Groundnuts and Bananas: A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adi

by A. Naomi Jackson

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a formidable member of the newest generation of Nigerian writers. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is currently at work on her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, set in Nigeria during the Biafran War. In the conversation that follows, Adichie shares her views on religion in Nigeria, the seduction of Lagos, the legacy of Biafra and its place in her work, and what it means for her to be Nigerian.

In your article, “Blinded by God’s Business”, you argue that, in Nigeria, literature by Nigerians is passed over in favour of trade fiction from abroad, or, more often, for religious and business texts. To what do you attribute this focus on God’s-gonna-give-me-money texts? Are there any signs of a literary culture in Nigeria that goes against this trend? What does it mean for you that your works are, for now, more widely read abroad than at home?

This phenomenon of home-grown literature being passed over in favour of trade fiction from abroad is not limited to Nigeria. It is the same in many African countries. We do not have the financial power to publish and market our own books as literature or as entertainment, and somehow, in much the same way that we prefer imported parboiled rice to Nigerian rice, our own books don’t have the gloss that the Archer and Ludlum books do. I have had many Nigerians tell me, proudly, that they do not read Nigerian novels and often this is said in a way to make me feel grateful that they are willing to give my book a chance.

I AM more widely read abroad, but it is important to consider the practical factors such as how many and what kind of books are available, where they are available, the reading population etc. It’s much easier for an American to go to or walk into one of the ubiquitous bookstores than it is for a Nigerian to find a bookstore that has much besides books like Breaking Your Spiritual Bond. Of course, other factors like how many people actually read play a role. There are many educated people who can spell and who have degrees but who do not read. That said, I think Purple Hibiscus has been remarkably widely-read in Nigeria. I am pleased about how many Nigerians have read it and this is because I am lucky to have a publisher, Muhtar Bakare of Farafina, who is courageous and idealistic and wonderfully crazy enough to want to do publishing right in a country like ours. I am pleased, too, by how Nigerians have engaged with, and responded to, the book; this, for me, is proof that there are many people who take literature seriously.

I think that we Africans sometimes become a little too defensive about being read abroad. Many non-African writers take pride in being read outside of their countries (and continents) and it seems to me that this is a luxury that we do not allow ourselves. We are burdened with the guilt complex, with the notion of authenticity; the assumption seems to be that if you are well-received outside of Africa, you have somehow played the tune that will please white foreigners alone. I don’t at all believe that. I find it to be a very limiting view of literature. I want to be read in Nigeria. And I want to be read in the rest of the world.Purple Hibiscus has so far been translated in ten countries and it is something I feel grateful for and proud of. I recently saw the Hebrew edition and, looking at the elegant characters that I will never be able to read, I thought of all the people who will hopefully read it in Israel and I felt something delusionally, fantastically life-affirming. That literature can connect the world, that literature can change a slice of the world.

In terms of the mega churches, what your character Kambili calls “mushroom Pentecostal” churches, that have sprouted up all over Nigeria, where do you think that comes from? What is it that makes Nigerians so happy about God and so serious about his impact on their daily lives, especially their prosperity?

I’m always wary of omniscient answers about issues like where these churches have come from and, related to this, where our interest in God-give-me-money texts have come from. I don’t know. I don’t think there is one answer. Our poverty plays a huge role. So does our education system. So does the precariousness of life in a country where there is very little sense of consequence for wrong-doing. However, I do not think that Nigerians are happy about God nor do I think they are “serious” about his impact on their prosperity. Happy and serious about God suggests faith. I think the religiosity we have in Nigeria is, to a large extent, a product of fear rather than faith. Life is so perilous that God becomes the only insurance. The attitude to wealth, marriage, anything desired becomes “we better attribute it to God or we will lose it.” God becomes the wealthy vain uncle whose behind you have to kiss loudly and often to make sure he pays your school fees and gives you pocket money. It is a very insular and self-serving kind of religiosity. We pray for a new car and end each sentence with “Praise God” and talk ad nauseam about our pastors but don’t mind beating the hell out of our house help for taking a cube of sugar. I think faith is a more subtle, more flexible thing. Faith, for me, must take into account that we are not alone in the universe. That other people matter. It should not be so inward-looking or so disconcertingly LOUD.

What do I think makes Nigerians so ostensibly happy about God? Fear. Of course there are Nigerians of true faith, but the general popular Christianity does not strike me as coming from that at all. It is easy to criticize this, as I understand the circumstances that bring it about, but understanding the circumstances does not mean that we cannot make moral judgments. I think it is unhealthy for our society that this new sleek, crass religiosity has taken centre stage. Somebody should pass this law in Nigeria: Don’t TALK God, ACT God.

Olu Oguibe describes in his article, “Lessons From the Killing Fields,” how his life has been marked by being one of “Biafra’s children,” both having lost family members during the war and being born in the midst of it. Do you consider yourself one of Biafra’s children? What kinds of stories from the war are still waiting to be told?

I don’t consider myself one of Biafra’s children because I feel that it is a term that suggests that I experienced the war. I did not; I was born seven years after the end of the war. However, both my grandfathers died in the war and I feel cheated not to have met them. I have always been haunted by stories of my parents’ life in Biafra; it is not so much as if I lived through it, as it is that I inherited the shadows of the war and will always live with those shadows. My uncle, Michael Adichie, told me a story once about leaving our family home in Abba with my grandfather and a framed photo of my grandfather; and then returning without my grandfather but with the photo, cracked but still there. There are so many stories left to tell about the war. I am completing a novel set before and during the war and what has struck me the most is how much material from my research I have not used. What is relevant today, I suppose, is how strong a symbol Biafra has become to many Igbo people. It proves that there is much still unresolved about what led to the war and what happened in its aftermath.

Much has been said about the apocalyptic nature of Lagos. Some folks argue that its mere functioning as a city is nothing short of a miracle. Are you able to find joy and affection for the city, to find hope there? What kinds of creativity and possibility do you see in the chaos?

I love Nigeria because it is what made me who I am. The more I think of loving Nigeria, though, the more I realize that the Nigeria I love is Nsukka, the dusty university town that houses my memories; and Abba and Umunnachi, the tiny towns in Anambra State where my parents’ ancestors are buried. I am deeply ambivalent about Lagos. It is in Lagos that I am confronted by how hard life is for so many people. It is in Lagos that I struggle with that kind of enervating, ultimately hopeless depression and helplessness that comes with thinking of how much needs to be changed, to be done. It is in Lagos that the affectations of my people are at their highest. I am amused by the wit of Lagos taxi drivers, annoyed sometimes by their rudeness or lewdness. I have seen startling acts of kindness by strangers to strangers in Lagos. But I am most aware, in Lagos, of how much we Nigerians distrust each other. We relate to one another through rituals of distrust: when you are buying vegetables, parking a car, hailing a taxi, somebody says to you, “This is Lagos. Be careful.” Sometimes we say with pride (I certainly have) that in the midst of chaos, things work in Lagos. Yet I wonder if this should be acceptable, if we should even be accepting of the “in the midst of chaos” part. There is a sense of possibility there, too, as there is I suppose in every large city. Lagos is THE Nigerian city, after all, despite Abuja’s pretensions. I plan to spend as much time as I can in Lagos. And yet, I feel that I will never really know Lagos.

You said in an interview that you advise writing as if your parents may never read what you’ve written. Is that your approach to writing? How do you avoid the urge to write what’s marketable or polite or palatable?

I don’t necessarily avoid writing what is polite and marketable. I think polite and marketable are acceptable as long they are true. What I dislike and avoid is untruth and in this case I mean my own truth, the emotional truth to things that I observe and feel and not necessarily fact. I write what I can stand up for and defend and what I do not ever have to be apologetic for. For beginning African writers, I have always advised that they forget their parents and uncles and aunts and all the other people in their world. Remembering them will likely lead to self-censorship. But of course it is advice that is not easy to follow. It is always a balancing act making choices about what to keep and what to leave out.

There is an older generation of well-decorated Nigerian writers that include Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, and so forth. Where you do locate yourself in terms of that literary lineage? What do you think differentiates the younger generation of writers like yourself, Sefi Atta, Helon Habila, Chris Abani, in terms of perspective and themes your work tackles?

I respect the older generation and Chinua Achebe remains the most important writer for me. But I don’t think of where I fit in literary lineages and that sort of thing at the moment. My focus, frankly, is writing the best book I can. I am confident about the choice that I have made to write despite the many moments of absolute terror and I am in this for the long haul and I suppose placements in literary lineages will follow when they will. I think the writers of my generation have varied interests. But none of us have written enough for me to correctly make distinctions between ourselves and the older generation.

Nigerians all over the world have tales of being mistreated at airports, embassies, banks abroad. How do you navigate the burden of the stereotypical unscrupulous Nigerian? What else defines Nigerian-ness, outside of this burden?

On tour in Australia, a radio interviewer said to me, with a well-meaning smile, “You certainly prove that Nigerians write better things than those awful fraud letters.” So, I am not sure it us up to ME or to any Nigerian to navigate this stereotype. It follows all of us. As for what else defines Nigerian-ness, it depends on who is doing the defining and even where the defining is being done. The Nigerians in Nigeria phenomenon is quite different from the Nigerians in Diaspora phenomenon, for example. As to what else defines Nigerian-ness, our (almost clichéd) loudness and arrogance and confidence come to mind!

My Nigerian-ness is my green, much-peered-at passport, my belief that the best hair-braiders are Nigerian, my desire to live in Nigeria, my loud cheering when the Nigerian soccer team plays, my embarrassment when yet another uncomplimentary thing about Nigeria is on world news, my firm belief that groundnuts must be eaten with bananas.

This interview was conducted via email in September 2005. The texts referred to are the following:
– Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, “Blinded by God’s Business.” Guardian (February 12, 2005).
– Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Purple Hibiscus. (London: 4th Estate, 2005).
– Oguibe, Olu, “Lessons from the Killing Fields.” Transition, no. 77 (1998), 86-99.

A. Naomi Jackson is a writer and editor based in New York City.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply