Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, started out as a fun project but evolved into a massive success. The book that combines humorous dialogue and a love story with jaw dropping sociopolitical commentary on race and sexuality earned this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
Americanah, Adichie’s third fiction novel, chronicles the plight of a young Nigerian couple coming-of-age under extreme military dictatorship. As tensions mount, the main female character, Ifemelu, embarks on a challenging new life in America while her male counterpart, Obinze, faces similar conflict as an immigrant in the United Kingdom. Americanah, primarily told from the vantage point of Ifemelu’s blog entries and personal narratives, stems from Adichie taking lots of notes and closely observing people around her.
Book publishers initially resisted Adichie’s narrative style and graphic imagery. After editors rejected her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, the budding novelist was told by an agent, “[Publishers] can’t sell you because you’re not like anybody.” Adichie, on the other hand, thought those same book publishers and editors didn’t have a clue about the infinite possibilities as it relates to storytelling. “My stories are as important as anybody else’s stories. Editors don’t seem to trust the intelligence of Americans. If the story is told well, people will get it,” says Adichie.
Recently speaking before a packed congregation at Atlanta’s First Baptist Church of Decatur, a glowing, cornrow-wearing Adichie read passages from Americanah. She also spoke out against censorship and political correctness. She reiterates to the audience that Americanah is not her memoirs. “The stories come from things that other people experienced. [Ife’s] experiences are not mine. My life wasn’t as interesting as hers. It was much easier. I was very struck by the disconnect between blacks from Africa and America. I wanted to find ways to explore, but I didn’t make it that obvious,” says Adichie from the podium.
Adichie, the unapologetic writer responsible for Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck, further clarifies eloquently, “When I’m alone and writing, I’m happy. I don’t think about character. I can be true to myself. I never think about audience. I’m just telling the story,” she says.
The Princeton Hodder Fellow grew up in the same estate where Things Fall Apart author Chinua Achebe previously lived. Late last year, Adichie’s feminist views on gender construction, marriage and sexual expressiveness from a TEDx Talk were spliced and sampled on Beyonce’s anthem, “Flawless.” “Feminism is not just about women,” says Adichie. “Feminism is not so much an exclusive party. It’s knowing emotionally and experiencing. Feminism is an idea that men and women should be equal.”
Unlike many women born throughout African villages, the Igbo-born overachiever, was encouraged to be vocal from birth by her educator parents. Originally studying pharmacy and medicine at the University of Nigeria, Adichie once considered going into politics. The MacArthur Fellow proclaims, “I was allowed to speak and have a voice,” says Adichie. “I’m always thinking about how to change things. I wanted to talk about solutions and things that I care about.”
After the intellectually curious 19-year-old arrived in America, she continued pursuing her education at Drexel University, Eastern Connecticut State University, Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. Her transition to the United States was one of culture shock. Adichie recalls being disillusioned by news headlines often portraying ethnic minorities negatively. In her classes, she admits to being perceived by educators and peers as the token black but was oblivious to America’s racial and ethnic dynamics.
Adichie began to read extensively on African American history. Developing as both an astute writer and scholar, the Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellow’s concept of blackness shifted. “I had many identities. Race wasn’t linked in anyway. I didn’t know very much. Coming to the United States, I had to learn very quickly. Black was not necessarily a good thing in America. Race as an identity was very new to [Ife] as it was for me. When you’re not submerged from birth, it’s new to you. I wanted to write about things I observed,” she says.
Adichie is a highly sought after public speaker. She teaches writing workshops in both the United States and Nigeria. Starting a nonprofit along with one of her publishers, the writer is amazed by the multitude of narratives and story ideas from her pupils. Half of a Yellow Sun has also been adapted into a feature film.
A woman of great integrity, Adichie considers Americanah a “social novel.” She triumphed with Americanah but hopes to not take her work and success too seriously. “This book is about that journey,” says Adichie. “When you come from a place, it’s easy to think that your story is not universal. When I’m writing fiction, it’s a different mindset. I feel free. I don’t think about who’s offended. I’m not thinking about how many people buy the book. I’m still hoping to write a good sentence. People will get it, and I don’t have to push that.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.