An African in America

In advance of her Inprint reading tonight, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses race, literature, and cultural difference.

By Michael Hardy November 18, 2013

Image: Ivara Esege

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Colum McCann
Nov 18 at 7:30
Sold out
Hubbard Stage, Alley Theatre
615 Texas Ave

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an Igbo writer from Nigeria who received her undergraduate education at Drexel University and Eastern Connecticut State University. She completed an MFA in creative writer from Johns Hopkins University and an MA in African Studies from Yale. In 2008 she received a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Adichie has published a collection of poems, a play, and three novels, the most recent being Americanah (2013). Tonight she will read at the Alley Theatre with Colum McCann (Transatlantic) as part of Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

Americanah is the first of your three novels to be set in America. Why did you make that decision?

I think I felt that I had enough material. I spend a lot of time just watching the world, taking notes and observing. Having spent 10 years in the U.S. I had collected quite a bit, so I thought it was time to use that in a novel. 

You’ve said in previous interviews that it’s important to experience something yourself before you write about it. Is that universally true? Do you always stick closely to what you’ve observed?

I don’t think I need to experience it personally. A lot of what I’ve written in the book is not necessarily autobiographical. I do think it’s important to write about, not about you know about, but what you care about.

You make a distinction in the novel between African American and American Africans. Why is that an important difference?

Because of the way race manifests itself in America. I didn’t think of myself as black until I came to America. I think there’s a tendency in this country to lump together everyone who is dark skinned and whose ancestors came from the continent of Africa into one single group: black. I think there are different experiences of blackness and different ways of being black. People whose ancestors came to America as slaves have a very different experience from more recent immigrants. Exploring those differences, and also those similarities, is something I find interesting.

Barack Obama once said that although he’s biracial, he identifies as black because that’s how people see him.

Well, but he doesn’t have a choice. That’s the thing about America—you don’t have a choice. In the novel, I had a lot of fun writing the blog posts. And one of the blog posts is about race. Race is very absurd, because it’s not about biology. Barack Obama doesn’t have a choice because if he walked into a club in America that doesn’t like black people, he would be thrown out. Nobody would ask him, well, “How much of you is white?” They look at him and see a black man.

Is that the same for you? When you’re in America, do you consider yourself a black person, because that’s who people see?

Initially I felt that it was an identity I didn’t want to take on. I have to be honest and say it was also because in America black is not a good thing. But now I’m quite happily black, and I identify as black. I just don’t think that black is a single thing.

When you’re in Nigeria, do people identify you as American now?

No, no, no. I think I still pass as a Nigerian. Actually, all my family members are disappointed that I’m not more American, having been educated and lived here for a few years. They’re disappointed that I don’t have an American accent, and American mannerisms.

Is it considered more prestigious to have an American accent?

Largely, yes. You can get away with a lot of nonsense in Nigeria if you have an American accent. You can bullshit your way through things. You can go through a job interview for example and have no idea what’s going on, but if you have an American accent the people interviewing you will most likely be impressed.

Your lead character in the novel, Ifemelu, starts a blog. Is that something you’ve ever done?

I’ve never blogged, no. I find blogs very interesting. I read blogs, but I’ve never written one. There’s something about blogs that says something about the way we live now. I don’t think it would have worked as well if she had written a newspaper column or even a book. I think it’s the immediacy and flexibility of blogs that lets her do whatever she wants.

Would you ever blog in the future?

Since the novel has come out, I have been thinking about it. I don’t know that I will, but presently I think it might be interesting to try. But I think I’ll probably do it under a pseudonym.

You’ve made some critical remarks about the contemporary American novel. Do you feel pressure to make a statement with your own novel about what the direction of American literature should be?

Oh lord, no. I don’t think my novel has anything to do with American literature. I read a lot, and I read contemporary fiction. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who say, “Oh, things were so much better 30 years ago.” Because I think that there’s a lot that wasn’t better 30 years ago. But I think there’s a certain kind of American novel that seems to be celebrated. Usually it’s written by a man, and usually it’s ironic. It’s never really about emotion. It’s packed with a lot of information. And if you look at 40 years ago, for example, American novels were not like that, whether written by men or women. American novels of that time were about what novels should be, which is about human beings, but also about the way we live. But of course my taste is very old-fashioned. I’m decidedly not postmodern. But, I’ve just read Dave Eggars’s recent book, and I loved it. I think he’s one of the few writers who don’t hide behind art, who think the world we live in is worth engaging with in fiction.

Who are the novelists from 40 years ago that you’re thinking of? Norman Mailer? Joseph Heller?

I really admire Norman Mailer. Joseph Heller—yeah, not too bad (laughing). I very much admire Philip Roth. I love James Baldwin.

Because they dealt with larger social issues?

Yes, but not in a “We will now solve the problems of the world way.” In a very human way, I think. Because humans are social beings, and the way we live is very much affected by not just the people around us, but by what the people in government are doing. I think also that contemporary American literature kind of separates itself from politics. I think America is so interesting politically, but you just don’t see that in its fiction.

David Foster Wallace said something similar, ironically about people like Philip Roth and John Updike. He said that the older white novelists were too narcissistic, obsessed with their own psychic dilemmas, and didn’t pay enough attention to what’s going on the in the world.

I’m quite happy to read about people’s psychic dilemmas. It would be nice if they were also having trouble with, I don’t know, the IRS or something.


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