Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on why she can't stay silent
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of Nigeria's most prominent and celebrated writers.
She published her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, when she was only 26 years old, and it went on to win the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (Africa). Three years later, she won the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction for Half of a Yellow Sun, a vivid, ambitious and moving tale set just before and during the Nigerian civil war — also known as the Biafran war — of the late 1960s.
Her next novel, Americanah, won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. In Sept. 2019, HBO announced plans to adapt the book — a cross-continental love story between two young Nigerians — into a 10-part series, starring Lupita Nyong'o.
In 2014, Adichie presented a TEDx Talk that went viral, sparking a worldwide conversation about feminism. Titled We Should All Be Feminists, it was published as a small book and, in 2017, she followed it with Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.
Adichie spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2009, after the publication of her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.
The ancestor who inspires her
"My father's grandmother died in 1940. I remember being struck by stories of her being called a troublemaker by people in my village because she would not shut up.
"Her husband had died, and his relatives were keen to take away the things that he owned from her, and she wouldn't let them. She was also known to attend meetings that were supposed to be for men, and she would speak her mind and make them all listen to her.
I was just really drawn to the idea of this woman who was headstrong and stubborn — these things that were ostensibly bad, I thought were fantastic.
"I was just really drawn to the idea of this woman who was headstrong and stubborn — these things that were ostensibly bad, I thought were fantastic. She challenged all the stereotypes of the the long-suffering, silent, oppressed woman.
"She's always been in my imagination — I always imagine that she's somewhere, urging me on."
Believing in the impossible
"My parents really supported the Biafran cause. Biafra had grassroots support, and the academics sort of turned it into a narrative — songs, stories, things like that. My parents were very much a part of that — my father says that until the war ended he had convinced himself that they would win.
My brother was born during the war and my mother said she lived in terror that something would happen to him. But that crazy faith made them survive.
"I asked him, 'How could you have thought you would win? It was obvious that you wouldn't.' And he said, 'We just believed.' I think that kind of blind, almost delusional faith made it possible for them to absorb the loss of their fathers, their cousins.
"My brother was born during the war and my mother said she lived in terror that something would happen to him. But that crazy faith made them survive."
Starting the conversation
"Biafra has haunted me for a long time. There's still a formal silence around it. People who were active in the war are still active in politics, and it makes people nervous.
"For example, a head of state was murdered during the war, and we all know who is supposed to be responsible. But it's not talked about. And that man is still active in Nigerian politics. So a lot of questions are still unanswered.
"I wanted to make sense of this history — I wanted to try to understand. I'm really happy that I'm no longer the only one asking about it. I no longer feel alone.
"I have a lot of hope in my generation of Nigerians. When Half of a Yellow Sun came out in Nigeria, I really felt happy that, for my generation, the book served as a starting point for a conversation about what happened.
When Half of a Yellow Sun came out in Nigeria, I really felt happy that, for my generation, the book served as a starting point for a conversation about what happened.
"It's not always a polite conversation, but we're talking. It's a starting point. I think it's impossible for us to move forward in any way that makes sense if we don't engage with what happened."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's comments have been edited and condensed.