Transcending the barriers between literature, art, music and fashion, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. In this excerpt from issue 22, she speaks to Catherine Lacey about pop, politics and the 45th President.
The restaurant is nearly empty. It’s an emptiness that exposes a sense of dread lurking in an otherwise bright spring day. People in suits, tunics, athleisure and burkas are streaming through the adjoining hotel lobby but here the only movement is of a member of staff, diligently preparing for an absent crowd. It is 2018 and this is the capital of the US. Even when ordering lunch, it is impossible to forget how close we are to a ceaseless squall of depravity and impending doom.
The omelette, we are told, cannot be altered. So be it. Apologetic and star-struck, the waiter beams at the renowned novelist and public intellectual, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and cannot help but gush, “You look wonderful today.” Indeed, Adichie looks wonderful because she always looks wonderful. A commanding presence, she is one of those rare writers with a refined style both on and off the page.
Adichie is certainly the only person to both win the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and serve as the face of a make-up campaign – No 7. She is absolutely the only writer whose speech has been sampled in a Beyoncé single. Every aspect of her comportment is magnetic, a magnetism that is exceedingly rare among accomplished writers, who are often better read than seen.
To encounter a person of grace and eloquence in this particular era, in this particular city, only heightens her effect. Yet Adichie also has an unfettered, ebullient charm – she curses freely, laughs with abandon and has a sly, infectious grin. “The past month,” she confesses, “I was in Nigeria eating and laughing and not doing anything useful with my time.” She has the cheery disposition of someone who just returned from a holiday, but I recognise a distant introversion in her eyes, the novelist longing for another world. “I rationalise this by saying I’m absorbing material.”
Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus was set in postcolonial Nigeria and dealt directly with her home country’s turbulent political history, while her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, tackled the Biafran War. Each won awards and acclaim; Chinua Achebe declared Adichie to be “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”. Then, in 2007, on her 30th birthday, she got a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation.
“I was in Lagos. I was just about to go out with friends who were taking me to dinner, and I got the call. I was like, ‘My life is made!’” She pauses, and stares out the window a moment. “Did I actually even know…?” In fact, she had to google the specifics of her new ‘genius grant’: a half-million-dollar prize and a crowning validation from the American intellectual elite.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in Connecticut in 2001, Adichie went to Johns Hopkins for her Fiction MFA, even though she had already completed her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. “I wasn’t necessarily a good member of the workshop… I hardly went to class because I couldn’t wait to get back – I had created this thing in my little studio apartment.” This little thing turned out to be Half of a Yellow Sun. “It was so emotionally draining. I cried… Days would pass and I wouldn’t shower. I wouldn’t pick up my phone.”
With two acclaimed novels under her belt, she was named a Hodder Fellow at Princeton, and then made the unlikely choice to earn a second master’s degree in African Studies at Yale. Why? “I went because I wanted to learn. It was really very simple. I remember thinking there’s so much I want to know about precolonial Africa. And I didn’t just want to read books, because I’m lazy.” Eyes widen at what seems to be self-effacing hyperbole, but she insists it’s true. “I felt like I needed some guidance. I needed to know what books will illuminate this part of my history.”
One of these books, in fact, was her second novel. “I had to sit there in class and try not to roll my eyes at their… analysis.” Outside of class she was struggling to find time to write her third novel, Americanah. “I kind of thought I would be able to write as well but it turned out to be disastrous for my writing. I was quite miserable.” Eventually she did find time to work, and, satisfied that Half of a Yellow Sun was “a book that I really felt my ancestors wanted me to write”, she felt free to loosen up as a writer. “I was no longer feeling this sense of being the dutiful daughter of literature and that I wanted to follow the rules. You know what? I felt I had earned the right to write a terrible book.”
Adichie, a self-avowed perfectionist and child of a “proper Igbo” household, seems to accomplish everything she sets out to do, but she failed, at least, to write that “terrible book”. Published in 2013, Americanah is an irreverent and biting commentary on race in the United States, but also a love story that spans decades and continents. It’s both serious and sexy, hilarious and profoundly sad. Adichie has called it her “fuck you” book, and it said “fuck you” all the way up that year’s bestseller and Top 10 lists, awards in tow.
This is an extract from issue 22 of Port, which hits newsstands on 19th April. To subscribe or pre-order, click here.