On Wednesday her epic novel about the Biafra war won Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the Orange prize. In her first interview since, she tells Stephen Moss that she wants to show how the west doesn't get Africa. Americans think African writers will write about the exotic, about wildlife, poverty, maybe Aids. They come to Africa and African books with certain expectations. I was told by a professor at Johns Hopkins University that he didn't believe my first book [Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003] because it was too familiar to him. In other words, I was writing about middle-class Africans who had cars and who weren't starving to death, and therefore to him it wasn't authentically African.
Madonna's not Our Saviour
By Stephen Moss (Friday, June 8, 2007)
What I find problematic is the suggestion that when, say, Madonna adopts an African child, she is saving Africa. It's not that simple. You have to do more than go there and adopt a child or show us pictures of children with flies in their eyes. That simplifies Africa. If you followed the media you'd think that everybody in Africa was starving to death, and that's not the case; so it's important to engage with the other Africa. - Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is distraught - an unusual reaction to winning the Orange prize. It transpires that her handbag was stolen at a book signing in London on Tuesday, the night before the prize-giving, and she has lost her credit cards and a notebook full of novelistic jottings. She barely slept on Tuesday from rage and dismay. "I still can't believe that someone stole it, and am hoping for a miracle," she says. "So it's a good thing I won," she adds, cheering up, "or I'd have wondered why the heck I even came to England."
Her stolen handbag strikes me as a useful metaphor for much of what we talk about - the exploding of stereotypes. Nigerian author comes from the "crime hell" of her own country and gets robbed at an oh-so-genteel book reading at the sparkly new Royal Festival Hall. "I've never had any problems in Lagos," she says, "so to come to London and have it happen here ..."
Adichie resists stereotypical views of Africa. "We have a long history of Africa being seen in ways that are not very complimentary, and in America [where she has been studying for the past 10 years] being seen as an African writer comes with baggage that we don't necessarily care for. Americans think African writers will write about the exotic, about wildlife, poverty, maybe Aids. They come to Africa and African books with certain expectations. I was told by a professor at Johns Hopkins University that he didn't believe my first book [Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003] because it was too familiar to him. In other words, I was writing about middle-class Africans who had cars and who weren't starving to death, and therefore to him it wasn't authentically African."
She is determined to show an Africa that isn't one huge refugee camp - a continent with many diverse stories, not a single story of suffering and dependency. "People forget that Africa is a place in which class exists," she says. "It's as if Africans are not allowed to have class, that somehow authenticity is synonymous with poverty and demands your pity and your sympathy. Africa is seen as the place where the westerner goes to sort out his morality issues. We see it in films and in lots of books about Africa, and it's very troubling to me."
She is sceptical about the impact of western celebrities who embrace Africa. "What I find problematic is the suggestion that when, say, Madonna adopts an African child, she is saving Africa. It's not that simple. You have to do more than go there and adopt a child or show us pictures of children with flies in their eyes. That simplifies Africa. If you followed the media you'd think that everybody in Africa was starving to death, and that's not the case; so it's important to engage with the other Africa."
Adichie's Orange prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is again about the "other Africa", peopled by the sort of empowered, middle-class Africans in whom her professor so foolishly refused to believe. Two twin sisters, daughters of a wealthy businessman, are caught up in the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70. Adichie, an Igbo from the south-eastern corner of Nigeria that attempted to secede as Biafra, traces the tragedy of that war, which is estimated to have cost three million lives. But, by some literary sleight of hand, she does it without annihilating the reader's senses. There is blood, gore, nightmarish horror; but there is also drink, talk, friendship, shared struggle, and lots of sex. You can see why Richard and Judy chose it for their book club - a move that shot the novel into the bestseller lists.
Another key character in Half of a Yellow Sun - the title comes from the emblem of the Biafran flag - is Ugwu, a houseboy from a poor village who gets caught up with the preachy, privileged, highly politicised group of independence-seekers, is conscripted into the Biafran army, and emerges as the conscience of the novel. In a neat twist, it becomes clear that he will write a book on the war, rather than the Englishman who throughout has been making notes for a history of the struggle. Africans must write their own stories, not let the west do the naming for them, as they have for a bloody century and more.
Adichie, who is only 29, says she finds CNN's coverage of Africa "exhausting" because of its refusal to let Africans do the talking. "They go to the Congo, for example, line the Congolese people up in the background, and then have a Belgian, who they say is a Congo expert, tell us about the Congo. And I think, 'Well, how about you bring the Congolese forward so we know what life is really like?' Sometimes I think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could become the voice explaining America or England to the world.' It would never happen."
As in her novel, Adichie manages to make strong political points in a glancing, matter-of-fact way. She doesn't do sermonising, even when she's smuggling in a sermon. When I ask her why a white character plays a central part in the book, she says it was with an eye on the film rights. Hollywood insists on it; in fact, she now wishes she'd had more. "That's a joke, by the way," she adds hurriedly. Except it's a joke which contains a truth: Hollywood does demand troubled, transformative white characters to make Africa accessible to a predominantly white audience.
Taking on the Biafran war - the great story of her people, a struggle still etched in the collective memory - in her 20s shows a certain chutzpah. "I thought that I was ready to try," she says, "though I wasn't sure that it would work. I started writing about Biafra when I was 16. I wrote a very bad play, but that at least shows that I have long been interested in the subject. I had interviewed my father, poor man, endlessly before I wrote this play, and I very meticulously used everything he told me. I was manipulating characters just so they would fit in with what my father was doing."
She also wrote an angry short story with the same title as the novel, but when she came to write the book, some of the anger had abated. Adichie lost both her grandfathers in the war - the book is dedicated to their memory - but even though that made writing the novel painful, she still sought a degree of detachment. "In the short story I was much closer to things," she says. "I was more heartbroken. But by the time I came to the novel I had realised that for fiction to be really successful, you have to be a few steps removed. My book has Biafran sympathies, but I recognise that Biafra wasn't perfect."
Nigeria is still coming to terms with the war 40 years on, and Adichie hopes her book contributes to that. "We don't learn about this in school. In Nigerian history we get to 1967 and just move straight on to 1970. For a lot of Nigerians this is really a work of history, and it's very gratifying for me to hear from Nigerians in particular - because, in the end, it is the opinion of Nigerians that matters most - who say, 'My parents lived through the war and nobody ever talked about it until your book appeared.' "
Adichie's parents are academics, and hers is a high-achieving family. Her elder sister is a doctor and initially she planned to follow her, but realised she didn't care about medicine. She had loved books and writing from the age of seven. She says she was in tears when she told her father she had won the prize. "I was surprised at how excited he was. He was singing an Igbo song, a thank-you song to God. My father's a very reserved and quiet man, very calm and stoic, and I thought he'd say, 'Oh, well done,' but no, he started singing and dancing, and I started crying because it was very moving."
Adichie considers Nigeria her home, but says she will continue to spend part of her time in the US, where her sister works. She is doing a master's course in African Studies at Yale, which she says gives her access to material she would never find in Nigeria, and teaches creative writing. Despite the success of Half of a Yellow Sun, she reckons she will still need to teach to provide a steady income. "Creative writing programmes are not very necessary," she says. "They just exist so that people like us can make a living." But surely after being deified by Richard and Judy, racking up huge sales, and now winning the Orange prize, she's secure? "I think you just get this once in your life," she says.
Originally appeared in Guardian.