to just try and do one kind thing.”
Coping with ambition and success: “Happily ambitious”
Chimamanda: “I really don’t know how; the most honest answer would be that I’m happily ambitious. When I came second in primary school I cried, because I needed to come first. I’ve always been happily ambitious, and I also think, particularly for women, ambition is a fantastic thing. In general women are socialized to be in the background, which I completely disagree with.”
[She made a distinction between why she writes, and how her ambition informs her decisions.]
“Writing is something I deeply love. I made the choice to research being published because of my ambition, but I didn’t make the choice to write because of my ambition. I made the choice to write because I loved and I love it, and when it’s going well it’s the thing that makes me happiest. I’m sort of a loner, I just love to be alone and usually it’s at night, and I just feel transported. I really feel that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, if that makes sense. At that moment and only at that moment do I believe in things like spirits, and do I believe that my great-grandmother is watching.”
[On how she copes with success, Chimamanda said she sometimes forgets she’s chalked so many successes, and also talked about the pressures associated with those successes.]
“… with successes, I feel very lucky. The problem with this kind of success – which I feel very grateful for -but I think, Good Lord people are reading me in Sri Lanka and Japan, and sometimes I think why?… The success is lovely; there are times when I sort of feel really happy. On the other hand, I don’t always think about it. I often forget, because I’m just sort of sitting there hoping to write a sentence. I don’t really remember that I won the Orange prize, and I’m sitting there and thinking “I hate this thing that I’m doing, that the sentences are not working.”
[And with most ‘successful’ people, she’s her toughest critic.]
“Also, there’s the pressure of wanting to please yourself. I’ve always found that I’m a difficult person to please in many ways. I find that I often don’t please myself. If anything there’s the pressure of knowing that when my editor asks, ‘How are u doing Chimamanda?’, she really means, ‘Are you working?’ But those things don’t worry me as much as me worrying me. Thinking, am I going to be happy with what I do next? And I write something and think its just crap. It’s always difficult, there are times when it’s not such a bad thing, but there are times when I could do without it.”
[Following her ‘lecture’, there was a Q&A with the audience. Some of the questions and her responses below:]
Q: Thing Around Your Neck– What do you mean by that title?
Chimamanda: “The thing about fiction is that I like to see the possible interpretations of the story. It’s also why there are literature departments in universities; people read one text and have all kinds of interpretations. I’ve read people writing about Purple Hibiscus, often in academic settings, and I just think, really? – Point is, it really depends on what you make of it. I just like the title.”
Q: Qualities of a good leader – based on an article Chimamanda wrote in Next about her experience with a policeman in Nigeria
Chimamanda: “A sense of the government as human beings is important. His question was based on this piece I wrote in Next newspaper where I was going back to my hometown from Lagos and we drove. I hadn’t driven back in a while, usually we’d fly, but my brother and I drove. It was Christmas, and at Christmas the police sort of get more ‘active’. We were stopped many times, and each time we were stopped, they’d ask us to give them money, and we really didn’t want to be late. So when they’d stop us, my brother would bring out the money…
…I know these people are underpaid so we’d do the ‘spreading the wealth’ thing. At some point a man became very aggressive and told me my papers were fake. I stood there in the sun for an hour because I refused to give him the money since I knew my papers weren’t fake. Finally he let us go. Then this policeman stops us and my brother is bringing out money and the guy says, no let me see your papers. He looks at the papers, gives it back and says safe journey.
For me, it shows that there’s still hope. This man was in the sun, he was underpaid like all officers, but he just refused to take money, asked for our papers and said safe journey. I was so moved by that. He’s obviously an example of what I think our leaders should be. Things are difficult, our infrastructure is messed up. However, there are people like that policeman and my father who will never do such things…
…The problem in a country like ours is the people who should lead don’t want to play the game in getting to positions of leadership. The more pertinent question is how to get the people, because they are there. How do we get them to reach positions of leadership? One answer would be to form political parties to reach out to do the kind of grassroots mobilization which is possible.
Q: Are your short stories based on real happenings?
[Chimamanda threw the question back to the enquirer with a “what do you think?” to which she responded, “tell me”- just to give you a sense of the kind of rapport at the event]
Chimamanda: “The reason I ask is it’s very easy to broadly say yes or no. Often it depends on which story; there are some which are based in a more direct sense on things that happened to me or people I know. Some start with my reading an article, which then becomes the starting point for a story. It really depends. The ‘Headstrong Historian’ started from my father telling me stories about my great grandfather. And I read a book about the history of West Africa…With each of the stories, there’s a story behind the story.
Q: Should African countries stop receiving foreign aid?[Chimamanda pointed out that some communities depend on aid for their very livelihood, hence stopping foreign aid in its entirety wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do. What should be asked is how the aid is structured.]
“I don’t like pity; I think things should be done in a dignified way.”
Q: How did the Nigerian community react to Half of a Yellow Sun?
Chimamanda noted that since the Nigeria-Biafra war was not spoken about (even in schools) people asked her to leave it alone when she mentioned her book. The book wasn’t supposed to be political, but the issue was important to her since she grew up in the shadows of Biafra. It was inspired by her grandfather who was fiercely loyal, and she wanted to make sense of ‘the thing’ that had taken him. There are pre- and post-war stories, and she grew up in a space of inherited loss. She’d read about the period since she was 9 and at 15 she wrote a ‘terrible’ play. She was aware that her book would essentially be documenting history so she wanted to make sure she got the facts right. Coincidentally, she read everything she could about the topic.
“I was pleasantly surprised at reception in Nigeria, especially young Nigeria…The first book reading ended in a shouting match, but there was progress; people were finally beginning to talk about it.”
Some people who were around during the war felt she didn’t have anything to offer since she wasn’t there when it happened.
“You’ve rigged yourself. Now, you can only do better” – What’s next?
Chimamanda: “A woman wrote to me after reading half of a yellow sun and said the book blew her away… And then, ‘But Chimamada I feel really sorry for u now because there’s no way you can top this.’ That answers the question If Half of a Yellow Sun was that, then I can only go downhill and I will go gracefully.”