Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born on 15 September 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, the fifth of six children to Igbo parents, Grace Ifeoma and James Nwoye Adichie. While the family’s ancestral hometown is Abba in Anambra State, Chimamanda grew up in Nsukka, in the house formerly occupied by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Chimamanda’s father, who is now retired, worked at the University of Nigeria, located in Nsukka. He was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and later became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University. Her mother was the first female Registrar at the same institution.
Chimamanda completed her secondary education at the University’s school, receiving several academic prizes. She went on to study medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria for a year and a half. During this period, she edited The Compass, a magazine run by the University’s Catholic medical students.
At the age of nineteen, Chimamanda left for the United States. She gained a scholarship to study communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia for two years, and she went on to pursue a degree in communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University. While in Connecticut, she stayed with her sister Ijeoma, who runs a medical practice close to the university.
Chimamanda graduated summa cum laude from Eastern in 2001, and then completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.
It was during her senior year at Eastern that she started working on her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which was released in October 2003. The book has received wide critical acclaim: it was shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize (2004) and was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005).
Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (also the title of one of her short stories), is set before and during the Biafran War. It was published in August 2006 in the United Kingdom and in September 2006 in the United States. Like Purple Hibiscus, it has also been released in Nigeria.
Chimamanda was a Hodder fellow at Princeton University during the 2005-2006 academic year, and earned an MA in African Studies from Yale University in 2008.
Her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, was published in 2009. Chimamanda says her next major literary project will focus on the Nigerian immigrant experience in the United States.
Chimamanda is now married and divides her time between Nigeria, where she regularly teaches writing workshops, and the United States. She was also awarded a 2011-2012 fellowship by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria in 1977. Her work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, and Zoetrope. She is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, a New York Times Notable Book, and a People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year; and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. Her new novel, Americanah, is being published around the world in April and May 2013.
A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An Introduction-By Daria Tunca
Of her beginnings as a writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:
“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”. (Anya 2003)
By the time she was 21, Adichie had already published a collection of poems, Decisions (1997), and a play, For Love of Biafra (1998). In the latter work, she recounts the painful experiences of a young Igbo woman, Adaobi, and her family, at the time of the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s. The family’s initial optimism about the creation of an independent and peaceful Biafran nation in Eastern Nigeria, after the region’s secession from the rest of the country, ends in disillusionment. Daily massacres, hunger and disease claim several members of Adaobi’s family and shatter the Biafran hopes.
Although Adichie was born seven years after the war ended, she states that she “ha[s] always felt a deep horror for all the bestiality that took place and great pity for the injustices that occurred” (Adichie 1998: viii). Her imaginative recreation of the events seems to suggest that the war has utterly, and perhaps permanently, affected the identity of generations of Igbo people. This indelible mark is strongly felt by the heroine Adaobi, even after the Biafran surrender. She rejects her Hausa boyfriend, who was away in England during the war:
Mohammed, I am a Biafran first, a Biafran last, a Biafran always, don’t ever make the mistake of calling me a Nigerian again. (Adichie 1998: 106)
Adichie later called her play “awfully melodramatic” (2006b), but this early work testifies to her continuing preoccupation with the Nigerian civil war, a theme which she also explored in several short stories, including “That Harmattan Morning” (2002), “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2002) and “Ghosts” (2004), and which she was to tackle again in later years.
Since the early stages of her career, Adichie has displayed a keen awareness of the importance of ethnicity in Nigeria, but she has also paid much attention to the hardship often endured by Nigerian immigrants in the United States and England. In several of her short stories (e.g. “You in America” [2001, revised and published in 2004 as “The Thing around Your Neck”], “My Mother, the Crazy African” [n.d.], “New Husband” , “The Grief of Strangers” ), she has examined issues faced by first-generation immigrants in the West, ranging from abuse and financial difficulties to problems relating to language and identity.
Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), received general acclaim. Set in Nigeria against the background of the late 1990s political turmoil, the story centres on Kambili Achike, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, and her family. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is a complex character: a devout Catholic and a political rights activist, he also rules his household with a heavy hand. The narrative, told from the perspective of young Kambili, explores the adolescent’s and her brother Jaja’s responses to their father’s authoritarian attitude, as alternative models are provided by their more liberal aunt Ifeoma and their Igbo traditionalist grandfather, whom Eugene dismisses as a “heathen”. Family, religion, politics and tolerance thus appear to be the central themes of an outstanding novel which has already received considerable critical attention.
A very special thanks to Chimamanda who kindly answered these questions for this website!
Question: Critics tend to categorize you as either a Nigerian author, a feminist or even an African-American writer. Do you feel that such generalizations might be reductive or do you see categorization as something positive in the sense that your being the “new voice of Nigerian literature”, for example, might inspire younger Nigerian writers to follow in your footsteps?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Generalizations are always reductive, I think, because they shrink you from a whole to a mere part. I am Nigerian, feminist, Black, Igbo, and more, but when I am categorized as one, it makes it almost impossible to be seen as all of the others, and I find this limiting.
I used to insist that I was simply a writer, that I rejected tags before ‘writer,’ especially tags based on race like ‘black’ or ‘African,’ because they are not value-free. They come with baggage. For example, a black writer who wrote about Africa would be placed on the ‘ethnic’ shelf in many bookstores in the US and UK, ‘ethnic’ in this sense subtly suggests not being quite on a par with ‘mainstream’ writing. A white writer, such as the Polish Ryszard Kapuscinski would not be on that ‘ethnic’ shelf. He would be considered ‘mainstream’ although he would be writing on the same subject as the black writer. The point is that it would be preferable if categorizations were based on the writing rather than on the writer.
Yet, we cannot deny that there are strong linkages based on race or gender or nationality. Being part of an under-represented group brings with it a sense of ‘we-ness’ which is why I feel an odd pride when an Igbo or an African or African-American or woman or Nigerian does well. I suppose categorization can be positive in this way. My being seen as a ‘Nigerian writer’ could motivate other Nigerian writers, in a way that my just being a ‘writer’ would not.
The more I think about just being a ‘writer,’ the more I realize that it is a position that is too easy to take. It would work only in a happily homogenized fantasy world. I cannot be just a ‘writer’ all the time; there are situations in which I will simply have to accept some tag before it. We all carry different labels and they come into play in what we write and in how we are read. The sad thing is that critics and sometimes readers do not hold all labels in equal significance.
I am less resentful of categorizations. I accept, sometimes even celebrate, them but I still feel much ambivalence about them. I am also wary of the baggage that comes with them and of having somebody else be prescriptive about them.
Q: Do you think that, as a writer, you have a political role to play?
CNA: I don’t think that all writers should have political roles, but I do think that I, as a person who writes realist fiction set in Africa, almost automatically have a political role. In a place of scarce resources made scarcer by artificial means, life is always political. In writing about that life, you assume a political role.
Q: How important is language and style in your work? Do you view the Igbo language as a major influence on your fiction?
CNA: Igbo is a major influence since most of my characters speak it and since I mutter in Igbo when the writing is not going well.
Language and style are very important to me; I am a keen admirer of good prose stylists and I can tell, right away, which writers pay attention to style. I care about the rhythm of a sentence. I care about word choice. I much respect poetic prose done well.
Q: In several interviews you have mentioned Chinua Achebe as one of your favourite novelists. Could you tell us about your other literary influences? How have other works (or people) affected your writing?
CNA: I really don’t know. I am sometimes suspicious of the ‘literary influences’ question. It makes me wonder if it really means – tell us who you are trying to imitate. It also makes me wonder if the person asking is trying to ‘place’ you somewhere as a writer. Chinua Achebe will always be important to me because his work influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well.
I am influenced by everything I read, I suppose. I read bad fiction and it influences me in such a way that I know what never to do. I read good fiction and it makes things flow for me, as it were. I generally prefer quiet, careful writing, story and style done well, literature that makes you think of that interesting word ‘art.’ One of my favourite novels is ‘Reef’ by Romesh Gunesekera. Some writers I have recently reread and will probably read again are Paule Marshall, Amit Chaudhuri, John Banville, Nawal El-Saadawi, Graham Greene, Flora Nwapa, Bernard Malamud, Ivan Turgenev and the incredibly talented John Gregory Brown.
So many people have affected my writing; for everyone I meet and/or talk to, there is the possibility of my fiction being influenced. Of my contemporaries, perhaps the greatest influence is my friend the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina (pic). I am in awe of his brilliance. Although we often disagree, I think our ideas take better shape when bounced back and forth between each other.
Q: In the late 1980s, Ben Okri said this about the Nigerian Civil War: “That is one nightmare we have not really faced; any society, anywhere, any individual that doesn’t face their nightmares, the nightmares of their truths, their conditions, they diminish, because their nightmares get bigger.” Since you have written on the Biafran War, is this a statement you can relate to?
CNA: Yes. I don’t think that we Nigerians have faced the realities of the war. I think it is a part of our history that we are so afraid of that we cloak it in silence or in cliché.
Q: Your first novel, Purple Hibiscus, has been extremely well received by readers of all ages, genders and countries. Do you feel that this success can be specifically attributed to the form or theme of the book, or both?
CNA: And perhaps to luck as well? Really, I don’t know why PURPLE HIBISCUS has done relatively well. (I hoped for success but was prepared for indifference since so many agents, in rejecting the manuscript, had told me that nobody cared about Nigeria). I like to think that both form and theme have contributed. It is a book I am very pleased with, and I would write it again if I had to do a first novel all over again. I like to think, too, that it is a book that you finish reading because you want to rather than because you ought to.
- Plot and Characters of “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Adichie for Waec/neco Literature Exams. (28) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Waec/neco Literature Texts for 2011-2015 As Requested (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)