Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Three categories of contemporary Nigerians’ reactions to their civil war:
People whose families were Biafran, who are still burning with neo-nationalist zeal
Skeptics who feel strongly that we should talk about it
People who say, “Let’s let the past be the past”

“Things began to fall apart at home,” go the first lines of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed first novel, Purple Hibiscus, “when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” The reference to Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece about colonialism destroying tradition, marks Adichie’s debt to her Igbo forebear but also signals her differing concerns. The sentence could perhaps be read to distill the larger ambitions of Adichie’s work thus far: to engage the themes that long defined African literature—the legacies of colonialism, the cause of nation-building—but to do so in a way expressive of a new generation’s ironic view of these questions, and in a way attuned to the intimate lives of her characters.

Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2004 for best first book, depicts a teenage narrator and her brother coming to terms with their authoritarian Catholic father as Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup. Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is set during the Biafra war, the horrific 1967–70 conflict begun when south Nigeria’s Igbo citizens declared independence from their new country’s government in its Muslim north. The novel depicts the war through a story about how it is lived by a small coterie of characters—a pair of middle-class sisters (one pretty, one plain) and their respective mates (a revolutionary mathematician, an English ex-pat); a houseboy and a University master. Last year it was awarded the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction.

Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, a small village in Anambra state, in southeast Nigeria. She grew up, though, in the university town of Nsukka, where her parents still work, and where she spent her childhood in a house that was once home to Achebe himself. (Of discovering his work at the age of ten, she has recalled: “I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”) She briefly studied medicine (“It’s what educated Nigerians are supposed to do”), but having hoped from a young age to be a writer, she soon quit her course and moved to the United States to finish college. Joining her sister, a doctor living in Connecticut, she completed a B.A. in political science at Eastern Connecticut State University. Since that time Adichie has studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins, spent a year teaching the same at Princeton, and returned to Connecticut two years ago to complete a masters in African studies at Yale. In addition to the two novels, she has written numerous short stories and essays for publications including the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times. In September 2008, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Adichie speaks in a sonorous voice inflected with the Nigerian-British cadences of home, her precise diction joined to a ready laugh. Our conversation took place on a warm May day in New Haven across the street from the Yale University Art Gallery.

—Joshua Jelly-Schapiro


THE BELIEVER: Your fiction is overtly engaged with these themes of history, and politics—the history of Nigeria; the legacies of colonialism; Biafra. What does approaching these questions as a novelist afford that might differ from how a historian does?

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: I think it’s probably that I’m interested in the exceptions. One of the things about historical work—some of it, not all—is that it’s very much interested in generalities: that this is what people in general did. Sometimes historians refer to countries as though they were people—they’ll say: Britain did this. As a novelist, I’m more interested in that particular human being living in a particular part of Britain, and how they felt, and what they understood, and how they approached their realities. I remember when I was researching Half of a Yellow Sun, I was reading this book about the war, written by an American, and there was this section about how people were being unreasonable—about how they weren’t eating the food brought by the Red Cross. And the writer couldn’t understand why the Biafrans did not want to eat the food; they were starving, and they just wouldn’t. And talking to people who were there, I realized it was because there was a myth that the Nigerians [the other side in the war] had poisoned the milk. People believed this—it wasn’t true, but people believed it. And it deeply affected how they approached their reality, why they chose not to eat the food. It’s easy, you know, to sit in your academic chair and say you know, that was quite irrational. But it’s what I’m interested in, the little stories, less the generalities than those details.

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Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a doctoral student in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for the Guardian, the Nation, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.

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