'I have to be an optimist'

June 8, 2007

Orange Prize-shortlisted writer Chimamanda Adichie evokes nostalgia for African family and academic life and tackles Nigeria's troubled past, says Huw Richards

It would be an error to describe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a campus novelist. The Orange Prize-shortlisted writer (bookies' favourite to win the prize, which is announced after The Times Higher goes to press) has demonstrated a much wider frame of reference in both her books, Purple Hibiscus (2004) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

Her affection for academic communities and in particular the Nigerian university town of Nsukka is, however, evident in both. She says: "I grew up in Nsukka and have very happy memories of it. My father was a professor and my mother was registrar of the university. There was a children's library where I read many of the classic stories, and I went to a school for the children of university staff. It is a small, slow, dusty town, and whenever I think of it I feel great nostalgia."

Nostalgia might seem an unlikely emotion for someone who will not be 30 until September, but Adichie is hardly your standard twentysomething.

Although still technically a graduate student at Yale University, she is also an established novelist whose works combine literary quality with popular appeal that made Half of a Yellow Sun a choice for Richard and Judy's Book Club.

In person she projects a similar mix of the vivaciously humorous and the self-contained. In her own mind, she explains, "I have always felt quite old. There is somebody in every generation of each family whose job is to preserve the memories, and that's my job. It is not something I chose; it chose me."

Adichie is equally accepting of another family imposition. Watching her sign that long, euphonious name for a stream of book buyers after a reading in East London inevitably raises the question of whether she occasionally wishes that her parents had called her Eva or Jane. She says: "Not at all. I love my name, because it is so unusual."

Family memories particularly inform Half of a Yellow Sun , which is built around the experiences of an academic, his girlfriend and his houseboy in Nsukka in the 1960s, with the comparative tranquillity of academic life giving way to the civil war that devastated Nsukka and the surrounding region after it seceded from Nigeria as the short-lived republic of Biafra (1967-70).

Within the story, Adichie displays a sharp eye and ear for academic idiosyncrasies and nuances of conversation. Anyone with experience of such conversations will chuckle at the incident in which a female academic describes the girlfriend as "illogically pretty". Adichie explains that it is based on something once said to her and "it is not intended as a compliment".

She is, of course, not old enough to have first-hand knowledge of the academic chat of the 1960s, but she suspects that it may have been more wide-ranging than nowadays: "My impression is that there was a pan-African element that has now gone. People would talk about what was happening in Tanzania, or even in the Caribbean. Now the frame of reference is different. People in Nigeria watch the BBC and CNN, and the kids watch MTV, but they don't watch local stations. So they may be up to date on what rappers are doing in Los Angeles but have no idea what is happening in, say, Cameroon. I have the sense that the talk in the 1960s was more vibrant and optimistic."

At the same time she happily acknowledges that her own trajectory owes much to these globalising forces. While she had written her own stories from childhood and, by one of those coincidences to delight any biographer, lived as a child in the house formerly occupied by Chinua Achebe when he was teaching at Nsukka, her initial studies were in medicine, the traditional choice of academic high-achievers in Nigeria.

"There was no point in dreaming about being a writer in Nigeria, as there was no way of making a living," she recalls. "I expected to become a doctor and do not think I would have been very happy."

Escape came via a scholarship to Drexel University in Philadelphia, subsequently transferring to eastern Connecticut - "smaller and shabbier in a town with a name, Willimantic, that even the locals think is funny" - where she linked up with one of her sisters. From there she moved to a masters in creative writing at Johns Hopkins and fellowships at Princeton University, which she loved "like an American version of Nsukka, friendly and slow-moving", and Harvard University, before starting her current programme in African studies at Yale.

She admits that she is not greatly enjoying her current course. It isn't, as a number of friends have pointed out, that she particularly needs another qualification. But she says she is likely to stay the course until it concludes a year from now: "I'm also an Igbo, and we tend to believe that you finish what you start."

One reason for her discontent is that she is beginning to doubt that being forced into the norms and conventions of academic writing is good for her creative work.

It is not as if academic research is essential to the way she writes.

Although she is looking into the experiences of Nigerian immigrants in the US as a possible theme for her next work, she explains that her books are not preplanned. "There may be a gap before the next book, but I don't know.

I'm not the sort of writer who can sign a contract to produce a book every two years and produce to order. I can't work that way."

As she describes it, her writing is not an entirely conscious process. "I'm not completely in control of my characters, and I'm sometimes surprised at what they do - it is not what I expected. But that's part of the joy of writing. It is a very intense experience, almost like getting high."

Among her strongly held convictions is one that Africans should be writing their own stories, not allowing Europeans to monopolise these vital narratives and dictate received versions. She has also been determined to ensure that the story of Biafra is not lost. She was aware that writing a powerful novel on the theme of a troubled period in Nigerian history might be seen as trouble-making. Instead, she found that "people were not as critical as I thought they might be. Young people, in particular, were interested and were clearly ready to talk about it."

The Nigerian presidential election that took place on April 21 left her dissatisfied. "I can understand why you need some sort of political balance in a country that is so divided and has such a history of regional conflict, (but) I was annoyed that it was felt that the President had to come from the north. I am also angry that we haven't really had a proper campaign."

At the same time, she remains hopeful about her vast and troubled nation.

"I feel I have to be an optimist, and not just because I don't like the alternative, which is too dreadful to contemplate. The people who took power in the 1960s and have held it since did not think in terms of Nigeria, but simply saw themselves carrying on from the British and controlling all the power in the same way. But I think my generation will be different."

Adichie's own future is likely to be divided between Nigeria and the US, between her writing and university life - but as a creative writing fellow rather than as a conventional academic. Whatever the other reasons for feeling optimistic about Nigeria, one is that it can look forward to having its literary heritage further enriched over the next few decades.

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