“When you’re not born in the U.S. and you’re a person of African descent, in some ways identifying as black becomes a political choice,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Tavis Smiley during a recent appearance on his PBS show. “I’m very happily black.”
Adichie was on hand to discuss her most recent novel, Americanah, now available in paperback. A love story that spans three continents, Americanah is about many things—with race and immigration at the forefront.
“I wanted to write about a kind of immigration that is familiar to me,” Adichie said. “When we hear about Africans emigrating, we think of people who have run away from burned villages and war and poverty. And that story is important to tell but it’s not the story I know. I wanted to talk about the Africa I know, which is that the middle-class educated people are leaving…because they want more choices.”
The pair discussed Adichie’s decision to come to the United States at 19, her refusal to speak with an American accent, and that “creative terror” that strikes when she sits down to write. The interview is worth watching in full. Take a look:
Novelists Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – both Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners — displayed a warm, comfortable familiarity on stage for their recent appearance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Fresh off Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle win for “Americanah,” her novel about “love, race and hair,” the conversation between the two literary lionesses veered from the amusing to the insightful. Watch the duo discuss Adichie’s fascination with race and class, the absurdity of romance novels, and Beyonce.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” took the top prize for fiction at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards .
Karen Long, Anisfield-Wolf manager and judge for the NBCC, praised Adichie’s latest: “Americanah”—it should be stressed—doesn’t reprimand. The writing glints; minor characters flair and spark.”
In a recent HuffPost Live interview, Adichie asserted that “Americanah” was the book she wanted to write for her own personal satisfaction:
“I felt almost liberated,” she remarked. “This is the novel where I’m completely having fun and I’m free. I’m not burdened by a sense of duty of responsibility. I was just having fun. With Half of a Yellow Sun, I felt this weight of responsibility. I knew many people would read the novel not as fiction, but as history….With Americanah, there was no burden.”
On the eve of the NBCC awards, Adichie stopped by the Bruce Lehrer Show to discuss the themes of race and identity woven throughout Americanah. Listen to the interview in its entirety below:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 477 pp., $26.95
Hair asserts itself on the first page of “Americanah,” a knowing, prickly and virtuosic novel from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She was 29 when she won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2007 for “Half of a Yellow Sun”; she picked up a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant the following year. Her mother, a Nigerian university registrar, likes to say little Chimamanda started to read when she was 2. The writer herself thinks it was probably around age 4.
“Americanah” wears its genius lightly, starting with a pleasurable and assured set-up chapter that puts its central character Ifemelu on a train from Princeton to Trenton, N.J. Her mission: to have her hair braided. After 13 years stateside, most recently on a fellowship to Princeton, Ifemelu has decided to return to Lagos, Nigeria. At the salon, she asks for “a medium kinky twist” and negotiates $40 off the $200 asking price. The salon is thick with relaxing chemicals, hair extensions and black female sensibilities—a rich elixir that brings out the personalities and styles of the women gathered there. The air-conditioner is broken; Nollywood melodramas play across the television. Adiche returns her readers to the shop again and again.
All manner of hair and women come under scrutiny, including “the clamped, flattened” appearance of the current first Lady: “Still, there was in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for, a glint of her old self. It was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.”
Ifemelu herself is blunt; all of her opinions are strong. She writes a popular, anonymous blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains a handful of these posts – one very long installment is improbably read aloud at a party. The voice is funny, astringent and revelatory: “When white people say dark they mean Greek or Italian but when black people say dark they mean Grace Jones.” I can imagine both Cornel West and Clarence Thomas learning a thing or two. I certainly did – none of it particularly flattering. No place or demographic niche escapes unscathed.
“Americanah”—it should be stressed—doesn’t reprimand. The writing glints; minor characters flair and spark: “The General had yellowed eyes, which suggested to Ifemelu a malnourished childhood. His solid thickset body spoke of fights that he had started and won, and the buckteeth that gaped through his lips made him seem vaguely dangerous.”
At the braiding salon, Ifemelu pegs a young white woman named Kelsey with “the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America is.” This woman is reading to prepare for a sight-seeing trip to Africa. She finds “Things Fall Apart” “a little quaint, right?” but says “A Bend in the River” made her “truly understand how modern Africa works.” In one withering paragraph, Ifemelu blows up the enshrined V.S. Naipaul novel so completely that it left me gasping. At such moments, it is hard not to see Ifemelu as a doppelganger for Adichie.
Earlier this month, the author told National Public Radio that “this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair.” Ifemelu’s core love interest is her secondary school sweetheart, Obinze, with whom she cuts off communication after she enters a very bad patch in the United States. Obinze, for his part, makes his way to London, and even as everyone in his smart set in Nigeria “joked about people who went abroad to clean toilets,” he starts work with a lavatory brush. Later, at a London dinner party, Obinze listens to guests who are sympathetic to immigrants fleeing atrocity, but not those seeking an economic foothold:
“They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Adichie’s cultural acuity is a marvel, but she glosses how some systems create more “choice and certainty” and others less. Her observations hug the interior. Much of the book is dialogue. One blog post mentions Beyonce: “We all love Bey but how about she show us, just once, what her hair looks like when it grows from her scalp?”
The author, interested in “the rolling contradictions that were the world,” cleaves them open on three continents. Those who like their literature bracing should crowd in for a look.
If you can’t find the art you want, make it yourself.
That was famously the mindset of Jay-Z, when the rapper started Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995, and that DIY approach animates “Nollywood,” the Nigerian film industry.
Approximately 1,000 Nigerian movies are produced each year, surpassing the 800 films churned out annually in the U.S. For innovators everywhere, digital innovations have lowered technological barriers and production costs. Without a formal distribution model, Nigerian film prospers—many movies are watched at home in a nation of few theaters.
One of this year’s most anticipated projects is the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, scheduled for release in November 2013. The book won an Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 2007. (Adichie’s new title, Americanah, went on sale this month.)
The film is in the hands of first-time director Biyi Bandele and stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Olanna and Odenigbo, lovers caught in the midst of the Biafran war.
A recent Washington Post story on Nollywood’s expansion to the United States explores Nigeria’s film ascendancy. Director John Uche says, “Nigerians are considered the best writers in Africa, following the griot tradition in West Africa. It is a culture of storytelling. We are taking that culture into film. What do they say? ‘Nobody can tell your story better than you.’”
During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.
I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.
Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.
It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.
I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.
Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.
Martin Luther King III spoke on CBS “This Morning” about his father’s legacy and what it means to have the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr Day coincide.
2007 winner Scott Reynolds Nelson’s latest book gives a thorough rundown of America’s history with debt—a history that is as old as our country.
In “A Nation of Deadbeats,” Nelson describes us as a nation of “dreamers and defaulters.” His timing could not be better, as our nation deals with the “fiscal cliff” negotiations.
In this TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie discusses the danger of the single story—that is, how powerful individual stories about a country can warp our minds as to what life in those places is really like. Check out her story and let us know: How has literature impacted the way you see the world?
“I’ve always felt one step removed from things because I’ve always felt I’ve been watching. I wasn’t entirely there. There was a part of me that was always milking details for a story…I think it’s the lot of the writer.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007 Anisfield-Wolf award winner.