A few years ago, over drinks with Ladipo Soetan, a Nigerian writer and lawyer and current President of the Lagos Association of Nigerian Authors, I had lamented the absence of a contemporary Nigerian novel. I had wished for a book that would capture the reality of life for young Nigerians of our generation in the way Chinua Achebe’s novels No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People had done for the first generation of post colonial Nigerians. I wanted a story set in contemporary Nigeria the way Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things exposed the face of contemporary India. I wanted a book that captured what it felt like to live through the growing pains of Africa’s most enigmatic nation and yet was readable and not couched in dense philosophy. I was convinced that my generation had a story to tell, and that in spite of the harsh economic realities and the death of publishing in Nigeria, that the talent was there to tell the story.
At that point Ladipo drew my attention to a book that would soon be published in the Heinemann’s African Writers series by a friend and contemporary of his – Ike Oguine. It is perhaps instructive that I did not have the opportunity to read the book, A Squatter’s Tale till I had arrived in the UK, many months later. It was virtually unobtainable in Nigeria. I enjoyed the book and its depiction of Lagos life in the fast paced nineties when the deregulation of the banking sector led to a mushrooming of banks and financial institutions and spawned a generation of sharply dressed bankers who cruised the streets in their flashy cars even while the Nigerian economy deteriorated. Equally amusing was Oguine’s clear cut depiction of the Nigerian immigrant experience in the US, something I had never come across before. I was saddened that the book did not receive the attention I felt it deserved.
Two years ago, I was heartened when another young Nigerian writer, Helon Habila won the Caine Prize, the so-called African Booker. I was excited to meet Helon and glad to learn that he had won a publishing contract for his book. Again, I was less than satisfied by the attention generated in the UK by Waiting for an Angel, Helon’s lyrical, fictional account of the life of a young Nigerian journalist under the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the mid to late nineties. Reading the book, I relived the memories of the hopes and fears and the exhilaration. Helon has gone on to a writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia and has been on several tours and conference appearances since and I am sure that greater things will come from him. His doggedness and gift have earned him the support he needs to become one of the major voices of contemporary Nigerian literature.
As I celebrated the publication of Helon’s and Ike’s books and the recognition they were garnering for contemporary Nigerian literature, I had no idea that the next voice to appear on stage would be the voice of one whom for me is literally the girl next door.
When I was five, my family moved into a large house on the Marguerite Cartwright Avenue on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria. That house, number 307 was to be where I spent the greatest part of my growing up years and for a long time, the word “home” conjured up for me the image of that house on the tree-lined avenue named after an obscure American academic who had played a pivotal role in the founding of the University of Nigeria.
About a year after we moved in, there was a flurry of excitement in the house next door which had lain unoccupied for a while, as the University Accommodation Committee battled through the politics of house allocations. Finally we were to have neighbours, all the way from the United States. The famed writer, Chinua Achebe was to be our new neighbour. I was probably less excited about his stature as a writer (even if then, precociously I had read his groundbreaking novel, Things Fall Apart) than by the fact that there would be more children to play with and by the colour-matched silver grey Mercury Monarch and sporty Datsun 280ZX which came to reside in the carport next door. We soon established a friendly neighbourly relationship, sharing the fruit off the avocado tree whose trunk stood on our side of our fence but whose branches and fruit encroached into our neighbours’ spaces; attending each other’s birthday parties and celebrations and indeed, I often walked to school with Nwando, the last child of the Achebes who was my age and in the same class. I happened to share the same birthday (16th November) with the great writer and I have vague recollections of going over in the late afternoon of my birthday to wish him happy birthday and to receive a glass of Coke from his glamorous wife with her exotic low cut hairstyle and unusual habit of occasionally wearing just one earring.
We lived next door to the Achebes for about ten years and we all existed comfortably as a little community within the confines of our street. I remember a party organized by Mrs Achebe for the Nduka-Okafors who lived opposite when they left for the United States where their mother was studying for her PhD. Present were the Nwoga boys, the five sons of an Igbo father and Irish mother whose dexterity with the Igbo language put many children with two Igbo parents to shame, the Afigbos who lived on the other side of our house (and whose son Ozurumba is unarguably my oldest friend- his mother and mine attended antenatal classes together and were delivered barely a month apart), the Eme Awas who lived at the end of the street and the last of the Achebes- Chidi and Nwando. The Awachies who lived next door to the Achebes on the other side and whose mother ran a nursery school were also present.
After the Achebes moved out, we wondered who our new neighbours would be. We were soon to discover when a little security shed began to be constructed near the gate. Our new neighbours were to be the Deputy Vice Chancellor’s family- the Adichies. I knew vaguely the two elder daughters, Uche and Rosemary, beautiful, glamorous and years ahead of me, they were famed for their beauty and intellect and were both undergraduates, the one in pharmacy, the other in medicine. I also knew their brother Chuks, a few years older than me and repeated winner of the yearly disco competitions organized for staff children by the older children of staff going under the name of Big Brothers and Sisters (BB and S). Even more vaguely, I knew that there were a few more younger children but there were, in the strictly hierarchical campus society, below my radar.
Much later, I was to get to know Ngozi Chimamanda, Okey and Kene, the last three of the Adichie children. Even though I was away at boarding school, and later medical school, I soon began to hear about the academic exploits of little Ngozi- how she had topped her year in the Junior school examinations, setting a record, how she had again topped her year in the Senior school examinations and finally how she had published a collection of poems, barely out of secondary school. I had also heard how she would write plays while still in primary school for her classmates to stage. It was at about this time I had my first real conversation with her – my brother who was closer to her in age had told her that I had literary interests as well- and she had come over to chat. I was struck by her maturity and the early promise of her work. She soon gained admission into the University of Nigeria earning a place on the highly competitive Medicine course and then switching after a year to Pharmacy. Somewhere along the line, she published her first play ” For the Love of Biafra” which received good reviews in the local press. Soon afterwards, she left for Drexel University in the United States, like Achebe before her abandoning the study of medicine for writing and the arts, in her case, to study communication.
It was in the United States that her abilities began to gain wider recognition, one of her short stories appearing in Zoetrope, an online magazine. That story, You in America, which explored a Nigerian Igbo immigrant girl’s experience in the US earned her a nomination for the Caine Prize in 2002, won the year before by Habila. She, unfortunately, did not win , but the exposure was good for her and at about this time, her first novel, Purple Hibiscus was accepted by Algonquin Press in the United States. She has subsequently gone on to garner a string of creative writing scholarships and prizes including the O Henry Award and the PEN/David Wong Prize which she won for her poignant short story, set in Biafra, Half of a Yellow Sun which was published in the prestigious Zoetrope All-Story. She also completed her degree in communications with politics as a minor at Eastern Connecticut State University, graduating summa cum laude. Purple Hibiscus has just been released by Algonquin Press in the United States and will be published early next year in the United Kingdom by Fourth Estate and the Australian, Spanish, Dutch and German rights have been sold. Home is Where the Heart Was, her stirring account of a recent visit to Nsukka, published in Topic magazine in the UK inspired me to think about putting together an anthology to be titled Umu Nsukka: The Children of Nsukka , in celebration of the small university town where we grew up. Her work has also appeared in Wasafiri, PRISM International, Calyx and the Iowa Review.
Purple Hibiscus, an account of a young girl growing up in contemporary Eastern Nigeria has been described as “a stunning debut that captures the fragile beauty of a young woman’s awakening at a time when both country and family are on the cusp of change”. Nobel prize winner J M Coetzee describes it as ” sensitive and touching” and Jason Cowley, past Booker Prize judge has called Purple Hibiscus seductive, tender and true, the best debut I have read since Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In addition it has been voted one of the best books of the year by the Black Issues Book Review.
Excited by this development, I recently persuaded this young (just 26 years old!) writer to answer a few questions.
Q: Is Purple Hibiscus in the bookstores yet? Or is it just available online? When will it be out?
A: It’s in stores in the US (I’ve actually just come back from a reading at school, sponsored by my department. I’m doing a six-state book tour and I start on Thursday (the 9th of October) with a reading in a bookstore in Harlem, New York It is also available online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com It will be out in the UK on March 1, 2004
Q: Chimamanda is a very unusual Igbo name. What does it mean? I guess I could translate it literally as “My God will never fall ” but do you have a different translation/concept?
A: Yes, the literal is fine. Also — my spirit is unbreakable? Ha! Seriously, the literal is fine, and of course all gods are in danger of falling so it makes sense.
Q: What inspired or inspires you to write?
A: I didn’t ever consciously decide to pursue writing. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to spell, and just sitting down and writing made me feel incredibly fulfilled. I may have considered other careers to make a living since I wasn’t sure I could do it from writing, but I have never thought actively about my choice write. I just write. I have to write. I like to say that I didn’t choose writing, writing chose me. This may sound slightly mythical, but I sometimes feel as if my writing is something bigger than I am. There are days when I sit at my laptop and will myself to write and nothing happens. There are other days when I have things to do but feel compelled to write. And the writing just flows out. I am never sure what triggers these ‘inspirations,’ if that is what they are. More mundanely, the rituals and geography of specific places inspire me – the chaotic energy of Lagos, the sereneness of Nsukka, the insular calm of Mansfield, Connecticut. And I love observing people and tiny details about them. I often get the urge to write from imagining or inventing lives for people I don’t know.
Q: Biafra, (even though you were born seven years after the war ended), multiethnicity, culture and religion all feature heavily in your work. Can you explain why?
A: ON BIAFRA — It frustrates me that we choose, in Nigeria, to ignore our recent history. I am often asked why I write about Biafra, as though it is something I have to justify. Imagine asking somebody to justify writing about the holocaust. We do not just risk repeating history if we sweep it under the carpet, we also risk being myopic about our present. I was never taught about the war when I was in primary or secondary school – so if children today are not being taught that, how can they put what is happening today in perspective? How will they make connections that will enable them begin to understand what Nigeria is and why it is the way it is?
I am aware of the resurgence of the Biafran philosophy – although I am wary of that _expression, because to me there is no particular Biafran philosophy. Biafra was about a universal philosophy. Despite the politics and egos and ambitions that were involved – and I say this because I do not idealize the war itself – it would be iniquitous to deny that at it’s most basic, Biafra was about the inalienable right of human beings to be alive. But I am less interested in that resurgence as I am in paying tribute to the thousands who died, and in questioning our history, through my fiction.
About the place of the Igbo in Nigeria. Again, I am more interested in the Igbo nation itself, and in how cultural priorities and responsibility and unity can be achieved within it. I find it curious, though, that Biafra is nearly always a tribally divided issue. I wonder, too, why Biafra still seems to be taboo and to carry a stigma. I think it says something about the place of the Igbo in Nigeria today that BIAFRA has become an ‘Igbo issue.’ If one claims to believe in Nigeria, and in the unity in diversity idea, then one must embrace the study and investigation of Biafra because Nigeria would not be today as it is if Biafra had not been.
ON MULTIETHNICITY – Not sure what you mean. Ndi ocha (White/Western society)? Well, I guess I do write about that because in many ways living in the Diaspora means negotiating life in a ‘multi-ethnic place.’
ON CULTURAL VALUES — ‘Cultural values.’ That term worries me, especially when it is used next to Africa because I have found that we sometimes use it to shield our hypocrisies and to perpetuate the lies we tell ourselves. I love the culture of my people, but at the same time, I do not believe in idealizing, or in transporting it to its ‘pure’ past. I think Chinua Achebe is one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen, because he did not only tell us, the writers who would come after him, that our stories were worthy, he also swiped at the disgusting stereotypes of Africa. That said, I don’t believe in being prescriptive about literature. I don’t think writers SHOULD write this or write that. They should just write. I speak for myself alone and I am interested in presenting things as they are and in challenging our collective hypocrisy. I remember being blasted by an Igbo web group, about two years ago, because of a story about a teenager who had a boyfriend. A boyfriend! We prefer sometimes to cover our heads with our hands and pretend that things do not happen. Until we acknowledge things to be the way they are, we cannot own them, and we cannot control them.
RELIGION – I am fascinated by the power of religion. I grew up Catholic, still am although I am what may be called a Liberal Catholic, which is that I believe in Lourdes but also think that contraception is a good thing. Religion is such a huge force, so easily corruptible and yet so capable of doing incredible good. The streak of intolerance I see masquerading itself as faith and the way we create an image of God that suits us, are things I am interested in questioning. I am also interested in colonized religion, how people like me can profess and preach a respect of their indigenous culture and yet cling so tenaciously to a religion that considers most of that indigenous culture evil.. I think religion will probably feature in some way in everything I write – it, and the idea of faith itself, is something that I question, grapple with, almost daily.
Q: What are your pet peeves-the little things that bug you?
A: I can’t stand it when people choose to portray things the way they wish they were, rather than the way they actually are. I can’t stand empty Big Manism, something my people do too well.
Q: How deeply do you draw from your own personal experiences in your writing?
A: My THEMES are from my life, I guess, from what I am interested in. But I try not to write ‘autobiographical’ fiction , although I confess a recent story, still unpublished is based on a recent relationship. Mostly though, I try not to write about ME.
Q: Do you see a mission or reason for your writing?
A: I don’t think I have a MISSION for writing. I write because it is a need, a compulsion almost. But then I do have issues I love to explore – Nigeria, of course, as well as Nigerians in Diaspora. The subtleties of race, especially in America. The place and role and choices of Nigerian Women. ‘Modern’ Igbo culture, or what Igbo culture has evolved into (although Chinweizu, whom I greatly admire, told me once that there is no such thing, that things do not evolve into weaker forms!)
Q: Have writing workshops been useful to you?
A: Yes. I think they are useful as long as one realizes that the other participants can all be sincerely wrong about a particular work. I see workshops as a ‘focus group’ in many ways. I read my work through their eyes and sometimes you see it more clearly, especially the weaknesses in it.
Q: Do you have any favourite writers/books
A: Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, Reef by Romesh Gunesekera, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also, I like Claire Messud’s penetrating intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s poetic prose. I admire the lovely, un-self conscious style of Jhumpa Lahiri and Amit Chaudhuri. And Sefi Attah and Chris Abani are people to watch.
Q: Was switching to a degree in Communications, from Medicine, following your dream of writing?
A: Yes. I didn’t want to study English. I wanted to study something where I would learn about things outside of novels, if that makes sense. I had wanted to major in politics, but couldn’t because of some technicality. So I chose communication — it was called Corporate Communication at Drexel, and I took classes in TV, print, radio and political science. I have always been interested in the media anyway.
Q: Are you on a scholarship to Johns Hopkins? (Where she has just started an MA in Creative Writing)
A: Yes. I have a full scholarship and I am teaching freshman writing as part of my fellowship (and for a miserable stipend)
Q: What is your message to young writers, especially those from Africa and perhaps specifically Nigeria?
A: Do NOT copy John Grisham. Write our own stories. And as you write a story, imagine that your parents and uncles and aunties and relatives will NEVER read it. They may or may not end up reading it, but the point is that if you keep that in mind as you work, you are more likely to write truthfully, more likely to write things as they are rather than as you wish they were or as you think they ought to be.
Q: What are your future plans, and hopes? After Johns Hopkins, what next?
A: I’d like to set up a writing colony of some sort in Nigeria. In Nsukka preferably. To get younger Nigerian writers to tell our own stories. I’m not sure what I’ll do after Hopkins. I will probably try and get a teaching position, to teach creative writing, and I’d love a part time position so I can work on my own writing. But of course all of that will depend on how well my book does, etc.