By Wana Udobang
While the world anticipates the release of the silver screen adaptation of the Orange prize winning novel ‘Half of a yellow sun’ , Its author Chimamanda Adichie is back on the road promoting her third novel titled ‘Americanah’. Though Americanah has been described by critics as a novel about race and immigration, it is as much about race and immigration as it is about class, assimilation, politics of beauty, idealisms and most of all change. Though the more contemporary in themes amongst all three novels, the one thing Adichie doesn’t attempt to do with the commentary in this work is the writer thing of being subtle. During her Lagos tour in May we had a long chat on my radio show about Nigerians with phony accents, the culture of pretence, preserving memory, teaching citizenship in schools and the omnipotent subject that is black hair.
What was the pressure like with the first novel, because I know for some people there’s this certain hunger and there is the second novel that was hugely phenomenal. What’s the pressure like from writing the first, second to the third?
I don’t know. Hunger in the sense that I was hoping someone would publish it and I had such a hard time finding a publisher. Really what I was thinking was that four people would read this book and three would be related to me.
Did you really think that?
This is 2001 and I’m Nigerian in the U.S looking for a publisher to read my book that is very Nigerian. Writing a book in which the characters are speaking both English and Igbo. There’s a lot of Igbo in the book and publishers just told me ‘’we like your book but nobody cares about Nigeria’’. Then they would say if you want to set your book in the U.S, then we would publish it. It was quite difficult and when I finally did find the publisher, I really didn’t think people would care much. The second book, I didn’t think ‘’half of a yellow sun’’ would mean so much to me emotionally. It was very personal for me. When you think of all the feedback I got when writing the book, like I tell people I’m writing a book on Biafra and they would be like ‘’Biafra, won’t u leave that alone?’ ’Even with that I didn’t think it would do well. I don’t really have pressure in that sense. I’m happy that the book connects to people and I also know that you lose some and win some.
What about pressure on you as an individual because I feel you have gotten to that point where there’s a sort of public ownership of you. They have called Chimamanda as a thing we all possess. Do you feel pressure in that regard?
Not really, there are two things. The part I quite like is that Nigerians seek ownership and have opinions like ‘’Chimamanda is ours’’. She should do this and do that. It can be very sweet but on the other hand it can be very annoying. Sometimes I think people should be allowed to be who they are In general, I don’t think I can please everyone. I don’t try to please anyone. So I don’t really feel that much pressure.
One of the things I found endearing when it comes to your writing is the simplicity with language. I know people have said she’s made an art format of simplicity. It made it look easy. But with Americanah, I see an evolution. Did you feel that evolution with language? Your language is simple and also very sentimental. But with this book, the language is heightened and poetic at the same time.
I suppose that’s a compliment. The whole talk about language for me is very interesting. The language is understandable. Sometimes I’m shocked that complex has to mean incomprehensible. For me that’s not even creative writing. When I think about the writers I admire, when I think about creative writing, the beauty of them is in the ease of comprehending them. What we call simplicity, I’m not always happy about that word.
I think about language a lot. I like to write sentences I’m happy with. So you know how you asked about pressure. The only pressure I feel when I’m sitting in front of my laptop is that I want to write sentences I’m happy with. That’s the pressure.
The novel ‘’half of a yellow sun’’, which you said was dear to your heart as well. The interesting thing it did was open up this dialogue about the civil war, the scars of civil war. Was that something you intended to do?
It’s something I hoped would happen. That’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote the book because I felt haunted by that period in our history for so long. For our generation in particular, I just had friends who had no idea what happened in our country in 1967, so I hoped that the book would start that and I’m actually happy it has.
There are also these interesting on-line comments where people would say “just close this thing and move on”. Why can’t we just move on? Why do you think people react that way?
Look it’s a very strange thing to be in a country and to want to deny the history. I think we Nigerians, when something is unpleasant we want to pretend its not there. But it doesn’t mean its not there.
Do you think its part of our culture, where we have this false perfection that we project?
I think there’s a lot of pretence in our culture. I think ours is a culture that encourages people to present a facade to the world. We do it a lot. We do it in mental illness, sex and we do it in sickness in general. But they won’t say they pretend. And sometimes the things we are ignorant about because the people say ‘’lets forget about biafra’’, don’t really know much about Biafra and what happened.
I remember being on a plane and this lady started talking to me. She said a lot of things but she eventually asked if I was Igbo and I responded that I wasn’t. And she said ‘’oh, you look Igbo’’, then she asked ‘’where are you from?’’ and I said Akwa-ibom and then she says her daughter wants to marry a guy from my part of the country but she would not approve. So I ask why and she responds, ‘’he doesn’t go home’.
Then she goes on to explain that he stays in Lagos and doesn’t go home. Lagos is not home. Her children can’t call Lagos home. I later ask around because it was the oddest thing for me to hear. I’m told that because of the war people still feel this discomfort that this isn’t their home, so anything could happen to them and they would have to go back home.
This woman is Igbo. I was talking to a woman this evening. She lived through the war and she was telling me how her father was broken by the war. He became a different man and was never the same. I think it’s cultural in some ways. I think the war did affect the psyche of Igbo people in general. People think they need to have a base, they don’t spend time in their villages but they will build a big house there because really it’s to set some kind of security because you never know. But also when you think about what happened during the war, it’s really not surprising. I mean Lagos in 1966 was not a safe place for people who were Igbo. At the market you could be attacked and if you were light skinned, you were likely to be attacked because you might be Igbo.
But this idea of closing up history, does it make you a bit apprehensive about the future generation because they are getting far and far disconnected from their history.
I hope they are not getting disconnected because really if you don’t know where you are coming from then you don’t know where you are going too. One of the things I’m interested in this country is how did we get here. I’m also very interested in our pre-colonial history. What happened during the colonization .How did we get to where we are? If we don’t know, how will we know where we are going? A lot of writers are quite vague about what happened under the rule of Babangida and it’s very recent. Which is why some people will get up and say they want to run for office and we think its okay? We don’t think, wait what did you do twenty years ago? Why are you running for office?
Do you think we build our new memories on top old memories to try to erase the old ones?
I think its denial. Denial that’s easy and safe. It requires mental and emotional work to engage in things that are unpleasant, so I think it’s easier to just say ‘’we don’t want to remember’’.
Let’s talk about Americanah. It’s a huge novel talking about a lot of things, not just one thing. There is displacement, migration, race, class, politics, identity and it’s a love story as well. Its numerous love stories not just one and of course how life distorts people. It’s also about idealism and the shattering of idealism. How long did it take you to put this work together?
Why did it take you that long?
Wana, you are a writer so you should know that these things are not easy.
I’m asking for the sake of our people.
You are asking me for people who will be like ‘’why 5 years, why not 6 months. Get it over and done with”.
Because writing a book is very hard and there are periods it goes well and periods it doesn’t. There’s something quite deliberate. I always want to write sentences I’m happy with. I want characters to form and they become real for me. I do a lot of rewriting and revising. I’m quite obsessive about my writing.
Do these characters for you evolve with time, because sometimes I feel you have to experience things, see things for you to know where the characters are going?
And if sometimes I have the period of the novel not going well, in addition to sinking into depression, I would sometimes need to go back and reacquaint myself with them. At some point I would feel I don’t know Ifemelu like the way I used to know her. So I would go back to the beginning and look at what I had done just to know the character again.
You also attack something that is important for me, which are values and this sort of confused value system. Let me take the example of Ifemelu’s mother who goes from church to church at some point praying for prosperity. She seems like this pious Christian lady and then you have the cousin who is a mistress to a military general who is married with children and she is praying for the general because he is providing all these things for her relatives. One thing about this is that it reflects larger themes that we are experiencing right now.
So the general is providing like we say in Nigeria, he is the provider. I think for Ifemelu what she finds difficult to deal with is that her mother keeps saying these things are from God and she is like no, they are from the General. The General is giving it to aunty because aunty is sleeping with him and why are we pretending that’s not the case. In some cases it’s a culture of pretence and its something I just want to raise my hand and say wait, hold on. Also I think it breeds some kind of hypocrisy in us. We pretend about things.
On the show we talked about the idea of seeking accountability of our spiritual leaders and this same part of the novel explores where certain big men donate huge sums of money to the church and Ifemelu is basically saying ‘’I’m not going to make a necklace for him because he is not a good guy. He is a thief.”
She is the only person that is honest, that sort of innocence of a child and of she gets reprimanded by her mother. But what does that tell you about us as a people when it comes to God. You know there’s some kind of negotiation when it comes to God.
Its like saying God give me money let me give you starvation. In general, I think it’s very clear. There’s a certain kind of new age religiosity that’s spreading across the country that worries me and it’s that linking chain with money. It’s that idea of prosperity being somehow God’s plan for you. Not to say that being wealthy or well to do is necessarily a bad thing but I really object to making it the result of faith. So what, poor people are poor because God has not blessed them, really?
And then I’m thinking how we then conveniently forget bits from the bible that extol poverty. When you look at the life of Jesus Christ, it had nothing to do with the life of prosperity. If anything it was about poverty and in some way. I think we have become more materialistic in Nigeria. People say it’s a hard life, things are hard. I suppose its true but it’s also cultural. There are other countries where there are poor people but they are not as material driven as we are. Also I think in Nigeria we feel uncertain, nobody knows tomorrow so let me gather as much as I can and if it means I would steal and go and give the pastor, then the pastor would pray for me and I would get more money. So it makes me very uncomfortable. You know I wanted to write about that as well. People don’t like to talk about things like that. There’s also this superstition about religion, so even if they feel the pastor is a bit dodgy, they won’t say. But they are men and women.
But do you think we get uncomfortable when a mirror is placed in our face and everybody has to see that face because sometimes people know these things yet they tell themselves otherwise because it’s just them in that mirror and nobody else is looking.
For me, I think in the case of religion people don’t want to criticize in other words there is this genuinely superstitious fear that even if the pastor has a private jet, you say no you don’t know whether you are offending God and the blessing God has for you will not come. I see this a lot in Nigerians and it’s a relatively recent thing and it’s a thing that has come with the Pentecostal reign. If we go back to our parent’s days when the church was more orthodox and people were Catholic, Anglican or Methodist, I don’t think this sort of thing existed.
What if it probably did exist but in different forms?
I don’t think it did. The kind of anxiety, the desperate linking of faith and prosperity; I don’t think it did
They say let the story drive the theme. The story is there but the theme is there. Its very present, it’s breathing through. I mean the things you are trying to say; you are not hiding anything in the novel.
Wait you want me to be a bit more Nigerian than I am.
I’m just saying, typically writers are always trying to be subliminal with their message. But you pretty much say everything you wanted to say. Was that decision deliberate for you?
Yes. There are novels that don’t do that that I love. There are novels I admire that are subtle. I think that there are certain subjects that if you are going to write fiction about, I don’t know if you can afford to do it well and still not take a position if that makes sense. I have a position and I’m not sorry about it.
So you can’t really be neutral.
I think that whole neutrality is overrated. All of us have a position.
It’s difficult to talk about this book without talking hair. But at the same time I feel hair is just the microcosm of the bigger issues. Which is politics of beauty and the issue of social conditioning because of course Ifemelu the character has her own share of anxieties about her hair. And I know you did express that when your afro was growing out, you had to compensate with earrings and make-up. I have a very interesting story to tell about that too.
Please tell it
I have been talking to someone on the phone for a while and we are on the verge of dating. I had my natural hair but it was always in braids, so I went away at that time and came back and the day I came, I had loosened my hair. I thought to myself ‘’I can’t see him like this’’. Then I went to relax my hair the next day. And I cried afterwards, I cried because I felt guilty that I could not see him the way I was. I think that sort of frightened me a bit.
Which is why when people say hair is just hair, it’s not true at all. And its quite telling because I remember when I cut my hair, I thought my life was over. I looked like a boy, so I would wear big earrings and make-up to cover up all that. But for me what was sad was that we would think black women are the only women in the world that have trouble with their hair, its something we don’t find beautiful but its something we have to learn to find beautiful as I have. Now I think that the most beautiful thing in the world is a woman with natural hair. I mean it’s really deep, it’s not political at all. I just find it very beautiful. It took a learning journey and I want us to ask the question, why we need to put rims of plastic spilling all down to our waist to make us beautiful.
But I think its also changing, I mean you go to weddings now and you see people with their natural hair.
Here’s the thing though. Cool, it might the trend but I want it to be the norm. I think natural hair is what you do now and people are like, it’s interesting, it’s artistic. Maybe you like jazz or you are poet and my thing is I want it to be as ordinary and normal as we regard weaves.
But what does it tell you about conditioning because my mom was a hairdresser and I remember the people that would come to the hair saloon; their husbands had never seen their real hair before.
That’s very sad.
I remember a lady whom her husband had never seen her hair before.
I think there are people today who are in a relationship with men that have not seen their hair. The men don’t know what the hair that grows on their head looks like because they hide it. Why is that? Its not about oh this woman is stupid for doing this. It’s that we live in a society that tells us really in so many ways that the way our hair is, is not good. It is tacoco hair and you have to do something about it.
Or like aunty Uju says in the novel ‘’there’s something scruffy and untidy about natural hair”.
I think a lot of people say that. I’m sorry but I’m going to do a little rant about hair. When we say natural hair is rough, it’s very annoying and I say that it’s only rough when you compare it to super smooth plastic which is what we put in our hair in the name of weaves. Really that’s what it is. Finely graded plastic.
What’s your eventual vision, what are you hoping for?
A world in which young women are being raised not to think that the hair on their head is ugly. I want a world where you can choose to have your hair the way it is and not think it as you are making a statement. And just be normal and consider it beautiful. That what I want.
So you want it to be an option?
I want it to be an equal option.
Do you think intellectualism has a place in change and revolution, because some people say please this is all talk and no action. Do dialogue and conversation have a place?
Of course it does. First of all a nation is an idea .I mean when you think of all the nations that exist they were all ideas. If we go back hundred years, those nations didn’t exist. What drives change are ideas.
The book is largely about women, very complex women.
Yes, Cossy is married to Obinze, a wealthy and good looking young man in Lagos. A new house help has come to their house and Cossy has searched her bag like I want to know what you are bringing to my house. She found a pack of condoms and she’s like what is this? And the girl says that the last place she worked her oga was always forcing her and Cossy chases her out but her husband is like look leave this poor girl, the last place she worked her oga raped her. That’s why she brought the condoms.
“Cossy stared at him ‘’you feel sorry for her.you don’t know these house girls .How can you feel sorry for her?’’ Obinze wanted to ask ‘’how can you not?’’.
It’s like the single woman has become the monster predator and diseased at the same time, and the married woman has become this paranoid human being who feels I need to do everything possible to keep this other person. We see it everyday around us. Why and how have we gotten here?
We live in a society that does not respect women or make men responsible for their actions. That’s what it is. So the idea is that the single woman is your enemy. It’s the husband’s fault not the single woman. I don’t like this idea that a woman stole a man. You can’t steal a man that doesn’t want to be stolen. It’s how we raise girls and boys.
Is it still social conditioning, even after a time in our lives where we should be aware?
I think my generation is far more conservative than my mother’s generation. I think it’s worse now than 50 years ago. It should be better but it is not. I think that’s really the case. I mean there are a lot more women that see other women as competitors for the attention of men in a really sort of vile way. I think today, this idea that to keep a man, you have to make your self into what you are not, you have to change yourself, twist yourself into all sort of positions to keep a man. I keep seeing all kinds of pamphlets on how to get him to propose. I think that’s such nonsense. We are encouraging women to be false. I’m thinking the only thing you need to do to find your mate is to be yourself. How come nobody is writing on what men have to do to make her happy? Why is it all about what a woman has to do to keep a man? Why by the way is a woman considered less if she doesn’t have a husband? Its nonsense. I blame the society and I feel we need to raise girls and boys differently.
There’s always this talk of patriarchy, but women are the custodians of patriarchy
Yes that’s true, but in the end, it’s the patriarchy. It’s about power and when you exist in a society that has power, in some ways it’s like the U.S where they talk about racism in the police force. Even black officers find themselves being part of that racist culture because that it a larger thing. So sometimes you find women policing other women.
Let’s talk about the accent, which was also in the book because the character Ifemelu decides one day that I’m no longer speaking with this American accent. I want to go personal for you, I mean you are someone that everyone asks how did she manage to keep her Nigerian accent and why?
Well, why not? Look I left Nigeria at nineteen and I consider Igbo and English as my first language. They are completely mine. My first two years, I could do a very good accent when I want to and it’s very convincing. Then I thought if you were woken up in the morning, in what accent you will speak. That accent is what you should be speaking.
I want to talk about moralizing and sociology. A lot of the time when you talk of a Nigerian problem or issue or social vice, everybody is very quick to moralize. It’s kind of a selective morality that goes on.
It is. Like in my beautiful country .It’s a moralizing that’s outside of us. We all agree there’s corruption but it’s those people, it’s not us. One of the things I wish we would teach, one of my dreams is to change the educational curriculum. To teach more social studies and civics and to teach self criticism. In this country we don’t know how to say I too did it, I’m part of the problem. I remember some years ago I didn’t know something and people were asking me a question and I said I didn’t know the answer and my friend was like ‘’why you go tell them say you no know the answer?. Just say something’’. So even at that we don’t know the culture of saying ‘’we don’t know’’.
I also think you need to learn. I don’t think people are born knowing how to be citizens. People have to be taught. If you go to a society that is doing relatively well, where people have a sense of self-criticism, they didn’t learn it from the womb, they were taught. Education is part of teaching people citizenship. We need to be doing that in Nigeria.
Speaking of teaching, you have the Farafina, creative workshop. You have a lot of success with that. How does that make you feel? And what does teaching do for you?
It makes me feel very proud. I feel like a proud mama when I see my people doing well with their creative writing, and there’s a lot more coming, and new novels. And can I say this, the person sitting across from me was also in the workshop and I’m very proud of her. I feel very proud and also I feel there’s so much talent in Nigeria. Just the fact that twenty talented people come together and form a community. It makes me happy because I also learn as I teach. I feel like each workshop I do, not only have I thought but I have also learnt. I love it. What I want to do next is a workshop just for women in which we would talk about not just writing but other issues.