by James Eze
In praise of the novel Half of a Yellow Sun, Chinua Achebe wrote; “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers… Adichie came almost fully made.” Looking back to what has happened after this famous declaration, it is remarkable how prescient Achebe’s comment was.
No storyteller on the continent in the last ten years has gripped the imagination of Africa like Chimamanda Adichie. Her Nigerian reading tours are major events with fans swarming the venues as if at a musical concert. During one of her recent readings in Lagos, a young woman broke down in tears at meeting her for the first time. Adichie’s striking personality, speeches and media interviews have enthralled audiences across the world. Her books are prescribed texts for secondary schools all over Africa. Scores of African PhD students anchor their thesis on her work. Her multiple prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, has now been turned into a motion picture in a path-breaking collaboration between Nigerian and British filmmakers. Scholars have written books on her. Children who were born after her infiltration of our national consciousness were named after her. Even Hollywood stars are fans; Will Smith recently called her to tell her so.
As is the case with some gifted people, Adichie’s talent was quick to announce itself. From writing plays that were acted by her classmates in elementary school to her first nibble at the intimidating narrative of the Biafran War with an early published work, For Love of Biafra, written when she was just a teenager, Adichie showed early signs of a girl who had the head of an old woman on her shoulders.
I recall my first interview with her in September 2003 in Lagos after Zoetrope had published her short story, Half of a Yellow Sun (which would later become the title of her second novel). Adichie had talked intensely about her dream of setting up a writers’ colony in Nigeria. It had all sounded wishful and quixotic. Today, although she has not fully achieved the dream of setting up the physical structures of a colony, Adichie has established a virtual one – a community of writers, weaned from the nest of her annual creative writing workshop in Lagos. This may well be her most astounding legacy.
In a recent conversation, an influential second generation Nigerian poet argued that Adichie represented a rupture on the Nigerian literary scene. He just might be right. Viewed against the backdrop of the literary famine that preceded her emergence, there are many people for whom Adichie represents the bold new voice of Nigerian writing. Personally, before her emergence, I had long decided that Nigeria’s rich tradition of storytelling ended with the Chinua Achebe generation. My impression came from the prolonged period of near-arid literary production caused by the long years of military dictatorship. For a considerable period, the Nigerian literary scene was an overcast rainy morning. There were occasional peeps of the sun, such as when Helon Habila won the Caine Prize in 2001, but many writers were locked up in guerilla journalism and human rights campaigns against the military regime of the time and had very little time to sustain Habila’s great effort by creating serious literature. Much of what was published during the period lacked the literary merit to produce more than a muffled echo within the Lagos arts community.
I began to take writing more seriously after reading Adichie’s short story Half of a Yellow Sun. I was gripped by her narrative power and stricken by the character of the bespectacled 13 year old boy, Obi, whose scholarly thirst and uncanny wit I found so inspiring that when he died, I felt a sinking sense of loss. His character was fully realized. It was astonishing how, in such a short piece, Adichie powerfully dramatized this truth: war swallows the brightest amongst us. The story won her the David T. K Wong Prize for Fiction and turned literary ears in her direction.
The early promise of that story was fulfilled in her debut offering, Purple Hibiscus; a path-breaking novel that won a number of important prizes. It became wildly popular among Nigerian readers and non-readers alike. More than that, it inspired the emerging generation of writers to re-possess the Nigerian narrative. Said Tolu Ogunlesi, a writer and journalist, on Adichie’s enormous influence on new African writers – “Her success has given a lot of us the confidence that our stories are worth writing. And her workshop, which is now in its seventh year, has kick started many literary careers and friendships.”
Ogunlesi, a member of the inaugural edition of Adichie’s workshop, was the winner of the 2009 CNN African Journalist of the Year in the Arts and Culture category. Adeleke Adeyemi, winner of the Nigerian Prize for Literature (2011) who writes under the pen name Mai Nasara is also an alumnus of Adichie’s workshop.
Close observers see a degree of similarity in Chinua Achebe’s “opening of doors” to writers on the continent in his role as the pioneer editor of Heinemann African Writer’s series – and Adichie’s hugely successful workshop, which has sired a new generation of writers. In much the same way, the online writers’ community that emerged from Adichie’s workshop series compares quite favourably to the writer’s body, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) founded by Achebe. The similarities have continued to grow with the bold interrogation of racism in Adichie’s latest work, AMERICANAH, which stridently plumbs the deep silences of the world’s uncomfortable truths and echoes Achebe’s pointed confrontation of racism in his lecture ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Even Adichie’s rumored rejection of an attempt by the Nigerian government to confer a national honour on her is reminiscent of Achebe’s famous rejection of national honours by the Nigerian government.
Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys, says that because of Adichie, a generation of writers have met and formed a community. “I remember my workshop set, the inaugural edition. It has been the simmering of talent, talent that has found a community of others. That has been due to her. I think that is her place, not the books, which are important by themselves, but that she brought a new generation of writers together.” Poet and novelist, Uche Peter Umez agrees. “Chimamanda’s impact on the literary scene has been nothing short of phenomenal. Her biggest contribution so far, beside her annual creative workshop, is in helping young writers discover their voices and use these voices to unflinchingly tell stories that are distinctively and diversely African.” Echoes journalist Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, who attended the workshop two years ago, “within my experience and what I observe with members of my class, the workshop is immensely beneficial and has helped many in discovering their voices.”
Purple Hibiscus was a success, but what truly launched Adichie into the global literary orbit was her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun, now widely considered to be a modern classic. Adichie is Africa’s most read novelist among her generation. Her work has been translated into over 30 languages across the world and has received awards in Africa, Europe and the United States. It was hardly surprising when she won the MacArthur Genius Grant, worth thousands of dollars, awarded to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality in their creative pursuits. Adichie achieved the status of an orator when she gave a talk at the TED Global conference in Oxford in 2009 titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” Her performance was the stuff of myth-making. The talk is now one of ten most watched TED talks. It wasn’t long before scholars began to look at the similarities between that talk and Achebe’s Image of Africa Lecture in the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, in 1975. Both speeches show an astonishing resonance and topicality, further growing Adichie’s legend.
For taking on the intimidating horror of the Biafran war, Chinua Achebe described Adichie as ‘fearless.’ Many who know her well agree, pointing to her willingness to take on heavy subjects. Her seemingly fragile frame and striking beauty may not prepare an observer for her forthrightness. Those who know her well say that Adichie has no falseness or guile, two things many Nigerians arm themselves with to enable them negotiate their ways through our complex of overarching sensitivities. She says exactly what she thinks. She holds strong views and never flinches from voicing them. But this is always done in a spirit of honesty and integrity. “She always talks about the importance of being truthful to yourself and your writing,” a participant from this year’s workshop said. Eghosa Imasuen simply interprets that as sensitivity. “The Chimamanda I know is a sensitive soul. The empathy displayed in her books is not forced; it is effortless.”
For one who has given so much to writing and writers, it is interesting to see that there are pockets of resentment for Adichie even among her kindred of writers. The storm that trailed her recent interview in the Boston Review offered an insight into this resentment. I read the interview when it was first published and thought it displayed a witty playfulness, quite common for Adichie who often combines honesty with humour. In the interview, she jokes about feeling like a ‘proud mama’ on recounting the successes of her workshop participants, about starting a secret society of African writers in a basement, about Nigerian chauvinism, and even about her own possible failed attempt at humour.
But two parts of that interview offered her critics her open flanks to cast a spear in.
The first in which she opined that the Caine Prize was not the best barometer to gauge African writing. The second was her referring to one of the Caine Prize nominees, Elnathan John (an emerging writer who applied to, was accepted, and attended her 2011 workshop) as ‘one of my boys at the workshop.’ John then wrote an insulting blogpost that spread like flu on the Internet, chiding Adichie for her comment and making her out as arrogant. Other insults and personal attacks on her followed.
American academic Aaron Bady who conducted the Boston Review interview, is puzzled by the response. He speculates that it might partly be due to bruised male egos. “When a woman becomes very famous, men in her field often resent that success, much more than they would resent a man, and jump at the chance to attack her. I feel like Ms. Adichie just said what a lot of people have said: that the Caine Prize is fine but also massively overhyped. I basically agree, and it’s not a slap at the shortlisted writers to say so. In the interview, I mentioned Igoni Barrett to her because I think he wrote the best book of short stories I’ve read this year so it was strange to see four Nigerian names on the shortlist, but not his. It doesn’t take anything away from the shortlisted writers to say that!”
Adichie, a winner of many prizes – the most recent of which was the Chicago Tribune Heartland prize for AMERICANAH – has consistently said that prizes, in general, are good but are never the final arbiters of good writing. “It’s lovely to win,” she said in a recent CNN interview, when asked about her awards. “But that isn’t why I write. If I hadn’t won anything I would still be somewhere today probably unemployed but writing. What matters the most for a writer, I think, is to be read.”
Her ambivalence about the Caine Prize in particular may have been further shaped by her own personal experience. She was shortlisted for the prize ten years ago and later wrote a short story titled ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ presumed to be about her experience. In the story, the administrator of a prize for African writers, an old Englishman, dismisses the stories by young African writers most of which are based on their lives and instead dictates to them what a ‘real African story’ should be. Some of the young writers resist but others are in an uncomfortable position because while they may not agree with him, they toe the line as they hope the Englishman will help them find international publishers. Adichie was lucky not to have to toe the line because, according to her manager, by the time she was shortlisted for the prize, she already had an American literary agent and publisher.
Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, in a nuanced piece titled, “Adichie and the Great Brouhaha” argues that the outrage following Adichie’s comments is in fact an impressive demonstration of Adichie’s power. Tshuma also suggests that those who interpret the interview negatively say more about their own prejudices than about what was actually said in the interview.
To be fair, an unbiased reader may well find Adichie’s comments offputting, especially since print interviews do not always capture the tone of voice or other nuances. Bady was kind enough to show me the full transcript of the interview. It makes clear, for example, that Adichie’s question “why this overprivileging of the Caine Prize?” was in response to Bady saying that he and a group of academics were following and blogging about the prize. Adichie also adds that the Caine Prize is a good thing that brings attention but is not the final arbiter of African writing. Yet even without these missed subtleties – understandable for an interview of limited space – the rabid negativity from certain writers to Adichie’s interview was so overblown as to suggest a deliberate attempt to manufacture controversy. Perhaps it is the lot of Chimamanda Adichie that anything she undertakes acquires a new and urgent weight.
Bady himself, who is in the best position to parse the interview’s tone, says that Adichie was never condescending. “From my perspective, in the interview, I would never have expected someone like Elnathan to get that upset at being called “my boy.” At the time, it seemed purely collegial, friendly. Maybe there’s some kind of history between those two, and if so, that’s their business; I don’t know anything about it. But even if there’s some kind of buried back-story, it seems like a person should either tell the whole story or keep it to yourself.”
While Adichie has chosen not to comment, close friends say there is no buried back story. A fellow participant at the workshop attended by John says, “Some of us thought he was an irritant, he thought he knew better than others and he thought his own writing was better than it was. Chimamanda always tried to strike a balance. She also cracked jokes with him, she joked with all of us. He called Chimamanda his mentor and his teacher. I remember she once told him that his problem is that he is a provocateur, that he should write more truthfully and not just to provoke. She liked his writing about gay themes because she encouraged writing about issues that people keep silent about. She also liked the fact that he was a Northerner because she said the Northern perspective is often not heard. I think that was the main reason she encouraged him and introduced him to her own literary agent in New York, which -by the way- many writers of her standing simply do not do.”
This may well be true of many writers, especially in today’s publishing world where it is near impossible to be published by a mainstream publisher without an agent. But it is nothing strange for Adichie, who is also known to have helped other African writers, including Teju Cole, author of the critically acclaimed Open City. She not only recommended Cole to her literary agency, but also hosted a pre-publication luncheon in New York that introduced editors to his new novel.
The only thing close to a back story with John, say friends, happened some months ago. Adichie had given an interview in which she said that ‘for most Nigerian women, wearing their natural hair is unbearable.’ She was then deliberately misquoted as saying that Nigerian women with Brazilian hair had low self-esteem. John joined an online bandwagon that referenced the misquote. Adichie wrote him to say that she expected better from him, that he should have read the actual interview first to see what she actually said. He wrote to apologise. She later wrote to congratulate him on the Caine Prize shortlist. Said John’s fellow workshop participant, “We just didn’t understand where his blog was coming from. It makes no sense that he is now claiming ‘manhood-shrinking’ emails. He himself knows she meant ‘one of my boys’ in an affectionate way. She was claiming him which is a compliment. Many of us from the workshop told him point blank that he was seeking cheap publicity. People who had never heard of him before now know of him. Even if he truly believed she was denigrating him, why make it so public? After all the last communication between them was a private email she sent him congratulating him on the Caine Prize, so why wouldn’t he write her privately? How can you start a negative campaign against somebody who has done nothing but help you? He even complained that it took her time to reply his emails. Does he know how many emails she gets? How many other writers in her position even take time to read the work of upcoming writers? The truth is that he is entitled and has an inflated sense of himself. He felt bad that he didn’t win the Caine Prize and decided to lash out at somebody. Chimamanda is an easy target because she is so prominent. Some others joined in, because some people like tearing successful people down, especially someone like Chimamanda who is a strong and confident woman. The sad truth is that Chimamanda is now going to be more careful and wary about how she opens herself up to upcoming writers.”
Adichie may indeed have to become more wary. Either way, she has made deep impressions on the attentive world. Even her most vitriolic critic cannot dispute that. In doing what many writers have not done, Adichie has earned a place in the hearts of many who love and adore her. She has also earned the respect of those who are either undecided about her or do not have a friendly disposition towards her. In a prophetic comment, after Adichie’s win of the David T. K Wong’s Prize for Fiction in 2003, Obi Iwuanyanwu, a Professor at Central State University, Dayton, Ohio, said, “Given my knowledge of similar astounding young writers in history – I would make bold to describe her as a genius. I believe that Chimamanda, who was born seven years after Biafra, is destined to write the Great Biafran Novel.” It is serendipitous that ten years after Iwuanyanwu’s prophecy, a similar conclusion has been drawn by Kathryn Schulz, an American journalist writing in New York Magazine. Adichie’s recent novel AMERICANAH is, according to Schulz, “one of the better novels I’ve read about contemporary America, but I’m not tempted to call it a Great American Novel. Instead, it strikes me as an early, imperfect, admirable stab at something new: a Great Global Novel.”
Adichie seems to be always drawn to “stabbing at something new.” With the impending release of the film adaptation of her groundbreaking Half of a Yellow Sun in October this year, this prodigious talent has more substance to keep the mythmakers busy for a very long time.