Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Memo to fans of Precious Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith's Motswana heroine of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series: Mma Ramotswe is magnificent, no doubt about it. But she is, after all, the creation of a man from Scotland. It's time to meet a real African woman, this time from Nigeria: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Don't panic. You can pronounce her name, even if you've never set foot in her country. Take it one syllable at a time and you'll have it in no time. Read her books and you'll never forget it.

Adichie, 33, is the author of two novels and one book of short stories. Purple Hibiscus (2003) is a family drama, partly the coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old girl and partly the character study of her father, who is both a philanthropist and a vicious tyrant. Publishers Weekly called this debut novel "lush, cadenced and often disconcerting." For American readers, the setting may seem as exotic as Mma Ramotswe's, but the characters, especially the girl Kambili, are far more nuanced and intimately depicted than are the cheerful citizens of Gabarone.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is also rooted in a family's experience, but set against the background of the Biafran War (1967 - 1970). Adichie's publicity website describes it well: "Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all."

Adichie's most recent book, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), is a collection of twelve short stories, most of them previously published. I'm not usually a short-story fan, and I'm glad I read the novels first because they introduced me to contemporary Nigerian characters. With that preparation, however, I found these short stories fascinating. All the central characters are Nigerian, but several - like Adichie herself, part of the time - live in America. "The Arrangers of Marriage," for example, features a Nigerian woman brought to Flatbush (Brooklyn) after a hasty marriage to a Nigerian doctor who has not been entirely honest about his life in the U.S.

Last October Adichie gave a wonderful speech at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) called "The danger of a single story" (thanks to my Kenyan friend Wambura Kimunyu for pointing this out). Listen to the whole thing: it's a great introduction to Adichie, and she is full of insights about literature and other cultures. One of her observations helps to explain her title:
I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called “American Psycho” — and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
I've learned a lot about Nigeria from Adichie's books, and I've enjoyed immersing myself in a culture that is so different from my own. More important, she has shown me people who are very much like me and like people I know. She has added her stories to my stories and other stories I already knew - and, if a single story is dangerous, then the more stories we listen to and tell, the richer and more compassionate we will be.

Say her name again: Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie.

1 comment:

adekanmbi chinenye said...

i like the piece, the writer is honest ad open and as for my heroine chimamanda, her boldnessas a person and her writing inspires out for me...coming soon