Harrowing and gory images and reports of man’s cruelty to man have apparently lost their power to galvanize, to move people to action. Or at least it seems to, unconscionably, take the so-called international community (is there a more meaningless term?) far longer to respond—Guatemala, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Sudan, Darfur, and countless other spots on the world map go unheeded. The Biafran War from 1964 to 1967 was the first internecine genocidal conflict to play out on television. Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) has written her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the memories of that awful time and of many victims from her homeland.
This seems to be a fertile time for African writers in America. Chris Albani, Uzodinma Iweala, Helen Oyeyemi, and Adichie make up a boomlet of unlikely interest in African literature. Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian man of letters, upon reading Half of a Yellow Sun was moved to offer this laudation about Adichie: “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. Her experimentation with the dual mandate of English and Igbo in perennial discourse is a case in point. Timid and less competent writers would avoid the complication altogether, but Adichie embraces it because her story needs it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made.”
The conversation below took place at Café Pamplona in Harvard Square, on a crisp October day and ranged over topics far and wide—Negritude, African literature, the Biafran War, Africans in America, and conditions in Nigeria today. Adichie is an engaging and thoughtful conversationalist with a lilting, almost musical, speaking manner from whom I am confident we will hear much more.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: I’m talking to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. [badly mispronounces the name] No?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: [laughs and pronounces her name]
RB: I see.
CNA: The “n” in Ngozi is hummed.
RB: What is the origin or meaning of your name?
CNA: Yes, Chimamanda means “my God will not fall down.” Literally that’s what it means. It’s sort of like my spirit is indomitable. Ngozi means blessing. And my last name I don’t know—it’s a shortened form of something much longer. It’s something about the mother. Sort of about continuity—I am not quite sure what it means. Most last names, because they are shortened version of longer things, their meanings are lost.
RB: Do feel any pressure because of your first name—”my God will not fall down?” Do you think about it?
CNA: Emm, I don’t think I do consciously. But I like my name very much.
RB: Beautiful. If I could pronounce it I’d feel better. In your author’s note, you say, “May we always remember.” What should we remember? What is it you want us to always remember?
CNA: I want to remember the war. I want to remember the people who died. I want to remember [deep sigh]—I want to remember that period in our history. I just don’t want to. I want us to remember.
RB: I was an undergraduate and something of a political activist and I saw the Biafran War’s impact in the U.S.—it was somewhat like Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Darfur—it registered minimally. Maybe you would see posters of starving children—Africa continues to have these massive problems and the world seems to be mostly indifferent.
CNA: Do you really think it’s the same responses?
RB: Possibly there was more attention paid to the Biafran war.
CNA: I think so, too. I think Africa has gotten less attention since. Probably also it was simply that Biafra was the first time that people saw African children starving on television—they weren’t just reading about it. They saw it. It’s also a shame. I am just sickened by how Africa is covered in the media. And it makes me feel both angry and helpless. And it’s always Africa—often it’s an Africa in which Africans themselves cannot help themselves, which for me is troubling. Often I think to myself, “If I wasn’t African, what would I think about Africa based on what I see on American television?” I think I would think that Africans were a bunch of stupid people—who kill themselves for no reason.
RB: Based on American television you could arrive at that conclusion about everyone in the rest of the world.
CNA: I don’t think so. No, no, no. When you watch media coverage of, say, the Holocaust, in the U.S., it’s more thoughtful. There isn’t that—
RB: I see what you are saying. It’s probably the case there are not a lot of people in TV of African descent. Like, if Uzodinma Iweala was at a media outlet, the coverage would reflect some thoughtfulness—
CNA: Yes. It’s a shame that that’s what it would take. It shouldn’t, I think. But that’s what it would take.
RB: In Half of a Yellow Sun, the character Richard Churchill, a white Englishman, is probably a translation of this dilemma—first he wants to write about the art he discovers, then he wants to write a novel about the war. And then he realizes he can’t write about it and it’s not for him to write about it. He acknowledges something about him writing about it would not be appropriate. Maybe you’re saying that through the character? [laughs]
CNA: [sighs] Well, that’s him saying that—he’s a character. His case is different. He does write about it—in a way that helps the cause. He writes about [the war] for the Western press in a way that he realizes that they will take it more seriously. The story that Ugwu ends up writing—Richard made the right decision. I really don’t think—I suppose yes, maybe it is my subtle way of slipping in my politics that maybe it’s time that Africans wrote about Africa. For so long it’s been non-Africans writing about Africa—now there is a template for what Africa is. Which is why I remember when I wrote my first novel and somebody said to me, “It’s not authentic because the characters are too familiar.” Which meant that they—
RB: Too familiar to whom?
CNA: To him, the American—I won’t say his name. What struck me then was he had come to expect something of Africa, so the characters had to be unfamiliar and strange. In my more sarcastic moments I thought maybe he wanted them to swing from tree to tree. [both laugh]
RB: Again, when I was an undergraduate it seemed like there was this boomlet in interest in world literature—that’s when I became acquainted with [Chinua] Achebe and [Wole] Soyinka and the Latin Americans. It strikes me that there is a burgeoning interest in African writers again. I’m thinking of Uzodinma [Iweala] and Chris Albani and Helen Oyeyemi, and even people like Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver and John le Carré are writing about Africa. Is it my imagination or misperception that there’s more literary action around Africa?
CNA: Published outside of Nigeria, for example? I suppose it is true that publishers are more willing to take risks with African writers. A little more willing—about people like John le Carré and other non-African writers setting their books in Africa, I don’t think that is new.
RB: It’s not new but in this moment it seems to be a conscious political act—The Constant Gardener seems to be highly political. And you are correct: Africa as a setting for novels is not new, but Africa as seen by Banks and le Carré seems to be real and unpatronizing.
CNA: Before that had you read about Africa?
RB: I think.
CNA: Who wrote those books?
RB: Robert Ruark wrote a book about the Mau Mau called Uhuru and Alan Paton—and as an undergraduate, Achebe and Soyinka, et al. I never read Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian military, nor had I heard of him except in a political context.
CNA: He didn’t write that many novels anyway and Sozaboy, his novel, is in pidgin and I can see why it wouldn’t cross over very well. And he did plays and he has a memoir and he does a lot of screenplays. So that might be part of it—there are Nigerians being published in Nigeria who don’t get much attention outside of Nigeria and even in Achebe’s time, there are a lot of his contemporaries who I read and you probably would find their books in the “used” sections of bookstores. I suppose setting books in Africa—that is a good thing. But often there still is a formula. It’s Africa as a backdrop and again it’s often outsiders solving the African problem. It’s troubling to me because it takes away the notions that African themselves can have agency. That African themselves can in fact solve African problems.
RB: Are efforts by the Gates Foundation paternalistic?
CNA: I’m all for getting help where one can get help—what I think the Gates Foundation tries to do—and I don’t know much about it but recently they were in Nigeria talking to people, asking where they thought the money should go. Which is always a good thing. And wanting to work with these people and really giving them the money and having someone looking over their shoulders to make sure—I don’t think it is paternalistic. Which is if they go in thinking that they know better than the Africans about Africa. There is a lot of thinking like that that comes from colonialism. So you go to England and talk to people today and they are lecturing you about your own country and what really the problem is. And these people have never lived there and it’s really troubling. And when Africa is talked about, they become the Africa experts. And people consult them.
RB: If you consider that the U.S. has its own racial anomalies and maladjustments that are troubling and probably never going away—how can the U.S. ever deal with Africa when there is a racism built in?
I suppose setting books in Africa—that is a good thing. But often there still is a formula. It’s Africa as a backdrop and again it’s often outsiders solving the African problem. It’s troubling to me because it takes away the notions that African themselves can have agency. That African themselves can in fact solve African problems.
CNA: There are times when I—and this something I think about quite a bit, I am completely overwhelmed with despair. This morning on NPR, a thing on Africa and Africans can’t feed themselves, and it sounds so hopeless. And often I feel this despair when I am outside Nigeria. When I am back home I am not consciously aware of this despair.
RB: You are like your characters in Half of a Yellow Sun, who survive with this odd kind of hopefulness.
CNA: I guess because you don’t have a choice.
RB: What troubles me and it is the same about other areas—the internecine tribal massacres. And in this country I am not comfortable with the religious zealots who believe and argue that they are saved and the rest of us non-believers are going to hell.
CNA: It’s fine if that is what they believe, but it’s troubling when they blow up abortion clinics.
CNA: I know that it’s difficult to understand. What I sometimes wonder is whether we who are appalled by these things that we see on television—whether we would be the same and do the same were we in those positions? For example, the fact that so many Igbo people were massacred in Northern Nigeria and continue to be, actually, more recently, and it just shocks me and sometimes I think, “Well, what if I had been there?” and who knows. Maybe it’s too easy? Maybe there is something human in us that makes it—I don’t know. But then again, I feel just as much horror when I watch footage on PBS about the American South in the ‘60s. For me it’s—people would go to these lengths just so a black person wouldn’t be in their classroom. And I think, “Why?”
RB: Well, that’s the irreducible hatred. I look at some of the characters in this novel and I cannot see their hearts of darkness. Even Ugwu—I don’t see him lifting a hand in cruelty although he is part of a rape—which he seems to hate being part of and participates under duress.
CNA: I don’t either. Just like I don’t see myself. I can sit here and say that, that I believe in the dignity of every human being. And I think killing of any sort is wrong. But again, I wonder about the context of things. These are people who—poverty plays a role. Brainwashing—it’s very easy to brainwash. I don’t think it’s so much about our tribal differences; it’s when we start to feel that one tribe has power or is taking something away from us. And it’s easy to make people believe that.
RB: So the Igbo aren’t positioned as malevolent and marauding and butchering people because they were—maybe like the Jews, they had agency in their society. They could accumulate wealth, move around freely. So they had no motivation to do the violence—what the Yoruba did?
CNA: No [it was] primarily the Hausa—no, they didn’t. Actually Nigeria had a long history of groups wanting to secede. For example right before independence, the North didn’t want to become independent and then didn’t want to become one country with the South. And all of that was religious. They had a very small percentage of the Northern elite, who were also were the religious leaders, who didn’t want to be part of a country that wasn’t wholly Muslim. And the Igbo, until the war, really were nationalistic, wanted a Nigeria. And in some ways I think it was practical for them—Igboland is small, not very fertile, and they really needed to leave and go trade in other parts of the country. So it made sense that they would want one Nigeria. So yeah, they would like to say they are the Jews of Nigeria in that sense of breeding resentment in people because you are seen as too aggressive. And too—
RB: And too successful.
RB: This is a the core of so many problems—which is that these nations were formed around perhaps arbitrary boundaries—
RB: So why would so many of these people have any allegiance to a map?
CNA: That’s absolutely true. And some people say, “Well, we have already been created we might as well stay together.” Which really doesn’t make that much sense. I do think if the original boundaries of Biafra had not included the Niger delta with all the oil, Biafra would have been an independent country today. I don’t doubt that. It was the oil, the reason they said you can’t go and was the reason behind Britain’s concerted support [for Nigeria] and oil really was behind the war.
RB: The title of the novel comes from—
CNA: The flag.
RB: I wondered about the way you structured the narrative. The story doesn’t unfold in sequence—the early ‘60s, the late ‘60s, and then the early ‘70s—why do that?
CNA: Well, I was writing a novel and not a political thing. And I wanted to have an opportunity to play with the structure. Also I wanted to keep my characters humanized. Fully human—I didn’t want my reader ever to forget that these were real people who had a life before the horrors they have to endure. So I started long before the war, just to get my readers to get to know my characters. I didn’t want to throw them into war. The classic idea of a war novel is you start off and the characters are thrown into one and we watch them suffer.
RB: I noticed that the war becomes real around a third of the way through when Richard is at the airport and sees this massacre—especially of this passport control/customs person he has been talking with—it’s harrowing and vivid. And shocking. And of course it resonates for Churchill and the reader from that point on.
CNA: That’s the first time he really deals with—
RB: And the first time for the reader.
CNA: Olanna’s incident actually happens before Richard’s—where she sees her family members have been killed and she is on the train back to the east—
RB: Oh, yes, yes, yes—that’s where she sees the mother on the train with the head of her child. That’s one of my concerns about the chronological back and forth. I started to reconfigure the narrative’s sequence. [laughs]
CNA: My brother said to me when he as reading it, “Did I miss something? Did I miss some pages?”
RB: By the third section I was flipping back to make sure I knew or understood the time and sequence—I’m sorry I interrupted.
CNA: Of course I didn’t want to confuse my reader. I kept going back, hoping that I had used concrete detail to remind the reader that when you move forward and went back—I hoped that there were a few markers in which the reader would know “Oh, OK, we’re back.” And also in the second section when we skip to the late ‘60s, there are things one doesn’t know. “Where did Baby come from and what happened?” For me, again, it was simply a technique of fiction—I wanted to keep the reader engaged.
RB: You are very clear about this being a novel—that while you give long list of books for reference—I was surprised to see a book by Frederick Forsyth on Biafra—
CNA: Oh goodness, he was a staunch supporter of Biafra. He wrote a book about [Chukwuemeka Odumegwu] Ojukwü as well—he actually lived with him a while. In some ways the idea of Richard came from Frederick Forsyth. Richard isn’t at all like him, of course, but just the sense of an Englishman who became more Biafran than Biafrans themselves, was really an idea that came from him, Forsyth.
RB: I wondered why you didn’t have maps, perhaps on the endpapers.
CNA: I didn’t want to because it would make it too real. And the suggestion came up quite a few times in the editorial process but I just felt that it would make it too nonfiction-y. Personally, I don’t like novels that have maps. [both laugh] For one, I never look at them.
RB: I ended up printing out some maps—there is a foundation of factuality and it seemed like a good way of ordering the information and getting the names right. And the places right.
CNA: I did try to have some subtle things—I have Master and Ugwu talking, and Master is educating him. It was my way of trying to get the reader a sense of where this all was. So Nsukka was in the Nigerian southeast.
RB: The university town?
CNA: Yes. And also it was me thinking about my possible pedantic readers who would then say [she raises her voice excitedly], “Well, if that town is there, I can’t see how he would drive from there to there in an hour.” The book is factually based and I really didn’t make up major things—I just couldn’t let myself do that—I did make up the chronology of the towns falling. Just because I wanted the characters to move faster.
RB: That’s a problem—I am well aware that despite the clear declaration that this is a novel, any attempt to follow major fact lines leaves you open to that pedantic reader. There still seems to be an expectation that if it’s a novel that has a factual basis all the facts must be as the record shows them. That is a bother.
CNA: It is, I know that—particularly for my Nigerian readers. Most of my considerations were about them. I understand that this book will mean so much more to people in Nigeria. That lots of people who don’t know much about Biafra, because of this book, hopefully, will want to know more. It’s also one of the reasons I didn’t want to make up any major thing. I didn’t want to give people a reason to say, “Oh she made this huge air raid up; therefore this whole book is a lie.” There are people who will not read it just as a novel.
RB: English is Nigeria’s first language?
CNA: It’s the official language.
RB: No worries about translation—has it been published in Nigeria?
CNA: It comes out at the end of this month.
RB: What do you think?
CNA: I am looking forward very much to it. I am going to go back in December to promote it. I am actually hoping that it starts a conversation. Biafra is still a huge subject—something that we enjoy avoiding. We don’t formally acknowledge that it happened.
CAN: We aren’t taught about it in school for example. And then talking about it—
RB: What about the survivors?
CNA: Interestingly a number of people have actually written me already to say, “Oh, your book was an opportunity to talk to my mom about the war.” Because they hadn’t. I guess it is that survivor thing where you lose family—
CNA: Yeah, you want to move on, move on. Move on. Also there is so much that is unresolved. The way that the war ended—it was as if the war is over, you rebels have been defeated, let’s move on.
RB: You end the book with Nigerian soldiers continuing to terrorize and harass Igbo people.
CNA: That comes with victory—if Biafra had won, they probably would have done that
RB: Is the animosity still there?
CNA: It doesn’t manifest itself in that way. Soldiers won’t beat you because you are Igbo, but there is a subtext.
RB: Will they if you are wearing glasses?
CNA: No, no, no certainly not. There is a subtext in the way we relate to each other. You will hear people in Nigeria say things like, “Oh, we are never going to have an Igbo president.” We say it today. And in our more formal political discourse, we talk about geopolitical rotation. So we want a president from the southeast and then the next president has to come from another region. And it makes sense when you realize our history—we have a long history of exclusion. But it worries me: I find it so undemocratic. Maybe I’m being idealistic. But anyway, so that is the sort of politics we have.
RB: The U.S. presidential campaigns used to have a concern about the top of the ticket having some kind of regional balance—a Northeastern presidential candidate and then Southwestern vice president, and so on.
CNA: For me it’s troubling—I wish, I don’t care where our president comes from as long as he doesn’t steal Nigerian money and as long as he can read. [both laugh]
RB: Is that a past concern? Presidents haven’t been able to read? Or don’t read?
CNA: Yes, and you sometimes wonder, “Do they not read because they don’t want to or because they can’t?” It’s a valid question. [laughs] We don’t value education. And it’s a shame—not enough. Our universities, which once were really very good, now are in an absolute state of disrepair.
RB: So ambitious Nigerians leave and go to Britain and the U.S.?
CNA: Wherever he can get a visa for. They go to Ghana now to get an education.
RB: They have good schools?
CNA: Ghana’s schools aren’t in the state that Nigerian schools are.
RB: What would it take?
CNA: A government that values education. If you have federal—I feel strongly about this because I grew up on a campus, in Nsukka. I grew up the daughter of people who were so dedicated to university and suddenly at some point you are not paid your salary because the government is [insolvent], your labs are no longer funded so you didn’t have what you need to carry out experiments, and you don’t have books in the library. And the buildings are falling apart and just nobody cares. Lecturers are not paid—my father isn’t paid his pension now.
RB: Like the U.S., where companies can renege on their promises to their employees.
CNA: Well, the difference is that this is the federal government. These are our federal universities. It’s like the U.S. saying public school will no longer be funded. It’s very shameful, and to me we are not going to get anywhere until we give people a decent education.
RB: Any concrete number of how many Nigerian expatriates there are around the world?
CNA: I don’t—it’s become the middle class, the middle class aim has become for one member of the family to leave Nigeria.
RB: I ask about the number because—do you envision a reverse diaspora or exodus where Nigerian expatriates return? Are [you] a patriot?
CNA: I would have to ask you to define that.
RB: You love your country and believe in it. You would devote your energies and your attentions to improving conditions there.
CNA: The latter yes. I don’t believe in Nigeria as it exists today. I believe in the possibilities of Nigeria. I certainly don’t believe in what it is today.
I don’t care where our president comes from as long as he doesn’t steal Nigerian money and as long as he can read.
RB: I came across a quote from a South African journalist, “A patriot is someone who saves their country from its government.” [Similarly, American author Edward Abbey said, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”]
CNA: [laughs] That’s a good one—see, we do need—I do care because it’s home and it’s the only home I’ll ever have.
RB: What does it feel like when you go back—an ineffable good feeling?
CNA: Yes, interspersed with moments of great anger. And hopelessness. There are so many things that make me very angry about Nigeria. But yes, the sense that I have family there, it’s home, its where my belonging is least questioned, I think. Also it’s the sense of having so many wonderful memories of growing up. I was so fortunate to have a really happy childhood. And there is a part of me that is hopelessly nostalgic and I think that’s probably why—that affection for my childhood becomes my affection for my home.
RB: I wonder about coupling “hopelessly” and “nostalgic”—
RB: How do feel about how are you treated in the United States?
CNA: I feel African.
CNA: When I was an undergraduate and Africa came up, everyone turned to me. I was expected to explain Egypt and so on. I have come to like America. I didn’t initially. And it’s an affection I often have to qualify. [laughs]
CNA: Well. [laughs] A few months after I first came, I first realized I was black. I became black in America. I wasn’t consciously aware of race until I came to the U.S. And actually it was in a bookstore. A woman came up to me and said [speaking in a small and squeaky voice], “Didn’t you see the African-American section?” I suppose I was looking at literary fiction that she might have thought was too serious for me. It was one of those moments, and I don’t have many of those moments where something just strikes you and you think, “Oh yes, so this is what—” And since then I have become hyper-aware of this.
RB: Wasn’t there an African literary movement called Negritude?
CNA: Yes. First of all, it was particularly Francophonic, and I think the way colonialism worked in Francophone Africa was quite different than in Anglophone. Wole Soyinka is said to have said about Negritude that a tiger does not need to proclaim its tigritude. [both laugh]
RB: Good one.
CNA: Also what was troubling about Negritude was [Léopold Sédar] Senghor, who really started it, had troubling ideas—he said something about blackness being emotionally intuitive and whiteness is about being—I’m paraphrasing and completely messing it up. [The quote is translated, “Analysis, system, and logic belong to the white race,” and “emotion, intuition, sensuality, and spirituality belong to the black race.” -eds.] Really, for me, I remember reading this and being really worried and troubled by it. Senghor seemed to really elevate the French and the European mind and then it seemed he had trouble [pause] being fully proud of his black Africanness. That French colonialism did a really good job on Senghor and many of his Senegalese fellows. So for me Negritude is really not something I am very interested in.
RB: And it didn’t make you racially conscious when you lived in Nigeria?
CNA: I didn’t even know about it until I started to read much later. I grew up in a fairly cosmopolitan university town and so I had a quite a number of friends who parents came from somewhere else. So people in my father’s generation went off to school in Europe and came back with wives. There was one woman from Ghana who had a white husband and I applauded that. She came close to a gender parity of sorts but mostly it was men who had white wives and I remember and I think about it now—its amazing to me I wasn’t aware. My friends were lighter-skinned and their hair was different and they went abroad more often, which sometimes I was jealous of. They got to go overseas and come back with chocolate—I didn’t know really, race was so abstract. I read Roots when I was much younger. Loved it, wrote some bad poetry about slavery, but it wasn’t a conscious thing. Until I came to the U.S. and I thought, “Oh, right.” And then I started to learn that, living here, it wasn’t just that I was black, it was that black meant a lot of things and that’s what I still struggle with—the baggage that comes with blackness. Also there have been good things. When I came I remember somebody said to me, a black man called me “sister.” I thought, “Are you insane? I’m not your sister. I have two sisters. Stop it.” But now, now I’m so proud and I talk about this brother and that sister. So there are good things about it, the sense of “we-ness,” I like. There are things about the U.S. I don’t think exist anywhere else, for which I find myself feeling a gratitude. And it’s a sense that you can—for example, I was published here in a way that I don’t think I would have even in England, where there is so much going on. It’s interesting to me that my English friends say to me, “Oh, America, there’s so much racism in America.” I’m thinking, [chuckles] “Your problem is probably worse.” I don’t know if we can make direct comparisons.
RB: It’s the same. Britain currently manifests its racism in an anti-asylum-seeker stance—
CNA: Oh, good God, that stuff is so—with the British there is the sense that you can be an immigrant and get a stake but you can’t ever really become British, in a way that I think people who live here really can become American.
RB: Enough people achieve the apparent American Dream or seem to—
CNA: For us to believe in it, to continue to believe in it. Immigrant stories trouble me, the African-American experience in this country troubles me deeply and there is a divide between Africans and African Americans which is a shame and a lot of us African immigrants don’t even know the African-American experiences, don’t know the history, and we come here burdened with the kind of crap we get from the movies so we think they are all drug dealers and thieves. [laughs] For me really I can’t even use an African-American story—for me it’s still a shame. I would use an immigrant story, the fact that an immigrant comes to the U.S. and somehow [makes a place for himself]. I don’t know about the American dream but there are all sorts of possibilities which exist.
RB: We both have been outside the country—it’s amazing to me that even the most impoverished Americans are materially still better off than much of the rest of the world. There are people living on garbage dumps in Rio [de Janeiro] and Manila and Mexico City. Poverty here is not as it is in the rest of the world.
CNA: It is not. But then we have to wonder how we define that poverty. A poor person in Nigeria still has a sense of—
RB: I have noticed in the poor places I have been that people are still kind to each other and hospitable, and have not been turned into rodents clawing all over each other.
CNA: Yes, see that’s what I mean, it still troubles me about dignity in Nigeria. We have such a divide between the haves and the have-nots and watching how middle-class Nigerians treat their domestic help is appalling. But I would rather be poor in Nigeria than be poor in the U.S.
RB: The character Master treats his houseboy Ugwu almost like a son—
CNA: Yes, and that’s really rare.
RB For all his revolutionary fervor, which was a little over the top, he was basically a kind, decent guy.
When I came here I remember somebody said to me, a black man called me “sister.” I thought, “Are you insane? I’m not your sister. I have two sisters. Stop it.” But now, now I’m so proud and I talk about this brother and that sister.
CNA: It was over the top but it was well-meaning and we discover he is really not as strong as he thinks he is—he has all these ideas in his head. The way he treats Ugwu isn’t the norm. And Ugwu realizes that it’s not. Other houseboys sleep in the kitchen on the floor and they don’t get to go to the school that the master’s children would go to, no way. For me it isn’t that one has to send one’s houseboy to [the] school that one sends one’s son to, its simply that is that people would recognize their humanity and treat them with dignity.
RB: The twin sisters are very different and it seems to frame the polarity of the novel.
CNA: It does but they are not as different as they seem—we come to realize that. I wanted—I am really interested in family and how families work. And how we love and don’t love and that sort of thing. Really I wanted to show war as a time in which people come together, not just a time people die. My brother was born during the war. And often I think about how my parents had a really difficult time and lost everything they owned. But still my brother was born.
RB: The disappearance of Kainene is one of the horrors of war—you have a loved one about whom you do not know what becomes of them. A part of war that we lose sight of. The Guatemalan right and the Argentines made a tactic of “disappearing” people. Horrific.
CNA: It’s worse than knowing that someone died. Lots of people that I spoke to when I was writing this book who just don’t know. And what broke my heart even more was the sense I got particularly this man, who I talked to who—actually from him came the story of watching the body running without a head. His father had left to go trade or something, one of those necessary economic journeys that happen during the war. And he never came back and I got this sense from this man that he keeps thinking that his father might. And it’s been so many years. And it just broke my heart.
RB: Unfortunately, every once in a while you do hear a story—it’s that infrequent occasional reinforcement that’s the basis for people gambling.
CNA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
RB: You seem to have gotten very good reviews for Half of a Yellow Sun and the book has just come out within the last month or so. So what is you sense of the response?
CNA: I don’t read reviews. But I am really pleased and surprised, absolutely surprised that the U.S., that Americans and the American press is treating this book with respect. And I don’t care if it is reviewed badly—it’s that it’s been reviewed. That’s for me really—and people are engaging with it. And I didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t.
RB: Wasn’t Purple Hibiscus well reviewed?
CNA: Not really. Not in the U.S. In the U.K., my first book was taken very seriously, in the U.S. not really. There is some baggage that comes with being an African writer that I worried about with the second book. And so I am really, really pleased. And surprised and yeah—
RB: So as you are involved in going around and talking about it here, and in a few months in Nigeria, are you on to the next project, whatever it is?
CNA: I am doing lots of short fiction, which I have always done anyway. But I have a sense of where I’ll go next. Writing is really [laughs] the only thing that I care about and that I do fairly well. It’s not as if I have a life full of so many other things. It’s not like I—
RB: Where are you now?
CNA: I’m at Yale. I’ve gone back to graduate school. African studies.
RB: Is Yale a good place to be?
CNA: Fantastic—well, I’m told—I’ve only been there a few weeks. And I have hardly been there since I am traveling for this book. And I am going slightly crazy wondering what the heck I’m doing—doing graduate school and book promotion. I wanted to go there also because it’s very flexible in a way that other programs I looked at weren’t. It lets you do bits of little things. And I am not sure what I want to do and don’t really like academia. I don’t like that you have to have references at the back of a paper.
CNA: Yeah. That’s so boring. [laughs]
RB: But you feel the need to acquire a body of knowledge?
CNA: I wanted to formally study Africa. I wanted to read things I might not read on my own. I wanted to be in a community of people who were what’s called Africanists, a term that I find amusing. I want answers. There are so many answers I don’t have and I may not have but I want to try and I think that studying Africa is one way of doing it.
RB: Have you always aspired to be a writer?
CNA: I thought I was a writer when I was a child. I think I grew up in a place where being a writer wasn’t particularly venerated. So I thought I was a writer—so when people ask when I began, I thought I was when I was four. [laughs] And it was a university town but it was also a place where the people who were respected and venerated were the physicists and the mathematicians and the doctors and the lawyers. So a writer, hmmm—
RB: The literary tradition in Nigeria, is it nascent? Burgeoning?
CNA: No, no it’s not necessarily nascent. It’s been there and was there—my family lives in Achebe’s house. I grew up in that house, where Achebe has actually lived and there were a number of other writers in Nsukka. There is a wonderful tradition of writing coming from that university town. But again, the books were loved and people respected it, but it wasn’t—parents didn’t say to their children, “You are to be a writer.”
RB: They don’t say that anywhere. Where do they say that?
CNA: There is some respect with the idea of being a writer.
RB: Sure, but no parent will tell his child to be a writer. Especially immigrant parents.
CNA: Yeah I was just going to say that. Yes, immigrant parents, no way.
RB: By the way, I can’t remember if it was a blurb or where I read it but Achebe said this wonderful thing about you. What happened when you read that?
CNA: I was in tears the whole day.
CNA: No, I was. I was overwhelmed. I had for so long hoped that he would say something about my work. And was told he had read Purple Hibiscus and that he liked it. But this was from his son and I wasn’t sure if his son was just being kind to me. And when my editor sent this book to him, I didn’t want—I didn’t want to hope for too much. I thought I don’t want a blurb, just have him read it. And I will never forget when Robin [Dresser] called and said, “Achebe has just called and he wants to give a blurb,” and when she read it to me, it’s just this thing and because he is so important to me, because I really respect his work—I just started to cry. I didn’t know what else to do. And then of course afterward when I came down from the high of it. I thought, “Oh my God, now there is this huge expectation, if he thinks this of me will I live up to it” and that sort of thing. But it was very—
RB: It’s an anointment. [both laugh]
CNA: It’s a frightening one but it made me happy as well
RB: So your life is filled with study, reading, and writing.
CNA: Unfortunately, yes. Often people say to me, “Do you do anything else?” I’m thinking, “Why should I do anything else?”
RB: Then why do you say “unfortunately?”
CNA: I say it tongue-in-cheek. I do sometimes wish, for example, I had a massive interest in music. That I played the guitar. And that I was interested in skiing and going kayaking and I wish sometimes—it sounds like something that would be good for one to be interested in. But unfortunately, I am just interested in books. [laughs] And that’s it really. I constantly wake up and think there’s so much I don’t know. [laughs]
RB: Is the community of people you communicate with and talk to mostly literary? Who do you talk with?
CNA: My family.
RB: You were at Princeton for a while?
CNA: I had a fellowship and taught creative writing. I loved it.
RB: Who was there when you were there?
CNA: Chang-rae Lee. Paul Muldoon had just left. Joyce Carol Oates.
RB: Toni Morrison is still there, yes?
CNA: There is something she is doing that wasn’t quite clear to me but I only saw her once—I was there for a year.
RB: Edmund White?
CNA: Yes, yes, yes. He was on sabbatical doing something at the New York Public Library.
RB: The New York Public Library Fellow?
CNA: He said he loved it, there is the room and this fantastic access to all these books. He’s really lovely. I really enjoyed Princeton. I loved the people there. I remember going there, not being sure what to expect—
RB: Princeton must be heaven for a writer.
CNA: It was for me.
RB: So your graduate program is one year, two years?
CNA: Two years. I hope I last for two years. And then I don’t know, really.
RB: Do you want to teach?
CNA: I think I might have to. The sad thing about having the book set in Africa with major characters being black Africans is that nobody is going to make a movie of them.
RB: Maybe. Unlikely, but you never know.
CNA: Well you have to be realistic about this. So I am hoping to teach one semester somewhere and then go back to Nigeria the rest of the time.
RB: Do you split your time now?
CNA: I want to. I do now. I’m going back in December and will stay through January. But when I have more control of my time—when I am not in a graduate program I will certainly—it’s home, still.
RB: Do you have a timetable for a next novel?
CNA: No, no, no, no. Because I don’t write that way. I write when it comes.
RB: Good. Thanks very much.
CNA: [laughs] Thank you.