IN CHIMAMANDA Ngozi Adichie’s uncompromising new novel, Americanah, an African-American character talks about the impossibility of writing an honest work of fiction about race.
“If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious,” she observes. “Black writers who do literary fiction in this country … have two choices, they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you.” The point, of course, is that Adichie has done just that. Neither. These words are found in a novel that is unashamedly, proudly, sometimes even awkwardly honest about race.
“Race is absurd in so many ways,” the Nigerian writer tells me, raising an eyebrow. “The way that all these assumptions are made based on the darkness of someone’s skin. The way the world treats you differently because of this?” She chuckles and plucks at the skin of her forearm. “I don’t think it is talked about. In fact, it makes people uncomfortable. Or they say you are angry.” She rolls her eyes, then narrows them and looks mischievous. “I have written about race in a way that is in your face but I don’t think it’s angry. I can do angry, but I haven’t done it here.” She throws her head back and laughs and laughs.
“I know how I am supposed to write about race in literary fiction,” Adichie continues, warming to her subject. “I know the rules and the tropes. I just chose not to follow them. Writing about race should be lyrical and poetic and never quite definite. Very Proustian. And at the end the reader should feel exactly the same as they felt at the start. That’s the way to do race in literary fiction. I could have done that, written a safer book. The reviews would have been better. People wouldn’t be complaining. But I wanted it to be true.”
Instead Adichie has written a provocative and restless novel that criss-crosses between Nigeria, America, and Britain, and is part old-fashioned love story, and part ultra-modern forensic examination of racial identity. You don’t come across many contemporary novels like this in either tone or subject matter. As Adichie puts it, she has written the book about race that she wanted to read. It is completely different to her last novel, the Orange Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun, which was set during the Biafran War in Sixties Nigeria and nearly drove her mad. “I cried a lot while I was writing that book,” she says. “It was a big deal for me emotionally. I laughed more this time.”
Nevertheless, there were difficult times in the four years it took to write Americanah. “It didn’t help that my editor wasn’t very enthusiastic. It didn’t toe the line. It needed to be more nuanced. That depressed me. It was deflating.”
Americanah – the word is Lagosian slang for Nigerians newly returned after a spell Stateside – dissects, satirises, and, at its most potent, simply describes the immigrant experience, the myriad forms of racism, how race is viewed and experienced differently in America and Britain, and how we have to leave a place to belong to it. Oh, and hair. Americanah is obsessed with hair. We spend much of the novel witnessing the protagonist – an outspoken Igbo woman called Ifemelu who is about to return to Lagos after 13 years in the States – getting her hair braided in a salon outside Princeton.
“It’s ridiculous how interested in black women’s hair I am,” Adichie says gleefully. “Natural black hair, that is. I joke about wanting to start a hair revolution with African women where we all say no to textures that aren’t ours. I love weaves and extensions but why can’t we use things that look like our hair? Why use relaxers full of chemicals to straighten our hair? In Nigeria now the craze is for Brazilian hair. It’s very expensive, takes hours, and goes down to your waist in huge waves. It looks ridiculous.”
Adichie’s own hair is piled dramatically on top of her head in – and yes, I know this from Americanah – an afro kinky twist with attachments. “This is not popular in Nigeria,” she says. “There are all these ideas that to look professional, you can’t look like this. You can’t have kinky nappy hair. Having my hair like this doesn’t make me an angry black woman, or anti-establishment, or a vegetarian. It just means I like my hair the way it grows from my head.”
As for the rest of her, we’re talking top-to-toe glamour. We meet in the private lounge of a five-star London hotel. Adichie strides in to the room, as opulent as her surroundings, flanked by her husband – a bespectacled Nigerian doctor who insists on taking a photograph of us pre-interview – and best friend. She is wearing a skin-tight purple dress with high, sculpted collars (“made by my tailor in Lagos”) and high-heeled gold sandals. Her skin has been buffed to an impossible shine with mango butter. (She gets it free from a beautician fan in Lagos.) Basically, she is more film star than writer, and is apparently worshipped like one in Nigeria too.
Like Ifemelu in Americanah – and there are many similarities – Adichie has made a conscious decision to keep her Nigerian accent. This, in spite of years living in the States and continuing to split her time between America and Nigeria. “I can do a very good American accent,” she says, launching into a pitch-perfect impersonation. “When I first arrived in the States when I was 19, like most immigrants I didn’t want to stick out. So I spoke with an American accent until one day when I thought this is nonsense. It takes a real effort. I decided I was done with it.”
She is now considered Nigeria’s leading literary voice. The late Chinua Achebe, fellow Nigerian writer and grandfather of African literature, referred to Adichie as “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”. She is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant”, which awards her $500,000 over five years (“I get money for doing nothing,” she laughs. “This is why I love America!”), and in 2010 she was included in The New Yorker’s list of the top 20 writers under 40. Still only 35, she comes across as self-possessed, smart, bolshie, and quick to laugh. “I want to write the sort of fiction that I can defend in 50 years,” she says. “From the age of four, writing is all I ever wanted to do.”
She grew up in Nsukka, a university town in south-east Nigeria, the fifth of six children. She was born seven years after the end of the Biafran war, which claimed the lives of both her grandparents. Her father was a professor, her mother a registrar at the university. Adichie, “a benevolent bully” in her own words, was a popular, exceptionally bright, and content child. It was expected that she would become a doctor. “That is always the plan when you are a clever child in Nigeria,” she laughs. “But I was strange. I wanted to write books. And though I was a well brought up Igbo girl, I was also a girl who said things you’re not supposed to say. I still am.”
What kind of stories did she write? “They were basically Enid Blyton,” she laughs. But a Nigerian version? “No, all the characters were white with blue eyes and they all drank ginger beer. That’s the power of literature for you.” She laughs wryly. “I thought that’s what books were. I think many children growing up all over the colonised world did the same and continue to do so today. Their first contact with books bears no resemblance to their reality. That does something to you.” At the age of ten, she discovered Chinua Achebe and everything changed. “I stopped the Enid Blyton rubbish and started writing about people like me.”
In Americanah, Ifemelu’s first and greatest love, Obinze, spends his childhood dreaming of America, but ends up as an illegal immigrant in London. “They would not understand why people like him,” Adichie writes, “who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, [were] conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else.” Adichie herself never had that hunger for life beyond the borders of her own country, yet she left at the age of 19. “By the time I was growing up Britain had lost its lustre,” she says. “Everyone wanted to go to America. But I never wanted to until I realised it would be a way of escaping becoming a doctor.”
And so, after a year of studying medicine, Adichie dropped out and left Nigeria. She lived with her sister in Brooklyn at first, and then moved to Philadelphia to go to college. “Everything about America was strange, from the way people walked to their sunny optimism,” she recalls. “Underneath it, I sensed a shallowness. And then I discovered I was black …”
How did that happen? “There were two incidents,” she says. “The first was in Brooklyn. An African- American man walked past and called me ‘sister’. I thought, ‘I’m not your sister’. Even then, I knew that being black in America was not a good thing, not something I wanted to be. I felt like he was co-opting me into this black identity and I didn’t like it.” The second occasion was in college. Adichie had written the best essay in class and a teacher came into the room to ask its author to identify herself. “I put up my hand and saw his face,” she says. “And I realised the person who wrote that essay was not supposed to look like me.”
Adichie is laughing as she talks but at the time she must have been hurt and outraged. “No, I was puzzled,” she says. “There is a privilege to growing up without race. I never felt that being black meant I was dumb. So when he looked at me like that, I just thought ‘how silly’. The anger came later. I’m now happily black. If that man called me ‘sister’, I’d say ‘yo!’ And living in America has made me much more certain about my Nigerian-ness. I know where I belong. It’s completely mine. Nigeria is where I don’t have to question myself. Nigeria is home.”
• Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published by Harper Collins, £20