Take Note: Noted Nigerian Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talks about Her Novel "Americanah"

Nov 14, 2014

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking to students at Penn State.
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most prominent contemporary African authors. Her book Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books for 2013. In addition to writing several books, Adichie is known for her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” She won a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2008. WPSU’s Emily Reddy spoke with Adichie just before she spoke to a group of Penn State students who read her novel Americanah. It was also chosen as the 2014 Penn State Reads book. 

Your novel, Americanah, is about a young woman from Nigeria who comes to the United States for college. The book talks about race and what it’s like to be black in America. The main character actually has a blog about race. I wondered if you could start us off by reading an excerpt from one of those blog entries?

Sure. This excerpt is titled “To My Fellow Non American Blacks, In America, You Are Black, Baby.”

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying, “I’m Jamaican” or “I’m Ghanaian.” America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your own country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negros. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it - you say “I’m not black” only because you know  ‘black’ is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say, “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.  

And the blog post goes on to tell non-American blacks how they should behave in America, what’s expected of them. I wonder, you came to the United States at 19 from Nigeria to Philadelphia to go to college, how much of what you wrote about is based on your own experiences of all of a sudden being black when you’d never been that in Nigeria?

The novel is very very loosely based on my experiences, not so much mine as the experiences and stories of other people. So I think that it’s a book that’s full of things that are familiar to people, because people have experienced them. I have friends who’ve told me stories. I think largely that my experience was milder than the character’s, and also because my life is fairly boring. So if I wrote a book based on my life, it wouldn’t be very interesting. But like the character, I became black in America. I didn’t think of myself as black when I was in Nigeria because there was no need. We identified based on different things, like religion and ethnicity, but not race in Nigeria. And to come to the US and discover that this new identity had been thrust on me -- it wasn’t so much about having this new identity, because I think that we take on new identities depending on where we are -- but it was discovering that this new identity came with a lot of negative baggage; that to be black in America meant certain things, many of them really negative things. For me, that was difficult to deal with. I had come from Nigeria, and I didn’t get the memo that somehow to be black meant, for example, you were not likely to be intelligent. I had come from Nigeria, where I thought every Nigerian was very intelligent. So that was an interesting process for me.

The main character, Ifelmelu, is often puzzled by the reactions she gets.

She is, as was I. To confront race as a person who has grown up in a place where race is not central to identity is a very interesting thing. I think there’s a sense in which I am outside of things, in a way. So it’s easy to see things, and also to laugh at things, even things that I think are very serious or sad or horrible. But also, there’s an absurdity to a lot of the things that surround race in America.

And it’s a perspective that an American wouldn’t have on what race is like in our country.

I think it’s easier for a person who’s from the outside to see certain things. I think it happens both ways, really, because I’ve had friends who have come to Nigeria and told me things about Nigeria that I found strange but true. But I hadn’t quite noticed because I am so immersed in it that you don’t quite notice it.

But your main character, when she does go back to Nigeria, some of those things have become apparent.

Yes. Because now, it’s that very strange thing when you leave home and then you go back, and home isn’t quite home anymore. She’s no longer sure what has changed about home, and what has changed in herself. Because now she’s confronting things, and she’s looking at them with new eyes. And I stayed in the US for a much shorter time than my character. I was in the U.S. for four years before I went back. But even that was a bit disorienting when I went back.

And your character has become the “Americanah” of the title of the book.

She has, to an extent. “Americanah” is supposed to be this funny, teasing word that’s used for people who adopt American affectations. Ifelmelu, my character, is an Americanah of sorts. It’s not an identity that she necessarily celebrates or claims. There are people for whom the connection to America becomes their defining characteristic, but I don’t think that’s the case for her.

You’re going to be talking with a group of Penn State freshmen who’ve read this. It was assigned reading for them. It’s a diverse group, but there are probably students who come from Pennsylvania towns that are maybe 99% white. What do you hope that these students will take away from this book?

I don’t know. I’d like to think that what they’ll take away from the book is that it’s important to talk honestly about something that’s a central and major part in American life, and that’s race. And I hope that what this book does is that it starts up conversations that people ordinarily wouldn’t have because they’re uncomfortable having them.

It’s one of those taboo subjects.

It’s taboo, but I think it’s quite dangerous. When silence surrounds any subject, there is always a danger there. I think what happens with race in the U.S. is that there are a lot of misunderstandings, and a lot of assumptions pile up and are not challenged. There’s a part of me that’s just hopelessly optimistic, and I think that human beings can change for the better. I believe very much in human connections, and I think that honesty can lead to better, stronger, and more resilient connections. So I hope that if Americanah somehow makes that happen for the students, that would make me very happy.

I thought it was interesting to read about such recent history as Obama’s election to president in the book. It meant so much to the characters.

It did and I think that it meant so much to many people all over the world. I was not in the U.S. when it happened, but I followed it very closely, as did many of my friends in Nigeria, in the UK, and in the U.S. It signified something for many people. There was something very symbolic about it. There was something euphoric about it, and I wanted to try and capture it and memorialize it and celebrate it even. Because I thought it was a very beautiful moment.

Since Obama was elected, reality and pragmatism have intervened. He hasn’t been able to do every thing he said he was going to do. Has any of the shine worn off for you? Or is it the same as that night he was elected?

I am a very keen admirer of Barack Obama. But also, I did not think that Obama was Jesus Christ. I knew that he was not, and that he was not going to perform miracles. But the symbolism is still quite powerful. When you look at America’s history, and even its present, it’s still something of great significance that the president is a black man. But apart from the symbolism of it, I think the fact that people in this country will no longer be terrified of getting sick because they can’t afford health care is a good thing. There are certain policies that he has worked on that I admire, such as women being paid the same as men. There are things that he hasn’t been able to do, but I don’t know that… I would hate to be president of America. I think it’s a very difficult place to be. I think particularly at this time in this global world we live in, where there are complex threats and the populace wants very simple answers and it’s just not going to happen. But for me, the shine is very much still there. I’m not an American citizen, but if I were, I certainly would have voted for Barack Obama. And I hope Hillary Clinton runs. I know that’s not the question.

You did an interview with NPR’s Tell Me More, and told Michel Martin that you didn’t think Americanah would do well. Why is that?

This is the kind of book that… I didn’t write it to please anybody. I wrote the book that I wanted to write. I know that if you want to talk about race in America, there are certain things you are supposed to do and are certain things you are not supposed to do. I didn’t obey any of those. Even the bit that I read earlier, people would be like “No… Can you say that?” That’s what people are thinking, but somehow you’re not supposed to say it. I had a lot of fun writing this book. It’s a book I would write it all over again, if I could. But at the same time, I was prepared for it to be very much disliked. I thought that people would just not care about it. I felt that the incredible sense of reluctance to confront race would make people feel uncomfortable in reading this book. I thought that this discomfort would translate to the book not doing well. So I was very pleasantly surprised, and I still am, about how well it’s done. What I find even more moving is how unlikely the people who have connected with the book have been. There have been people from different parts of the world; there have been people from different parts of the US that I just couldn’t imagine would actually get it.

You’ve heard from them?

I have. The most recent letter forwarded by my publisher came from a woman in Idaho, and it started with, “Dear Ms. Adichie, I’m a Republican and I love Americanah.” I remember thinking, “This is interesting, because she seems to think that both are mutually exclusive, that Republicans are not supposed to like Americanah.”

I wonder, this might be a bit off-topic, but you told Michel Martin how much you loved Tell Me More. You were quite strong in that. The show had a particular focus on race issues, and it’s been canceled by NPR. I wondered how you reacted to that?

I was heartbroken, and I thought it was very sad. I felt that it said something about what’s valued and what’s not. Because apparently it was canceled because of something about audience numbers. I remember thinking that can’t be the only value we give to something. We can’t just say we have such and such a number of people listening to you, then you are unworthy of being listened to. When you’re dealing with subjects like she did, in the most interesting, the most intelligent and the most honest ways, I still feel very bad. 

There’s another blog post, by the character in the book, called “The White Friend Who Gets It.” That’s the white friend who understands race and can talk about race to other white people. What suggestions do you have for being the “white friend who gets it”?

That post was about the “white friend who gets it.” And I’m fortunate to announce that I have a few of those. But I think also, that quote was about white privilege. In the US, talking about race - meaning blackness and African-American-ness - and the problems with that, often a white person can often do it in a way that doesn’t have as many consequences as a black person who’s doing it. Ifemelu’s blog post kind of makes fun of that, saying, “Just have your ‘white friend that gets it’ say it, and people won’t get so angry.” But I do wish that there were more. Again it’s back to the [fact that] people don’t have honest conversations about race. I think there are many friendships in this country that don’t “go there.” So you have a white American and a black American who are friends, but the white American has no idea what race as a burden of identity feels like for the black person. Those conversations are not had, and when they are had, I think it’s much better. I think that Ifemelu and I both agree that there needs to be a world more full of “white friends who get it.”

Do people respond to you differently to you because you’re from Nigeria, and you’re a non-American black instead of an American-born black?

I think so. I think that generally, to be a black person in this country and not be an African American comes with a certain privilege. People have come to me and said, “You’re not angry.” I find that very offensive, because somehow saying that to me makes me complicit in something that I don’t want to be complicit in. Because it’s not so much a compliment to me as it is a putdown of an entire group of people. For someone to say to me, “Oh you’re different, and you’re not angry” is saying that African Americans as a group are angry people. This is the other thing that interests me about American culture; the idea that anger is inherently a bad thing. I think that if the African Americans were angry, I think that it’s understandable. I think that instead of castigating people for being angry, we should be asking why the anger is there and what can be done about it. I think I would’ve been a very different person had I been born in the US. I think that if I had been raised from the very beginning with idea that power is white, I would’ve been very different. But Obama has changed that, thank God. But there are so many people who are taught that every position of power is held by someone who is white, and it does something to you. I think if I had grown up with that, I think I would have been different. This is hypothetical of course. But I grew up in Nigeria, and it was entirely different. Power wasn’t racial; it wasn’t about who can occupy a position of power and who couldn’t. So I didn’t have any of that messing with my head.

You now live part time in the United States and part time in Nigeria. Do you now feel like you “fit” in both countries? Or are you now an outsider in both?

I think I fit in Nigeria. Nigeria is where my heart is; it’s where my soul is buried. I’m very comfortable in the US, but I think that I’m largely an outsider. It has nothing to do with the physicality of a place, it has to do with being a writer. I’m just always watching, always looking for material. I’m just always slightly removed from things because I’m watching, and I think that’s what storytellers do.

A couple of times in Americanah you mention the book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It’s perhaps the best known book written by an African. What does that book mean to you?

Chinua Achebe is the writer whose book is most important to me. His other novel, Arrow of God, is one of my favorite novels of all time. I love Things Fall Apart. It’s a book that was more than literature to me; it became more about reclaiming my history. It gave a kind of dignity to my past. He’s writing about the part of Nigeria that I come from, and it’s set at the turn of the century, and it’s a part of our history that’s not often dramatized. Often times you hear about it in broad sketches, but here is this book that makes it intimate and complex and beautiful. It’s a book that’s very important to me.

What other authors are important to you?

James Baldwin is important to me; I find his work very beautiful and true. Derek Walcott’s poetry is very important to me. I really admire Graham Greene; many of my friends don’t understand it, but I think that some of his novels are just marvelous.  

EMILY REDDY – I’m recognizing some of these from the book. Your characters like them too.

Yes, I try to spread the message about books I like.

You did a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” You talk about the misunderstandings that can come if people have heard only one story about a person or place. You give an example of a roommate who was surprised you speak English and could use a stove. You say she had a single story of Africa. Do you see your book as being another story.

I hope so. I hope that people who read my work come away thinking that Nigeria, and by extension Africa, is just not one thing. If you read Americanah or my other novels, there’s a sense in which there are multiple stories. I think that’s the way that literature can challenge the idea of a single story. If you read a good novel about any place, you can’t possibly come away thinking that that place is just a place of simple poverty, full stop. You’re forced to compare and confront complexity when you read fiction. I have heard from readers who knew almost nothing about Nigeria, who would say, “I’m so surprised that I connected to your characters.” And I’m thinking, “Why are you surprised?” I realize that they’re surprised because in their head, Africa was something so strange. So they find it shocking that the character is someone with whom they relate. I’m not saying that the whole world is the same, I’m just saying that there’s a humanity we all share.

Another of your TED talks, about feminism, was actually sampled for the Beyoncé song “Flawless.” What’s that like, becoming a part of American pop culture?

I gave permission. I mean I think that it’s important to talk about gender. I think that particularly in this country, people think there isn’t a problem with gender, or if there is, it’s very minor. I think young people are also really detached. I remember reading a study about young American women who didn’t identify as feminist, and I thought, “This is very strange.” I think it’s a good thing. I think the idea that pop culture can’t engage serious things is nonsense, and I think that it can and it should. I think that this song is an example of it, and because of that song, young people are thinking about gender, and talking about gender, and choosing to call themselves feminists. For me, that’s a beginning. Because it starts with choosing to call yourself that, and then it continues working towards things that will make the problem better.  

You talked at Georgetown recently and you talked about the Ebola crisis and that you didn’t think it got picked up quickly enough by American news media.

It’s true though, and there’s something sad in the way that we value. We live in a world where we decide which kind of human being has more value than another kind. Or the human being that lives in a different part of the world has more value. It’s even sadder, because in some ways, there’s something very material in how we define value. So if you’re wealthy or come from a wealthy part of the world, you’re somehow worthier than someone who doesn’t. I think when Ebola started to devastate Liberia and Sierra e, is seemed that the world sort of shrugged. Now that it’s come to the US, there’s just this hysteria, which has lead to action and what’s going to be done. The sad thing for me is why didn’t we have a quarter of this when it was going on in Sierra Leone and Liberia. We had Ebola in Nigeria, and Nigeria has more resources than these other countries. This is something I’m very proud about, that Nigeria handled the Ebola situation really well. We are now, knock on wood, now Ebola free. But the other countries really needed help, especially Liberia. Liberia has this very interesting relationship with the United States. I had really thought that America would roll up its sleeves, but it just didn’t happen. There’s not a need for anything really hi-tech, you just need basic things that if you’d poured into the country early on, might have even prevented Ebola from coming to the U.S. I think there’s also something quite simplistic about how it’s being covered in the U.S., and the connection to Africa. The way that people will say “Africa” as though “Ebola” is said in Namibia, but it’s three countries in West Africa.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of Americanah, but I didn’t expect her to get the guy at the end. Maybe I’ve read too much feminist literature where the woman drowns herself in the ocean at the end. But things did not fall and I was surprised.

I don’t think it’s just feminist literature, I think it’s just literature in general. Happy endings: NO! Don’t do that. Because we’re all supposed to be ironic and above joy. And I just refused. I actually find it difficult; I am suspicious of excessive happiness. So I remember towards the end of the novel, the character was just sort of doing her own thing, and I said, “No you don’t understand darling, this is an old fashioned love story and it has to end in a particular way.” She was starting to do what I had not planned. For me, this novel is also an act of mild defiance because it’s my way of saying, “You know what, I’m going to reclaim the old fashioned love story.” And I admit, there’s something absurd and ridiculous about those love stories that one read at a younger age. But it’s almost to remake it. She’s not a person to whom things are done, she’s a person who does. But that doesn’t necessarily exclude the end still being a love story ending. The idea to be strong, to be independent, to be willing to be prickly, to be un-invested in being likeable, all those things don’t mean that one doesn’t want to love and companionship.