Chimamanda: Tougher than she looks!

By Smriti Daniel

Dressed in bright red pants, a flowing white top and pretty sandals, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lounges luxuriously on the cushions under the shade of a large tree in the GLF cafe. Despite her laid back air, it would be a mistake to underestimate Adichie – she’s tougher than she looks. In her first session, a panel discussion that kick-started the Galle Literary Festival, the award winning Nigerian author put up an eloquent defence of a fellow panellist and won a prolonged round of applause from the crowd.

She’s still irate though; the object of her annoyance is an opinionated audience member who opted to go with a personal attack instead of debating the issue at hand...and then followed her out only to challenge her again. “I just had to say something or I would have been furious the rest of the day,” adding that she would have spent an equally restless night, she laughs and shrugs the incident off.

With a length of colourful cloth wound around her braided hair, Adichie makes for a striking figure. Now that she has had her say, the author is cheerful again – and quite willing to discuss another man who incurred her wrath. If you’ve read ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ you will remember Edward in the story ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ – the old man with the ‘two front teeth the colour of mildew’.

In Africa to conduct a writing workshop for authors, Edward is as lecherous as he is arrogant. He presumes to know what constitutes a ‘real’ African story – ignorantly dismissing one submission as ‘passé’ and another as ‘not a real story of real people.’ For anyone who would make a similar call on Adichie’s story, consider yourself forewarned – not only does Edward have a real life counterpart, Adichie herself sat through a workshop with him.

The collection was published last year to critical acclaim, but now the author says she feels guilty. “The thing is that that story got so much attention I actually began to feel sorry for the guy. It’s an unequal fight. He’s not a writer and so he can’t strike back at me that way...But I was furious at that workshop.

You go to this workshop that is organised by an English person, because he’s the guy who can, he has the access, he has the money and that’s fine, but to tell you what your own story is...I think it’s the worst thing you can do to someone.” It’s clear that for her, a story can be a sacred thing – she’s described herself as being ‘compelled’ to write them, and she believes they are an essential part of understanding history, a way to fill in the gaps left by official histories.

Basking in the Galle sunlight: Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is perhaps her most ambitious attempt to put fiction to work in the service of her philosophy. The novel followed her successful 2003 debut, ‘Purple Hibiscus’ and went on to win the 2007 Orange Prize. It introduced Olanna and Kainene. The twin daughters of a wealthy businessman, they are nothing alike in either looks or temperament, but are united in their struggle to survive the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960s.

Negotiating riots, separation, starvation, loss and ultimately all out war, the novel tells the story from multiple view points. One of them is the voice of a young houseboy named Ugwu. Adichie endows him with intelligence and innocence even as she explores his darker impulses. In the end, Ugwu emerges as the conscience of the book – and finds his way into the author’s favourites.

Adichie tells me that Ugwu was inspired in part by Mellitus, a houseboy who served her parents during the war, and Fide, another houseboy who lived with them while she was growing up. Her mother would often say, ‘Thank God for Mellitus’, or ‘I don’t know what I would have done without Mellitus’ but Chimamanda harboured the suspicion that Mellitus had to have been less than perfect. “He could not possibly have been the saint my mother painted... I imagined he must have been very resentful of my mother sometimes, I wondered how he felt about being away from his own family...he must have been flawed and human.” With Fide and Mellitus as his literary ancestors, in the end “Ugwu is also me,” confesses Adichie, adding “I like all my characters but Ugwu is the character I feel closest to.”

Critics have noted that Adichie, an ethnic Igbo by birth, hails from the very same south-eastern corner of Nigeria that attempted to secede as Biafra. The narrative is also inescapably coloured by the personal loss experienced by Adichie’s family – both her grandfathers were among an estimated 3 million who died in the war – but the author takes pains to show that both sides were guilty of senseless crimes. The result is a textured, complicated portrayal but also one that has its detractors in her homeland. In a country where “Biafra is a topic that we enjoy avoiding,” Adichie is outnumbered.

Still, the author isn’t quite ready to bury Biafra along with those who would rather pretend it didn’t happen. “I like to tell my friends that I feel very strongly about sleeping very well at night, waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and liking the me inside and I can only do that by speaking my truth. If I’m false, if I’m silent and I just imagine what I could have said and I don’t say it, then I won’t sleep well.”
For more than one reason, this was clearly a hard book to write and Adichie has often claimed it threatened her sanity. “It’s so hard to talk about the process of that book, because it took so much rewriting.”

Her extensive research included numerous interviews and reading everything she could find about the war – much of which proved rather heavy going. “I think the first draft was about me showing how much I had learnt. Did you know that the French government did that? Oh my goodness, did you know what the Americans did? And I had all these things in the book and it wasn’t a novel.” A ruthless rewrite made it the character centric novel it is today. “I often joke and I tell my friends, that I should write another book called, ‘This is What I Found Out About Biafra.”

In some ways, Biafra has been the consuming passion of Adichie’s writing career. (At 16, she wrote “an awfully melodramatic play” called ‘For Love of Biafra’ which she followed with a short story ‘That Harmattan Morning’). ‘Ghosts’ in her new collection revisits the subject, telling the story of a professor at Nsukka (loosely modelled on her father) who meets a former colleague after the Biafran War. Many fans would not object if she had chosen instead to follow Kainene’s story past the closing chapters of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ instead. “I can’t tell you how many angry emails I get from my fellow Nigerians who want to know what happened to Kainene and who want to bring her back.” Unfortunately Kainene, like so many others, vanished into Biafra.

Perhaps somewhere in Adichie’s archives of half finished stories, there’s a fragment with a clue to her fate. But since it took her four years to complete her short story ‘Cell One,’ incidentally exactly as long as it took her to write ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ there’s no knowing if it will ever turn up. “I have a story that I started in 2002 and it’s not finished yet,” she says ruefully. Still, she’s not as comfortable with that as you’d imagine. “There are times when I think the world is coming to an end, that I can’t write a good sentence and my poor husband has to deal with all my crap and there are times when I feel this onward know, to conquer it...I just wish that I had less of those debilitating moments,” she says.

Her deep voice, with its pleasant cadence, is very distinctive. It’s a reminder that though she lives part of the year in America, Nigeria is home. Even in the U.S, Adichie follows Nigerian politics closely and cooks endless pots of jollof rice. Basking in the sun, the author says she’s enjoying Sri Lanka – that it reminds her of Nigeria – and that she’s going to go shopping later and find herself a saree to wear the next day. She’s also going back with the inspiration for a few stories, and we’re still talking about her fascination with a woman who is rumoured to eat only roses when we realise that a small crowd is waiting for her, books in hand. As soon as we wrap up, she is besieged. Still, if she manages to get through this day having always spoken her mind, at least there’s one thing she can look forward to - a good night’s sleep.

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