Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her new novel, Americanah

First aired on The Sunday Edition (07/07/13)


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie started working on her first novel because she was homesick. She was studying at an American university and she missed her life and family in Nigeria. So, she did what she's done since she was a little girl: she wrote. The result was Purple Hibiscus, the story of a teenage girl with an abusive father. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was set against the backdrop of the Biafran war of secession in the 1960s.

 Adichie's latest book, Americanah, is a love story as well as an exploration of modern life in both Nigeria and the United States. The main characters are Ifemulu and Obinze, who first fall in love when they meet in high school in Nigeria. They lose touch when Ifemulu goes to the United States to study, but eventually meet again.

americanah_135.jpg

"I think it's about self-invention and reinvention," Adichie told The Sunday Edition guest host Kevin Sylvester in a recent interview. "I think it's about how we become different versions of ourselves in different circumstances." She went on to say that she's interested in "the way that people move about and change and adapt, or not, and what home means to these people."

Ifemulu grows up listening to American pop music and reading British novels, which was also Adichie's experience. "Most middle-class Africans have that reality, and it's perfectly normal," she said. "And it's also perfectly African...it's not as though we feel any sense of dislocation because we're reading Graham Greene."

When Adichie first arrived in the U.S, people she met were surprised "that I was listening to Mariah Carey's music and that I knew quite a bit about contemporary American writers," she said. She wasn't as "exotic and different" as they had expected an African to be.

Her previous novel, Half the Yellow Sun, involved a lot of research. In Americanah, though, she's writing about subjects closer to her own experience. "I'm very, very, interested in what it's like to go to a new place and try and make sense of it," she said. "There's the narcissistic element to writing fiction, isn't there? Because you want to write about the things that bother you, or the things you long for...in the end, really, it's about you."

Adichie was particularly interested in "exploring what it means to go to a new place and start to see yourself differently," she said. "In Nigeria, I didn't think of myself as African. I was just an Igbo girl...and I certainly didn't think of myself as black." When she went to the United States, she found that "suddenly I'm African, which is this new identity that was interesting and came with a lot of expectations. People thought I should be able to tell them about Angola. And really, I didn't know much about Angola....You have these identities thrust on you, and it becomes up to you to do with them what you will."

Ifemulu starts a blog to explore the differences between being African American and American African, as a way of trying to see where she fits in. The blog is Adichie's device for poking fun at some aspects of race that she finds absurd. "I think race in the U.S. is so interesting because people are so uncomfortable about it. It's the one thing that Americans just get very nervous about," she said.

Adichi_crIvaraEsege.jpg

One character in the book is a liberal white woman who doesn't want to call someone black when she's talking about them to Ifemelu; instead she calls them "beautiful." Finally, Ifemelu tells her, "You don't have to keep saying beautiful. Just say black." According to Adichie, "that's the moment when their friendship starts. Because the way I saw it, writing that scene, was that finally there's the possibility of real connection because [they] don't have to pretend about things."

Gender issues are also at the heart of the book. Adichie recalled being told by a teacher once that she was a troublemaker, because she was opinionated and outspoken. "I realized it was a very gendered comment. She meant that I was female and I was supposed to be more quiet, I wasn't supposed to push back."

Adichie decided to make Ifemulu a character who wasn't immediately easy to like, in part because "when women write about women, the first expectation is that they be likeable. But nobody expects Nabokov to write about likeable men. I think we make peace with interesting male characters, and if they're bad, they're interesting. But women, no," she said. "Gender is very important for me. I want to constantly push against all of these what I think are very silly gender expectations."





Recent highlights from CBC Books: