Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie needs little or no introduction. The famous Nigerian novelist and gender equality advocate, whose works are accorded accolades internationally, has written the novels Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, with a collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck, and the book-length essay, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Her first novel Purple Hibiscus received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize (2004) then awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005. Her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize in 2007, and in 2015 was chosen as the “Best of the Best” of the 10 novels selected as winners of the Orange Prize (which has since been rebranded as the Baileys Prize and, most recently, the Women’s Prize for Fiction) during the second decade of the prize from 2006 to 2015. The novel was eventually adapted into a movie with its thematic preoccupation set before and during the Biafra War.

Chimamanda was a Hodder fellow at Princeton University during the 2005-2006 academic year, and earned an MA in African Studies from Yale University in 2008. In 2011-2012, the Radcliffe Institute awarded her a fellowship for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This fellowship allowed her to finalise her third novel Americanah, which was released to great critical acclaim in 2013. This high-flyer is married with a daughter and juggles her time between Nigeria, where she regularly teaches at her Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop (previously known as The Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop), and the United States. Her workshop has spanned a decade, producing over 200 alumni many of whom have become published writers and editors.

The Enugu-born Nigerian has a lot to tell in this interview, as she narrates her work, lifestyle, and stance on the supposed controversial ambience around her advocacy for gender equality with GuardianWoman

What does Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing workshop represent?
It represents opportunity. For me, this workshop is a way of encouraging talent. I think there’s a lot of talent in Nigeria, many young writers who want to write but they don’t have other people who write around them, they don’t really know how publishing is, they don’t know any of those things. So for me the workshop is a way of bringing them all together, teaching them, but also just encouraging them that wanting to be a writer is not strange, they can excel and be great at it.

Kindly tell us the ideology behind the workshop and what are your expectations and development agenda for 2019 as the workshop closes for the year?
Next year, the workshop continues. I want to continue doing it every year; it’s been on for 10 years. So for me it’s something that hopefully would go on for many years because there’s so much talent in this country but very little opportunity. I feel that I have been fortunate to have found success, and I also want the young writers to have what I did not have when I was starting out my writing career. I didn’t have this kind of workshop. I wish I had. I started the workshop so that the young writers today would have the opportunity I didn’t have, because it’s just a really helpful thing to have a community of people who support you. In the workshop we talk about writing, but we also talk about social issues. Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we talk about politics, everything. One of the things I want to do-but it’s also a question of time, because I also want to protect my own time. I’m also a writer and I need the time to write, but if I had a lot of time I would like to do more workshops. I would like to do workshops that are not just about writing but which focus on gender. I would like to have gatherings of women where we can talk. I want to create spaces where women can just talk about the issues that affect women and think about solutions because for me, it’s not enough to talk about problems. So that’s the kind of thing I would like to do, but truly it’s a question of time.

Tell us about the emergence of your writing career, what motivates or inspires you to write?
Everything inspires me to write. I’ve been writing since I was a child and that’s all I know- but I can tell you I’m happiest when I’m writing and it’s going well. Really, I was lucky. There was luck but also hard work. I work hard. I’m a hard worker, I write and I rewrite. I read. I read everything. I think I got the good fortune of being published and having this level of success. I haven’t stopped working hard, I haven’t stopped writing; every writer has the moment when you’re sitting down in front of your laptop and you’re panicking because it’s not coming. Even with my success, it still happens. So nothing has changed in the process, I still have the self-doubt, I’m still very happy when I feel that I’ve done something well, I’m still very sad when I think I wrote rubbish-it hasn’t changed.

Tell us about your writing technique, your style?
I don’t really have a particular writing style. I write when the spirits speaks to me, and as directed but it doesn’t happen as often as I want.

You have published three best selling novels and a collection of short stories, when should your readers expect your next novel?
When I have time to rest, I’m teaching in the workshop, I am busy.

Do you consciously or subconsciously portray or reflect your character and personality in your works?
Certainly not consciously, I don’t really like to write about myself, I like to write about other people’s experiences, I’m always asking people about issues and incidents, trying to get information.

How much of the Igbo culture do you infuse in your writing?
I think a lot – because that’s what I grew up with, so most of my characters have my background, they grow up in Igbo land speak Igbo and English. You write what you know and because it is what I know, it’s not as if I sit down and say I shall now write about Igbo culture, no, I’m writing about what I know and happens to me, so yes mostly – Igbo culture.

What’s your concept of feminism?
Feminism for me is about justice; it’s about the idea that all human beings are equal. And of course, men and women are equal. The reason I think it is important to call it feminism-because some people say if you mean it’s about equality why don’t you say you’re an ‘Equalist’-but the problem is, we have to name which group has been oppressed, which group has been diminished, and it is women. In some ways it’s like saying you have breast cancer for instance, and you request for breast cancer medicine, and they tell you what about medicine for the whole body? No, the problem is the breast cancer! So in the same way, the problem is that women have been oppressed and subjugated, and so for us to get equality, it is women we have to focus on. Feminism just means equality of opportunity. It doesn’t mean that men are inferior. It doesn’t mean that women would become men. It simply means women and men retain their gender but are equal, and we should never use gender as a reason to discriminate against anybody. We should never say to a woman, for instance, because you’re a woman therefore you cannot do xyz, that’s fundamentally what it is for me.

What your stance about the global controversial movement of feminism?
I don’t think it is controversial, I think it is a wonderful movement. For some it may seem controversial, but I don’t. How is demanding to be treated as human beings with equal rights controversial?

How can we attain gender parity, do you think it’s attainable in Nigeria?
It is attainable, but two things: men have to come on board; they have to be part of the movement for justice, which simply means that men have to speak out about all kinds of things. It’s not just that we have to change laws; there are parts of Nigeria where women cannot inherit property, for example. There’s the law that says, for instance, if you’re a woman and you’re marrying somebody who is not a Nigerian you can’t give your husband your citizenship. Those kinds of things we can change with laws. But there’s the mindset, and the way to change the mindset is simply by giving people room to question. So there are many questions I have asked about the way our society is set up and people get very upset, but I think they get upset because, as human beings, we want what we know. This has been done this way for so long, therefore, it should be this way. But that’s not necessarily true; so many things have changed in history. So to answer the question, do I think gender parity is possible in Nigeria? The honest answer is I don’t know, but I also think that if we have enough commitment, maybe.

Culture and religion seem to be strong driving forces that control society on the issues of gender equality, how do you think people can rewrite and reshape the long existing doctrine of gender disparity?
Culture changes all the time. It’s a question of what in our culture do we want to keep that is beneficial to everybody. Eighty years ago, Igbo people killed twins; they’ve stopped doing that. 100 years ago, if you got sick you didn’t go to the hospital; you would find one chicken and kill it. We’ve changed that. So culture changes. The idea that because something is cultural means you cannot change it-it’s not true. So the people who use culture to justify women being put down are people who are benefitting from it. So for me, culture is not an argument that works. I think religion is often misunderstood, and you can use the Bible to justify everything. I think that Christianity is actually pro-equality. For me, what’s important is to look at the Messiah. Look at the person that Jesus Christ was, Jesus Christ came to a Jewish community that was very conservative, and He was doing things that people did not do. He was talking to women as though women were equal people, which is why we were often told the Pharisees were disgusted with Him. The way that I read it is that He was trying to make a point that all human beings are equally-deserving. So for me, Christianity is also not a reason to justify gender injustice.

What is your perception of feminism outside Africa?
Yes, there are problems in Nigeria but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect outside Nigeria. I think the difference is that people in Nigeria just say the word feminism and it’s demonised. It’s immediately seen as a negative thing. I think the difference is, outside Nigeria it is not always seen as a negative thing because the truth is that feminism is not a negative thing. In some ways, the kind of response people give proves the point of feminism. In other words, feminism is saying women are undervalued and when you talk about equality people get angry about it, saying you want to become men? Which makes the point – why are you angry? Sometimes people say feminists are angry. Actually no, the people who are angry are the people who oppose feminism. I’ve never understood why they are angry. If you really believe that women are equal and are human beings why would you be angry if they say they are equal? For me it’s a necessary question to ask.

There have been a lot of controversies about your stance on gender equality, do you feel the need to always explain yourself to people in order to correct their perception of you?
No.

What’s your advise for Nigerian Women?
We can be many things; a woman can be many things, let’s stop using marriage as a means to judge other women. Recently I saw two women arguing in a market, and one of them was shouting, “go and marry, whore”, and I thought, why is that something we use to judge other people? I have friends who are single, but when they are attending important meetings they put on a wedding ring so that they would get respect. We need to change-and sometimes it is women who judge other women. So women need to stop judging women.

Aside Chinua Achebe, do you have other female writers as role model?
I have many of them. Ama Ata Aidoo-I love her, Flora Nwapa was important to me, Buchi Emecheta I like very much especially her Joys of Motherhood. It’s a very fantastic book and really I think she did not get the recognition she deserved. Kenyan writer Muthoni Likimani, I really like her book Passport Number F.47927 about women and the Mau Mau movement in Kenya. I love that book, and there are many women writers I love.

You tend to have a unique dressing culture, tell us about your fashion style, do you have a fashion icon or model?
That would be my mother. She is a very stylish person, and I don’t play with my mother. Growing up she would dress you up and say in Igbo language i ga-adi ka mmadu meaning you have to look really good and presentable like a real human being, and that was important in my house. So I grew up to love fashion and, really for me, I want to support Nigerian talents so I decided last year that I would wear only Nigerian designers. I have enjoyed it because I’ve discovered things I like; I’ve discovered lovely things. Though now that I am in a position where many foreign designers want to send me clothes to wear, I sometimes contemplate suspending this “wear Nigeria”-but I end up saying ‘no, I won’t.” But now I want to broaden it to wear Africa; I want to look at other countries in Africa to wear their designs.

A lot of Nigerians tend to lose their original accent when living abroad, you have lived outside the shores of Nigeria for a while but still have your accent, why is that?
Because it is easier to talk in the voice and accent that is familiar, but also because I speak English well, I don’t see the need to speak English in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me, and because I am not apologetic for being a Nigerian. I won’t apologise for it; it’s who and what I am. Everything I am today is because I was fortunate enough to have been born in this country, I went to the University Primary School in Nsukka, University Secondary School in Nsukka, those places formed me and I would never deny or apologise for that.

How do you feel about your success and how far you’ve come?
You know, when the MC at the just concluded Literary Evening in Lagos read a list of my achievements, I felt great and blessed, I felt like wow, I’ve tried, because I have forgotten most of those achievements. I’ve forgotten the fact that my novel was best of the best of the Bailey’s prize, so I’m happy. I’m at a very happy place in my life, and I’m also very grateful, not because I don’t deserve the success, but because I know that there are other talented people in the world who do not have the fortune I’ve had. So I’m grateful for that and want to do more. I’m not done, there’s a lot in my future.

Considering how busy you are, how do you relax?
I try. Really, my relaxation is my daughter, so for me peace dwells in my family. So it’s my husband, my daughter and also my parents, my sisters. I’m very much a family person and I have a very close family. So that’s what relaxation is for me. I travel and do all of these things but there are days when I don’t do anything and I just sit at home and that girl is just controlling my world, ordering me about, telling me what she wants and I give it. My daughter is my boss.

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