Arts & Letters Live is offering a rarity this Tuesday — a two-fer. In fact, it’s something of an African two-fer, featuring as it does authors Alexandra Fuller and Chimamanda Adichie, the one from Zimbabwe, the other from Nigeria. Fuller may be the better known in America for her justly celebrated childhood memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (in fact, Fuller will be on Think with Krys Boyd tomorrow).
But internationally, Adichie has been hailed as one of Africa’s most important writers, a successor to the classic line that includes Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Barely in her thirties, she has already won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, given to the best novel by a United Kingdom female author (she was the first African to win it), as well as the MacArthur “genius” grant — and she’s been a bestseller in England in the bargain.
In 2003, as the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News, I wrote one of the first profiles of Adichie to appear in an American newspaper. Adiche’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus had just been released, but I confess, two reasons that led me to read it and interview her were —
one, a female African novelist who had studied at Eastern Connecticut State University (I earned my master’s at UConn) was such a rarity that it made me deeply curious and, two, North Texas has a sizable Nigerian community (anyone who has taken a taxicab here would know that). I thought I should know more about that cultural background.
It didn’t hurt that in person, Adichie turned out to be articulate, open, radiant. Perhaps it was from the literary-world buzz generated by Purple Hibiscus. It was a notable debut — the story of a Nigerian adolescent woman, set during that country’s turmoil in the ’90s. But Kambili’s struggle is with her domineering father, a devout Catholic and committed activist who, nonetheless, has both a colonized and patriarchal mind. The novel is about contending religions (and genders and generations) as Kambili finds different views of God, family and country with her aunt, a liberal teacher, and her grandfather, a more traditional tribal authority.
I hasten to add: Adichie has dismissed any autobiographical interpretations. Yes, the novel draws from figures in her own life, but Kambili’s tortured relationship with her father, Adichie has said, does not reflect her own experience.
With Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2005), the public acclaim seriously ramped up — and deservedly so, the powerful novel represents a huge step forward in confidence and complexity for the author. Yellow Sun is about the Nigerian-Biafran war in the late ’60s — a civil war that split Nigeria. Although it happened seven years before Adichie was born, she has cited it as a central political and cultural event that has shaped her, akin to the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement for many Americans. Nigeria is an artifical country, imposed by the British on a tangle of linguistic, religious and ethnic differences. These exploded when the more democratic southern region tried to secede from the authoritarian, less developed north and form the Republic of Biafra — which was doomed to slow, brutal starvation once a military stalemate and blockade took hold in 1968.
Half of a Yellow Sun relates this conflict through three characters — a young houseboy, a wealthy and educated young woman and an ineffectual white Englishman in love with the young woman’s sister. The novel’s epic sweep and domestic details, Adichie’s amazing skill with vivid, deft description, her ability to suggest and interweave colonial, sexual, international, even professorial and bureaucratic storylines: Immersed in all this, the reader often has to remember that, at the time, Adichie was only 28 and had never actually witnessed these events.
Her latest work, The Thing Around Your Neck is a new collection of short stories (it was just released last week) — in which Adichie turns to more recent concerns. Much of Adichie’s adult life has been spent in the United States, and half the stories in Neck are set in Nigeria, half here. I’ve read only one of them previously in print, so I’m looking forward to Tuesday evening — to re-encountering a major literary talent on the rise.
Photo by Marco del Grande