Nigeria: Author Explores Faith and Country in Acclaimed New Novel

13 October 2004
interview

Washington, DC — Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, has received much critical acclaim, having been short listed for the Orange Prize and long listed for the Booker Prize. Adichie recently completed her master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, and now splits her time between Nigeria and the United States. After a lively reading in a Baltimore bookstore, AllAfrica's Norah Vawter interviewed the author.

When did you start writing Purple Hibiscus?

I was in my senior year of college, so 2001.

You must have been pretty young.

I was twenty-four. It's such a cliché, but [my age] really doesn't have much to do with the number. Now that this book is out, I'm constantly resenting being labeled the `young writer.' I didn't write Purple Hibiscus because I was young. When people label you as young, there's the baggage that comes along with it. "Maybe she got published because she was so young." Then it's not about the work. So now I say to people, twenty seven really isn't that young.

When I first started reading the book, I thought that this was going to Kambili's story, her coming of age. And then you tricked me. I came to realize that this was a story about the whole family. Could you speak to that?

I think this concept of coming of age is really a marketing tool. I sometimes don't quite accept that label of coming of age, because that's not how I see it. So when you say the family story, that's closer to what I think it is. It was important for me that she tell the story, because I wanted it to be a story that was told in quiet but - more than quiet - I wanted to leave some things unsaid for the reader. For that to happen, I needed a narrator like Kambili who has every reason to tell the story in this muted form, because she's traumatized and she's shy and she's weak.

Why weak?

[laughs] Well maybe not, that's debatable. But she's traumatized. It's something that I did consciously, because it would have been a very different story if Jaja had told it, for instance.

Did you ever consider writing it in the third person or from multiple perspectives?

Multiple perspectives, no. It just came in the first person, and I liked it. Sometimes something comes and it doesn't work, and you know it just isn't in the right form. But [the novel] just came in the first person in this quiet voice, and it worked, and I never rethought the decision.

I think it was a good decision.

So do I [laughs]. But you're right. I don't think Kambili is weak. It's interesting for me as well. I read her in a particular way, and it's fascinating for me to listen to some people in how they read her in an entirely different way. I guess it's the magic of literature. But some people are frustrated with her. They find her too knowing, and I didn't find her so knowing at all.

So instead of weakness, Kambili demonstrated a kind of passive resistance?

It's nice to hear somebody who gets the book. [laugh] Kambili is someone who will not do anything incredibly dramatic, she just won't. But clearly she knows she's doing something she knows her father won't be pleased with. She's doing it quietly, which is her style.

The magical thing about Purple Hibiscus is that many times the characters did things that surprised me. When I tell this to some of my friends, they say, `Oh god, you writers are crazy. You wrote the bloody book!'

As you wrote the book, did you feel like you were there with the family?

No. I felt that I was a step removed. I felt that I was an observer, that I was peering through the window. I often felt that. With Kambili, I watched her, and I also marveled at how different I was from her and how I would never do the things that she did.

Let's talk about father figures. There seemed to be several father figures-the father, Eugene, the grandfather, Papa Nnukwa, and perhaps the priest, Father Amadi. Are there motifs of a good father and a bad father in the book?

I didn't imagine [Eugene] as a bad father. I imagined him as a complicated man, a complicated father. He clearly adores his children [and] is fiercely protective of them. I think he's turned out the way he is because-well, I don't know. It's up to the reader. But his isn't easy cruelty, that is, cruelty for cruelty's sake. [He's] not someone who's got a cigarette and puts it out on his child's skin because he's had a bad day. It doesn't become good and bad-it becomes, from Kambili's point of view, helpful and less helpful.

There's something that her father gives her that those [other father] characters don't. She loves her father differently.

The differences between good and bad or helpful and less helpful seem to be mirrored by the differences in her father's public and private life. Could you speak to that, the importance of public and the private spheres in the book?

I think we're all like that. It's funny, when we think about it. We're not just complex. We're irrational. There are people, like the father figure, who outside their homes are pillars of the community, and inside behave differently. But in his case, I don't think it's a contradiction because both behaviors stem from the same thing-this need to do right. Outside the home, this translates into publishing this newspaper, which talks about injustice and the need for justice. Inside the home, [this] drives him to hit Kambili, because he needs to show her the right way. The need to do right makes him punish his wife, because she needs to know the right way to act.

So, from his perspective, everything he does makes sense. Yes, but we are the ones observing him, and we can see that this is wrong. It's sort of like the people that do horrible things in God's name, and their actions seem right to them.

Tell us more about how the father's religious beliefs affect the story.

I didn't want to explain too much in the book. I think that Eugene's story is like so many in my father's generation, who had the first contact with the missionaries. I think it was disastrous. If you wanted to go to school, you had to become Christian.

This is what Achebe's work deals with too. You prove what a good Christian you are by showing us how much you hate your own people's customs. In Achebe's work he had characters going to kill the sacred python, which is never done, to prove how Christian they were to the missionaries. I think with Eugene it wasn't just that the priests were kind to him and helped him. They taught him a faith that came with self-hate. Perfection can destroy you.

Is this a book about God and faith?

I think so. I don't think God has to be a book that it is about the Catholic Church or Islam. When a book is, in a very subtle way, about goodness and justice, for me, that is also about God. Over all, Purple Hibiscus is not so much about religion as about being spiritual.

That's the point I hoped people would get, but there are Africans who are very angry with me that animism and Christianity can even be equated. People are very angry about that because in their eyes, Christianity is far superior.

What was the first image that prompted you to write?

I think the first thing that came to my head was the idea of Jaja, [narrator Kambili's brother], not going to communion, and that causing something huge in the house. The second thing was the idea of the communion giving Jaja bad breath, because that was just so silly, and I knew that it needed to be juxtaposed with the drama. My brother once said in church that it gave him bad breath, [so] he stopped going to communion for a while. I started to think about not going to communion too. After church you stand up and hug people, and I think he was worried that there would be a girl behind us who would smell his bad breath.

What is your writing process like?

I don't have a schedule. I'm always amazed at writers who need to light a candle or something. I like to write on the train. Sometimes I like to write at night. Whenever I'm alone and the house is silent. I need to know that I have the time to write, that I have the whole day. That's probably also why I work best at night, because I know that I don't have to go anywhere at 3:00 in the morning, or take care of my nephew, or cook for anybody.

How important is silence in your writing?

The kind of literature I love has a lot of silence. The power of the things left unsaid. I think really Purple Hibiscus is about Kambili finding her voice.

Have you promoted the book in Nigeria? What was the reaction?

Because the book is going to be published in Nigeria next month, I did a few promotional readings. This wonderful woman who owns a private library she set up herself asked me to come and meet students and talk to them. For some reason, I just expected they would be students from the good schools, who would be very neat and wear uniforms and ties, and be very comfortable with computers.

They weren't. They were kids from low-income schools where the uniforms are not all entirely neat or clean. I sat there and read to them. First I read a Nigerian children's book, and then I read the story that Papa Nnukwa tells about the tortoise and why he has a cracked shell.

We did a question and answer. I was so impressed by them, and how eager they were. Sometimes I get so stupidly emotional, you wouldn't believe, and I was almost in tears. These are kids who have nothing. Afterward we did the writing contest, and I judged their writing.

We awarded prizes to four of the kids, and it was just so fun. I wish I could just wave this wand, and change it for them. These are kids who really want to learn, and there's so much in the way! So I thought to myself, they got this chance to come to this library, and will it really make a difference? Maybe it will. It gives them two books more than they would have. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed about how much should be done. I feel that whenever I'm back home: just this longing to do more.

It's so wrong that we have a country that doesn't make it possible for bright people to go forward.

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