By Rachel Sugar
When I catch up with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the lobby of The Hotel Blake a few hours before she’s scheduled to read at the Printers Row Lit Fest, she’s been up most of the night. She often stays up all night writing. “I know people say ‘Oh, I sit at my desk from nine until, you know, four.’ And I just wish I could, but I can’t. I write when it comes, and I just keep wishing it would come more often,” she says. Yesterday, though, was as much about soccer as literature—her native Nigeria was playing a World Cup match. (They lost, she tells me, so forgive her if she’s grumpy.)
Growing up in the same house once owned by literary legend Chinua Achebe—a detail that gives her biography a mythological flair—Adichie has had literary ambitions since she could spell. Still, in keeping with expectations for high-achieving kids everywhere, she entered medical school in Nigeria. “At some point, you realize you’re just not made to be a doctor,” she says, and after two years, she drastically shifted course, moving to the US to pursue writing, with stints in Philadelphia, New Haven (“It’s cozy,” she says, but “too much Thai food”), and Baltimore, where she still spends part of the year. Since her move stateside at 19, she’s racked up an intimidating list of achievements: two novels (“Purple Hibiscus,” 2003, a coming-of-age story, and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” 2006, set against the Nigeria-Biafra war), a short-story collection (“The Thing Around Your Neck,” 2009, newly available in paperback), two master’s degrees (one in creative writing, the other in African Studies), and a laundry list of awards—the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book Prize, the Orange Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and this month, a place on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers.
Adichie’s work—her stories character-driven, their quiet sadness tinged with wry wit, her prose elegant, unfussy—has made her both a literary superstar and an accidental pundit. Nigeria’s shifting political climate permeates her writing; “Half of a Yellow Sun” in particular, set against the still-controversial Biafran war, positioned her as a voice of her generation. It’s the project that she feels closest to, she says, in part “because I was writing about a period in my history that is very personal. Both my grandfathers died in the war.” At the same time, “knowing that I was writing history for my generation, I felt this incredible sense of responsibility, like I was carrying this heavy load on my head that I had to carry.”
In “Jumping Monkey Hill,” the funniest story in “The Thing Around Your Neck,” and the most biting, one character’s short story is described as reading “like a piece from The Economist with cartoon characters painted in.” It’s a phenomenon Adichie has worked hard to avoid in her own fiction. “While writing ‘Half a the Yellow Sun,’ she says, she was “always telling myself the character has to be the center. Not the event, the character.” (“I think I might do another book, ‘The Interesting Facts About That Period of Our History’,” she jokes, as an outlet for all the historical details she forced herself to edit out.)
A storyteller first, she’s frustrated when interviewers bypass her writing for her political analysis. “I was reading the editor’s introduction in the New Yorker about the ‘20 under 40’ and I remember just thinking it would be really nice if my work was talked about as just literature, just talk about that ‘she struggles to write good sentences’ and her characters are interesting, rather than the endless”—here, she deepens her voice with mock importance—“’Oh, the political insights!’…There are times when I just want to talk about just literature, just sentences, imagery and character, rather than just being seen as someone who brings news of politics, you know?” And then, with characteristic generosity, she adds, “I realize it’s often just coming simply from a place of curiosity…not much is known about my part of the world, so in some ways you become a spokesperson even if you don’t really want to be.”
With the short-story collection published, (“For me,” she says, “it’s less about knowing it’s done-done and more about feeling comfortable enough to let it go”), Adichie has a number of projects percolating. “I want to write a very contemporary sort of urban Nigerian story that’s set in Lagos and is present-day and about the lives of women. I want to write about slavery, I want to write one of those,”—she stops herself—“I probably won’t, but you know, this is my dream—one of those huge sagas. So I’ll go back in history and then trace two different families and one gets sold into slavery and the other doesn’t, and I’ll sort of trace their stories all the way to the present day, the African American and the African.” Adichie laughs. “This is a dream, of course, because it will take ten years of my life to do well!” Luckily, for her and for us, she’s only 32—there’s time.
“The Thing Around Your Neck”
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Anchor Books, 240 pages, $15