Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Nigerian author reads at the Egyptian Theatre

Award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fed up with the "patronizing, well-meaning pity" that characterizes many people's perceptions of Africa. In her novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Adichie describe the highs and lows, the love and loss, of post-colonial, middle-class Nigerian society. We spoke with Adichie via e-mail before her reading at the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, June 9, at 7:30 p.m.

Can you describe your background growing up in Nigeria and how it has shaped the stories that you are drawn to?

First, as a reader, I am drawn to all kinds of stories. I grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, in the town of Nsukka. My parents worked at the university.

By far, the largest coverage of Africa as a continent is that of a single story of catastrophe. Stories like mine are hardly heard--of middle-class Africa, of children who had happy childhoods. Too many people have been told how Africa is dying and too few have been told how Africa lives. The dying stories are important, of course, but one will never truly understand the African space if one does not also hear other kinds of stories. There are many people for whom the word "Africa" immediately brings to mind poverty, death, war, starvation. And this becomes what they see as "authentic" Africa. I was once told, for example, by an American professor that my book was not "authentically African" because I wrote about middle-class Africans who drove cars. For him, an "authentic" African writer should write about people who were starving and poor. The Africa I know is a middle-class Africa and the stories of middle-class Africa are just as important as the stories of poor Africa. Did all Americans live like John Steinbeck's characters when he wrote? No. Neither did all Americans live like Edith Wharton's when she wrote. Nobody questions the authenticity of these American stories.

You have said, "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete." What role do you think novelists play in helping to fill in the gaps created by stereotypes?

Both novelists and historians can fill out the skeletal stereotypes, but novelists even more so because I like to think of fiction as the soul of history. History tells you what happened, but good fiction tells you how it felt and reminds you that it happened to people with whom you share a common humanity.

You did an immense amount of research into the history of the Nigeria-Biafra war during the four-year period you were writing Half of a Yellow Sun. How did you keep the novel from becoming too burdened by history?

By constantly reminding myself that the characters had to be at the center of the narrative. By pushing aside the desire to show off how much time I had spent in dark libraries.

What have been some public perceptions of Half of a Yellow Sun in Nigeria?

The book has been very well received by--and this particularly makes me happy--Nigerians, cutting across gender and ethnicity. It has made it possible for Nigerians of my generation to start asking questions about that period of our history. I have often heard how the novel has served as a starting point for important and sometimes difficult conversations among families and friends about what happened in 1967.

You describe yourself as a "very happy feminist." What do you mean by that?

I was once told by an acquaintance in Nigeria that feminists were unhappy women who could not find husbands. So I thought I had better qualify mine with happiness. For me, to be feminist is simply to recognize and acknowledge that there are still many gender inequalities in the world and to work to address and change them. I write mostly about women. My work is feminist in the sense that I write about what I care about but I don't write ideological fiction. I have no interest at all in simplistic propaganda. In my view, individual women can be just as horrible as individual men, but what is important is that the power structure benefits men as a group.

Now that you split your time between America and Nigeria, what are some specific things you miss from each place?

Even though my husband and I eat mostly Nigerian food here in the U.S., it never tastes like the real thing. So I miss that. And I miss my friends. And I miss the sense of being where I never question my place. In Nigeria, my Internet connection is always too slow. So I miss my American broadband. And I miss plums. And I miss online shopping.

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