Nigerian-born literary sensation Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novels tackle race, gender and identity head-on. Joanne Bladd spoke to her at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature earlier this year
It was standing room only when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took the stage at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March this year.
Her debut novel, 2003’s Purple Hibiscus was followed in 2006 by Half of a Yellow Sun. Her third novel, Americanah, a brilliant dissection of race, culture and migrant identity in the US and UK, was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and is tipped to be made into a film starring David Oyeylowo and Lupita N’Yong’o.
“I was supposed to be a doctor,” she says, settling into a chair. “In my plan – because in Nigeria, you can’t earn a living from writing – I was going to be a doctor because when you do well at school, it is simply what you do. But I was always going to write, it was just a question of how I would feed myself.”
America is still very much the aspirational land for Nigerians, and Dubai is also aspirational, but achievable
Adichie grew up in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka as one of six siblings, living by sheer coincidence in the former home of Chinua Achebe, the country’s most famous novelist. A stint at medical school ended when she dropped out to move to America, completing a humanities degree, followed by MAs in creative writing and African studies.
It is a flying visit, but Adichie is delighted to be back in Dubai and to see how the city’s literary festival has exploded since her first visit. “It really feels as though the festival has found its footing,” she muses.
Dubai itself is an object of fascination for Adichie. She sees the city as a rare confection of east and west, that has succeeded on its own terms.
You can’t speak comfortably about something that is rooted in injustice
“I deeply admire the drive and ambition,” she says, recalling how, in Nigeria, her state governor’s election campaign relied heavily on a promise to turn the state into a new Dubai. “America is still very much the aspirational land for Nigerians, and Dubai is also aspirational, but achievable. We constantly say: ‘We should be like Dubai.’ You will never hear Nigerians say; ‘Oh, we should really be like America.’”
This sense of looking outwards, of dissatisfaction and the conviction that real life happens somewhere else is embedded in Americanah. Through Ifemelu, the book’s protagonist, we experience the dislocation of life in a new country. “I came from a country where race was not an issue,” observes Ifemelu, in a scene at a polite Manhattan dinner party. “I did not think of myself as black, and I only became black when I came to America.”
Adichie denies Ifemelu is based on her, but there is common ground.
“The way race is talked about in America, the underlying idea is that everyone has to be comfortable. But you can’t speak comfortably about something that is rooted in injustice,” she says. “People skirt around these things, and I didn’t want to do that. There is a part of me that deeply craves a kind of truth.”
Feminism means this to me: every day I am aware of how much we need to change to make this world just when it comes to gender
She is equally eloquent on gender. It takes a certain skill to make a speech on feminism go viral, yet that is what happened in 2013 when Adichie found herself making a surprise appearance on a Beyoncé album. The speech, a rousing TEDx talk titled ‘We should all be feminists’, was sampled in the track Flawless. Adichie can be heard declaiming: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’”
“There are so many people in Nigeria for whom my espousing feminism is a bad thing, both males and females. There is a certain kind of defensiveness,” she sighs. “I don’t understand people who are not feminist. How can you not stand for justice? Because that is what it is.
“Feminism means this to me: every day I am aware of how much we need to change to make this world just when it comes to gender. In the end, it is really down to how we raise girls and boys.”
As she gathers her things to leave, conversation turns to Dubai’s tourist attractions – particularly, the shopping. When told that the city’s largest mall has an entire floor devoted to shoes, Adichie falls back in her chair, rolling her eyes in mock-horror. “You do not want to tell me that,” she sighs. “I have a problem.”