10 June 2007

Nigeria: The Arts - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, winning this year's Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction is no mean achievement. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was short listed for the Orange Broadband prize in 2004 but won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. The 29-year-old Nigerian author's second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, beat this year's Man Booker winner, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and highly rated US bestseller, Digging to America, to claim the £30,000 prize and the 'Bessie', a limited edition bronze figurine, both of which are anonymously endowed.

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria's civil war during the 1960s. At the heart of the book is a group of characters swept up in the rapidly unfolding political events that defined the vicious war in which more than a million people died.

Ugwu, seen by some critics as the most fleshed out character who deserves a book of his own, is a boy from a poor village who works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Then there is Olanna and Kanene, twin sisters and young, middle-class women who disappointed their father with their choice of lovers. The former, abandoning her privileged life in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charismatic idealism of her new lover, has come to live with the professor with revolutionary dreams, while the latter gets involved with Richard, a tall, shy Englishman.

These characters, bringing the author's perception of the war to life, are propelled into events that will pull them apart and bring them together in the most unexpected ways. As Nigerian troops advance and they run for their lives, their ideals - and their loyalties to each other - are severely tested.

An emotional epic, the novel, which has sold 187,000 copies since the paperback was published in January, raises questions about moral responsibility, the end of colonialism, religious and/or ethnic allegiances, class and race, and about how love can complicate all these things.

Adichie, who told New Nigerian Weekly's Sumaila Umaisha in an interview shortly after the publication of the novel that her two grandfathers died in the Biafran War, stated that: "Half of a Yellow Sun is a story of love and loyalty and betrayal and change...[and] also my way of paying tribute to them and to so many others. It is also my hope that this book will start a conversation among Nigerians of my generation about a history that we have tended to ignore".

While presenting the twelfth Orange prize to Adichie at an award ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, the 2007 Chair of Judges, Muriel Gray, said that: "The judges and I were hugely impressed by the power, ambition and skill of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel. It's astonishing, not just in the skillful subject matter, but in the brilliance of its accessibility. This is a moving and important book by an incredibly exciting author".

Some critics, however, are of the view that Adichie's stand as a celebrated writer would be enhanced if she comes out with a strictly fictional novel, rather than a fictitious rendering of history.

Born in 1977, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in the university town of Nsukka. She is the daughter of a retired university professor-the first professor of statistics in Nigeria-and a retired registrar-the first female registrar in Nigeria. They lived in a house previously occupied by renowned African writer, Chinua Achebe, whose magical touch she is acclaimed to have rubbed on. The fifth of six children, Adichie studied Medicine for a year before she decided to switch over to humanities.

Adichie, who said she started writing since she was old enough to spell, went to the US where she studied Communication and Political Science and later obtained a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She taught Creative Writing at Princeton University for a year while serving as a Hodder Fellow. The novelist, whose poetry collection and play were published before she left for the US attributed her success to "my hard work, my determination, and my refusal to back down in the face of the many rejections I received at first".

Short listed for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction along with Half of a Yellow Sun were Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk; The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai; and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. The others were Jane Harris's The Observations and Anne Tyler's Digging to America.

Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the award is sponsored by the Orange brand of France Telecom SA and was designed to recognize novels that display "excellence, originality, and accessibility". Previous winners include On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2006) and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2005).

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