Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: State of Grace
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about an Africa far removed from bleak media clichés. Claire Sawers chats to her about superstition and stereotypes
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice reflects a life split between America and her home country, Nigeria. So while she’ll enunciate each of her words clearly and slowly, she’s also picked up that uniquely American habit of adding a questioning ‘right?’ at the end of her sentences, or throwing in a ‘what the heck’. Despite having studied in the US, and now dividing her time between homes in Maryland and Lagos, 31-year-old Adichie is in no doubt about her identity. ‘I always consider myself Nigerian; a Nigerian that likes to spend time in America.’
Adichie’s last book, the Orange Prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun drew gushing praise from home and abroad, and moved fellow Nigerian bestseller author Chinua Achebe to say that Adichie was ‘endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers’. Her latest, The Thing Around Your Neck, is a warm, moving and intelligent collection of short stories, often focusing on Nigerian immigrants living in America, and the cultural conflicts that their living arrangements throw up.
‘For a lot of people, the only Africa they ever see is people dying, or people killing each other,’ she says. ‘Of course, Africa isn’t just about people starving and dying. Africa isn’t one story; there are so many.’
As the African and Nigerian diasporas grow, Adichie believes they provide plenty of material for what she loves best: storytelling. ‘People move because they want better economic lives, right? Their lives may not be better socially, or emotionally, but they are economically better.’
So in ‘Imitation’, we meet the wife of a wealthy businessman. Nkem has swapped life in Lagos for pilates classes and cookie baking in suburban Philadelphia, while her husband stays in Nigeria with a mistress Nkem has just found out about. Another girl wins the ‘American Visa Lottery’, only to be touched up by her uncle in Connecticut, who believes US life to be a system of ‘give and take’.
‘I never start off writing wanting to challenge certain stereotypes; I just want to write a story that is complex and true,’ says Adichie, who describes herself as ‘a happy feminist’. ‘And when you do that, you end up challenging certain stereotypes.’
Adichie’s own background – she is the daughter of a university professor and grew up on a campus plagued by ‘cult’ violence as wealthy college gangs killed each other with machetes – has influenced her writing, as has her Catholic upbringing. ‘There’s something about being raised Catholic that makes me horribly superstitious,’ she laughs. ‘If I’ve done something wrong, that’s God punishing me. Those superstitions mean something to millions of people and I have a lot of respect for them.’
Never lecturing, always absorbing, Adichie’s graceful studies of human behaviour are a passport into the hearts of her readers, where wise, strong women often steal the limelight. ‘I know many women like that. I just don’t see them often enough in fiction. I think it’s about time.’
The Thing Around Your Neck is out now published by Fourth Estate.