“We have to go further back, to 2005. I’m in Warri, in Delta State, I’m working as a doctor, and my mom and I are having a fight. She’s saying, You’re stagnating, you read medicine and you haven’t gone further, you could do better! I was happy, I was in this quiet place becoming a provincial doctor, but in Nigeria that is a lack of ambition, so my mom was angry. She showed me a photograph in a magazine of a young woman with beads in her hair, and she said, Look at this small girl, she has written a book of horticulture, about flowers—you could do something like that. She didn’t care what I did, really, she just wanted me to do more. So she told me, Write books! Don’t just sit there dishing out Tylenol. I said O.K. So I got a computer and started writing.”
Eghosa Imasuen was twenty-eight. He was living near his parents, in a small city some two hundred and fifty miles southeast of Lagos. He read a lot, mostly thrillers and science fiction, pulp paperbacks he bought from secondhand bookshops for a dollar or less. “Literature to me was recommended reading in school, which was Chinua Achebe. ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God,’ ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God,’ ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God.’ I tried to read Ben Okri once—I couldn’t get past page 10. After a while, these books were fifty years removed from me, and they are set in the way past. You didn’t feel it.
“But I always had this idea for a novel, genre fiction. I start writing, and my entire copy is shit. It’s really bad. I’m like, Oh fuck, this is so bad. So I go online and I read about Chimamanda, the girl in the magazine who got me insulted by my mother. Eventually, I travelled to Lagos and bought her novel ‘Purple Hibiscus.’ I started reading it in the taxi to my aunt’s place.”
That was the problem with our people, Papa told us, our priorities were wrong; we cared too much about huge church buildings and mighty statues. You would never see white people doing that.
“I got to my aunt’s. I kept on reading it.” The prose was clear and deceptively simple. The story unfolded slowly, calmly, its violence muffled by the confusion of its narrator, a guileless teen-age girl. There were surprises but no tricks.
“Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”
“On the bus back to Warri, a five-hour trip, I finished it. I didn’t sleep. Then I got to my flat and opened my computer, got my file for my novel, trashed it, deleted the trash, and started again.”
“Purple Hibiscus” was the story of a rich family dominated by a tyrannical Catholic man, Eugene. Eugene’s father never converted, so Eugene won’t allow him into his house, and forbids his children to accept their grandfather’s heathen food in the few minutes they spend with him each year. He brutalizes his children into submission, but because he deeply loves them. When he beats them, he weeps.
the belt stopped, and Papa stared at the leather in his hand. His face crumpled; his eyelids sagged. “Why do you walk into sin?” he asked. “Why do you like sin?”
He also donates anonymously to orphanages and hospitals, and publishes an anti-government newspaper even when threatened with death. He is a man in the Achebean tradition, whose principled intransigence brings about his destruction.
Before Imasuen read the book, he had thought that middle-class Nigerian lives like his were too boring and marginal to write about. He worried about his readers losing interest—when he was writing his first manuscript, he thought there had to be a spaceship, or a flashback in time, and the whole thing had to be constantly cutting back and forth, like a movie trailer. “Purple Hibiscus” was a revelation: “I knew those characters. It was as if my generation had been given permission to speak. The cliché of American fiction is being about Long Island and idle housewives, and I realized, We are allowed that now—we can write banal shit! And there’s an audience for it.”
Around the time that Imasuen was getting yelled at by his mother, the author of “Purple Hibiscus,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is now regarded as one of the most vital and original novelists of her generation, was living in a poky apartment in Baltimore, writing the last sections of her second book. She was twenty-six. “Purple Hibiscus,” published the previous fall, had established her reputation as an up-and-coming writer, but she was not yet well known.
Although there had been political violence in the background of her first book, she had written it as a taut, enclosed story of one family; her second, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” would be much larger. She was constructing a story of symphonic complexity, with characters from all over Nigeria and many levels of society, twisted together by love and the chance encounters of refugees. It was the story of Biafra—the secessionist republic in Igboland, in eastern Nigeria, which existed for three years in the late nineteen-sixties, through civil war and widespread starvation, before surrendering to the Nigerian government. The book would be a story in the tradition of the great war novels; she had no interest in clever literary experiments.
Later, this book would win the Orange Prize and be made into a movie. Then she would publish a book of short stories, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” and win a MacArthur Fellowship. Her third novel, “Americanah,” which would win the National Book Critics Circle Award, would be larger still, describing the disorientation, release, and cruelties experienced by young Nigerians abroad, and their outsiders’ dissection of America. As her subjects expanded, her audience would, too, until her celebrity became untethered from her books and took on a life of its own. She would give a TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which would be viewed more than eighteen million times. She would give a TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which would be sampled in a Beyoncé music video and distributed in book form to every sixteen-year-old in Sweden. She would become the face of Boots No. 7 makeup. She would become the sort of person who attended Oscar parties and was photographed with Oprah and Brigitte Macron. But all this was in the future.
Sitting in Baltimore, Chimamanda found that writing her Biafra novel was arousing in her a degree of obsessiveness that she had not experienced before. She did nothing else. She was nominally enrolled in an M.F.A. program at Johns Hopkins, which gave her a stipend for two years, but for weeks at a time she avoided classes and stayed inside to work, leaving only to go downstairs to buy bananas and peanuts, or to pay for a delivery of Chinese food. If she felt restless, she jumped rope.
When she wanted to reset her mind, she read Derek Walcott. It didn’t matter which poem—she just wanted to hear his voice. She liked some other poets, too, but only modern ones. If a poem had a “thee” or an “O” in it, she turned the page.
When she did venture out to campus to teach, she dressed in a way that she felt conflicted about. She had noticed that, in American academia, a girly style—bright colors, patterns, frills, bows, ruffles, heels, eyeshadow, pink lipstick, all the accoutrements of femininity that she had always loved—was taken to be the sign of a silly woman. She felt she had to prove herself, so she had decided to dress in the businesslike, anhedonic manner of serious American feminists.
It had been nearly ten years since her first stint in America, as a college student, when, as she later put it, she discovered that she was black. Her roommate at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, learning that she was from Africa, had been amazed that she knew how to use a stove, that she didn’t listen to “tribal music.” She had since imbibed, bit by bit, the semiotics of race in America, which she had initially found mystifying. She now understood why people got offended at the mention of watermelon, or fried chicken, or hair.
She had decided to set her Biafra story in Nsukka—the town in Igboland where she had grown up, and where her father had taught statistics at the university—and to center it on the household of a radical professor. It was a mark of her obsessiveness that she felt almost superstitiously particular about where she wrote each part. To write the first section, which described the early sixties, before the war began, she moved back into her parents’ house and wrote in her childhood bedroom.
“our women who follow white men are a certain type, a poor family and the kind of bodies that white men like.” He stopped and continued, in a mocking mimicry of an English accent, “Fantastically desirable bottoms.”
To write about the early months of the war, she went to Abba, her ancestral home town. She wanted to smell it.
“They thought Ojukwu had arms piled up somewhere, given the way he’s been talking, ‘No power in Black Africa can defeat us!’ . . . our men are training with wooden guns.”
But to write the last part of the book, when the war was going very badly for Biafra, she didn’t want to be in Nigeria at all: she needed distance. Thus, Baltimore. The city meant nothing to her. It was also extremely cheap.
She had always known that she would write about Biafra, but it was no small thing to presume to tell the story of the war that had been such a defining catastrophe for her country, and one that she had not lived through herself: it ended in 1970, seven years before she was born. It had been a catastrophe especially for Igbos, and, while being Igbo was not important to most people she knew, it was very important to her. She had written a play about Biafra in high school, but decided it was dreadful and put it aside. Then, shortly after she finished “Purple Hibiscus,” she wrote a short story about the war, as a second test. The story worked. It was time.
She wanted the incidents she described to be true, so she asked many people about those years. She had not known much before she started asking: her parents had lived through the war, but they rarely mentioned it. She knew that when Chuks, her eldest brother, was born in Biafra, in 1968, her mother had had to beg for milk for him, fearing he would die of malnutrition. Her father, like most academics, had worked in one of the directories in the Biafran capital. He had tried to persuade his father to join him there, but he didn’t want to leave Abba
“Who am I running away from my own house for?”
and stayed there until it was almost too late: the Nigerian Army was close to overrunning the town, and most people had already fled. At the last minute, he left for a refugee camp, and there he grew sick and died. Her father believed that it was the loss of his dignity as much as the physical circumstances that killed him—to be a titled man reduced to begging for food from relief agencies, or, if that food ran out, scrambling for lizards. As the eldest child, her father was obligated to bury his father, but because of the war he couldn’t do it.
Her mother’s father had also died of sickness in a refugee camp. He and her mother had been very close. Many fathers at that time would not have taken much trouble to educate a daughter, as he had. At one point, her father wrote her a letter in which he addressed her, in English, as “My dear son.” She knew his English was imperfect, so when she saw him she said, Papa, it’s “daughter.” And he said, Of course I know the difference between daughter and son—I just wanted to let you know that you are everything a son would be. Her mother found out her father had died five days after it happened: someone had walked all that time, through occupied territory, to tell her. When her mother got the news, as Chimamanda’s father told her later—it sounded more dramatic in Igbo—she “carried herself up and threw herself down.”
Biafra was not studied in school, and people didn’t speak of it—it was as if her parents’ generation had buried those years—so she knew that for many Nigerians of her own age and younger her novel would be read as history. That was why she felt she must get the history right, especially the horror of the war on the Biafran side, which was not visible from Lagos. She sensed that her book would be important, that it would have an effect on people. She had always had an effect on people. She was aware that she possessed some kind of power that was connected to her storytelling but not reducible to it.
Her editor sent the manuscript to Chinua Achebe, who had been intimately involved in the Biafran struggle, to whose novel “Things Fall Apart” she had written a story in tribute, and whose novel “Arrow of God” she read over and over, although she did not reread books. He called her “a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.” When she read this, she cried. The book was published in 2006, just before she turned twenty-nine.
After reading “Purple Hibiscus” and trashing his manuscript, Eghosa Imasuen wrote and published a first novel, decided he hated it, and started work on a second. Then, in 2007, a guy he knew, who had written a Kafkaesque novel about a Nigerian who wakes up white, told him that Chimamanda was holding a writing workshop that September, in Lagos.
Chimamanda had thought that one thing she could do with the success of “Half of a Yellow Sun” was bring together would-be writers and show them that they had skill enough to make a go of it. She did not, in general, feel the need for the company of other writers. She liked the idea of writers supporting one another, but she thought that it was only a matter of time before the knives came out. She could never live somewhere like New York, where you were tripping over writers every time you turned around, writers in restaurants, writers in the supermarket, writers on the subway. She thought if she were married to a writer, one day she’d wake up and strangle him.
Later, when she felt eyes constantly upon her, she started to have an aversion to talking about what she was working on, or even her past work. She began to worry that any answer she came up with would be pretentious and untrue.
The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.
But back then the thought of a roomful of writers discussing craft appealed to her.
At the beginning of the workshop, many of the students were starstruck. A young Yoruba writer, under the gravitational pull of “Purple Hibiscus” and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” had made her characters Igbo for years, in the way that Chimamanda, having read only English books as a child, had made her first characters apple-eating and white. Chimamanda wanted to overcome her students’ intimidation and create an intimate atmosphere, so she gossiped; she asked about their clothes and their love lives; she stayed up talking all night. This persona was quite different from her public self: if an interviewer onstage, or even an audience member, asked what she considered a stupid or racist question, she would often say, in icy tones, exactly what she thought.
She told the students not to explain too much, that they could throw in expressions in Igbo or Yoruba or pidgin and trust the reader to get it. She told them that even if a story was autobiographical it should be shaped—that, for instance, although in life you could have ten close friends, in fiction you could not, because it was too confusing. She told them to avoid inflated language—“never purchase when you can buy.”
She encouraged them to write ordinary stories. Many students in the workshop loved science fiction, but she thought sci-fi was childish, because anything could happen. Others were still writing “loincloth fiction”: stories of a noble man caught between the white devils and tradition. “The Nigerian style has always been to bloviate, to put some isms,” Imasuen says. “It’s what they call Big Grammar. People still think that to tell an important story they must engage colonialism, or the dictatorship of the nineties. They are forgetting that in Lagos there is a guy who wakes up every morning and earns two thousand naira washing cars and uses a thousand to buy weed and food, and the other thousand is to buy studio time for his album.”
The workshop became an annual event, and she expanded its reach: she found a corporate sponsor to fly in writers from all over the continent. While she was irritated by Westerners who talked about Africa as though it were a country, she had always been something of a sentimental pan-Africanist herself.
Conversations that started out about writing often veered into certain kinds of politics—sexual, feminist, religious. For her, those kinds of politics were as basic a part of human existence as the traditional drivers of fiction: love and money. She wanted people to feel that they could be who they actually were. She particularly wanted gay writers to feel at home, because it was so hard to be gay elsewhere in Nigeria, and in fact two people in her workshop came out there for the first time. On the other hand, she also wanted people who had what she considered to be the wrong beliefs to say what they were thinking, as long as they didn’t do so in a nasty way. It wasn’t that she felt that all beliefs were acceptable; in fact, she considered one goal of the workshop to be social engineering, which she defined, only partly joking, as getting everyone to think exactly as she did. But she thought that you could persuade people only if they were comfortable enough to talk honestly.
She had always hated the punitive orthodoxies of the Western left—the way that people who didn’t understand certain protocols because they came from a different background could find themselves banished while barely comprehending what they’d done wrong. This was an experience that many Nigerians had when they left the country. Chude Jideonwo, a friend of hers who works in P.R., had come back from a year at Yale scarred and angry. “Liberals in America just assume that everyone has the same world view and the same history,” he says. “Gender pronouns, for instance. In Nigeria, anyone who believes that people of minority sexualities should not be jailed is already a progressive, so we don’t have the mental space for fighting about pronouns. When I came to Yale, I didn’t know that a person who wasn’t ‘he’ or ‘she’ was ‘they,’ and I felt like I was walking on eggshells, I didn’t know what firestorm I was going to walk into. People didn’t just hold opinions—those opinions were the sum of their personality. I felt that either I agreed with them or they would shun me.”
Having herself once been bewildered by America’s complicated racial dynamics, she was distressed at the thought that bewilderment itself could be offensive. “Sometimes people are reluctant to ask you a question, because they don’t want to ask you anything that’s racist,” she says. “You’re not allowed to say you don’t know, and you’re not allowed to be curious. There are many circles in which asking a black woman about her hair is considered very offensive. Now, there are ways to do that and be offensive, but half the time it’s that people are just sanctioned and left confused. I just feel like we can’t even talk about race.”
Conversations in the workshop grew heated. There was shouting and crying. She wanted to be able to talk about anything, but she knew that some subjects were difficult for some people, so she told her students that if the conversation grew too overwhelming they could leave the room. “There was a girl in my workshop who had been gang-raped, and there was a tension with this girl wanting the class never to talk about rape,” OluTimehin Adegbeye, now a nonfiction writer, says. “Chimamanda gave her permission to leave, but she didn’t take it—she felt the conversation shouldn’t be had at all. But Chimamanda felt we needed to have it, so she went up to her room to talk with her.”
The workshops lasted ten days, and in that time she wanted things to happen: she wanted catharsis and remaking, she wanted convictions to crack. She had several means at her disposal to achieve these ends. She had the authority that derived from her success, but this was a blunt instrument, one she didn’t like to use. She had her personal charisma, and the ability to change the way things looked by redescribing them. But she also persuaded with the acuteness of her attention. “Chimamanda will see you,” Aslak Sira Myhre, the director of the National Library of Norway, who taught in her workshops, says. “She sees when you’re lying. She will see when you’re insecure. She will see the social game that’s happening in any situation. If you tell her a story about your life, she will always know when you’re concealing something, and usually she will not leave it alone.”
Seeing people was something that she could do in a small room that she could not do in a book. But the instincts and the methods that she used to shape and move the people in her workshops—enticing, joking, needling, listening—were the same instincts and methods that she used to shape and move a story. She was finely attuned to how much a person could take—how much pain and sadness could still be pleasurable, or at least stimulating—and to the physiology of persuasion. Too little pain left a person too comfortable, too much shut him down. There must be pain; but, within a story, for the reader as for the characters, there must also be relief. If there was a terrible family, there was another family. If there was no safety, there was love. If there was no love, there was writing.
During the years she was holding her workshops, she was writing her third novel. She called it “Americanah”—the unflattering Nigerian term for people who when back home did irritating Americanized things like carry water bottles and complain that their cooks couldn’t make panini. She had realized that she was no longer just Nigerian: she had become a hybrid, a cosmopolitan, the sort of person who “divided her time,” who was always in airports. The book would be, as Myhre put it, “post-post-colonial”: she as an African would write about America with the same detached authority with which Westerners wrote about Africa. She had been watching Americans for years by then, and she would write about what she saw in them: their childlike optimism; their willed blindness to their own power; their peculiar racial hypocrisies. She called “Americanah” her “fuck-you book,” by which she meant she no longer felt that she must be a dutiful literary daughter responsible for her country’s history: she would write what she felt like. Her first two novels had been written in the voices of characters who were younger and more naïve than she; the protagonist of “Americanah,” a young woman named Ifemelu, would be her equal.
She had also decided that the book would be an unembarrassed love story. She had grown up consuming vast quantities of pulp romances, and she wanted to extract something of their addictive quality, their sheer gratification. Ifemelu would leave an American boyfriend in New Haven to return to Lagos, in the hope of reuniting with her first love, Obinze. The American boyfriend was idealistic and political, always tutoring poor children and organizing rallies; Obinze had grown rich by currying favor with a Big Man, and was part of a society that was thoroughly cynical about both politics and love. It was clear that there was a connection between the American man’s idealism and the fact that Ifemelu never felt at home with him: his rigorous ethics made his love conditional upon finding the same ethics in her. And there was, similarly, a connection between Obinze’s acceptance of the flaws of his home country and his unconditional love for everything about Ifemelu, bad and good. Like many novelists, Chimamanda was more skeptical of activism in her fiction than she was in her life.
The house was full. It was late last December and the Christmas flights were coming in. Her brothers and sisters were gathering at her house in Lagos before driving six hours east to spend the holidays with their parents in Abba. Ijeoma, her eldest sister, was coming from Connecticut; Chuks, her eldest brother, had flown in from London the day before. Chimamanda’s husband and her youngest brother, Kene, were coming from Maryland. Uche, her second sister, was now back from a fellowship in Switzerland; she and the second brother, Okey, were the only ones who lived full time in Lagos.
Chimamanda’s two-year-old daughter was with the babysitter. A nephew was watching football in the living room; teen-age nieces were wandering about. She and Chuks’s wife, Tinuke, were chatting at the dining table. Chimamanda declared that indulged children raised in the West lacked resilience and whined too much. Tinuke reminded her that that morning she had fed her daughter three separate breakfasts.
Tinuke had just woken up from a nap and thrown on a black-and-white maxidress to come downstairs, bringing with her a school binder, because she wanted to show off one of her daughter’s essays. Tinuke was an unabashedly stereotypical Nigerian mother, inciting her children to ever-greater educational and musical achievement. She had instantly recognized herself in the Ojiugo character in “Americanah,” and complained to Chimamanda that if she was going to write about her could she next time just use her name and make it official?
She knew the recent test scores of all the clever children.
“You are not going to be a rapper, sweetheart. We did not come to London for you to become a rapper.”
Chimamanda pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, and came back with some glasses and a bottle of wine. She poured Tinuke a glass. “You know, there are times, at night, when I just decide that I’m going to listen to words of wisdom,” Tinuke said. “And I just go from one of your talks to another, and I think, You know what? I can do this! Yes! I’m a woman. Sometimes I write you messages and then I delete them because I think, No, I’m becoming a fan. I don’t want to be a fan.”
Chimamanda was very pleased to hear this, because Tinuke was not one for easy compliments. Some years before, Chimamanda had sent her an early copy of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” along with the blurb she had received from Achebe. Tinuke read a few pages, called her up, and asked, in genuine puzzlement, “Are you sure this is the book he read and praised?”
“You never told me my talks make you feel empowered,” Chimamanda said.
“I’ve told you. Have I not told you?”
“No! But it makes me very happy.”
Around ten o’clock, Taiwo, her cook, began bringing out dishes one by one, as they were ready—beef stew, rice, a roast chicken, a salad, a platter of plantains. People wandered up, filled a plate, and left again. Tinuke’s daughter appeared at the top of the stairs and Tinuke hid the binder under the table. She took out her phone to show Chimamanda a video of the daughter playing solo violin at a charity benefit for autism research.
“I say to my daughter, You can be humble, but if you come out quite mousy that’s how they’re going to see you,” Tinuke said. “In England now, there’s a kind of fakeness: you’re meant to be humble, but you’re meant to be confident, you know? And in the Oxbridge interviews, if you cannot speak for yourself, you’re doomed.”
“Mama!” Chimamanda’s daughter said, appearing next to her.
“Yeah, boubou? The idea of selling oneself is very American,” Chimamanda said. “My experience as an undergraduate in America, having come from Nigeria, was that there was just a lot of bullshit. Half my class knew nothing, but they talked the most. And I remember thinking, What the hell is going on?”
“Yeah, boubou? It really shocked me. Both men and women in my classes—”
“Yeah, my boubou. Kedu ife o? Bia. Bia welu nke a. Bia ebe a.”
The family travelled to Abba every Christmas throughout her childhood. Because it was where her father’s family had lived for many generations, farther back than they could trace, she considered Abba her home town, even more than Nsukka, where she had grown up. She realized that it was not consistent with her feminism to identify with her father’s home rather than with her mother’s, but that was the way things were. On holidays in her childhood, they spent a day or two with her mother’s family and three weeks with her father’s. By custom, an Igbo child belongs to her father’s people.
Her father, James, was born in Abba in 1932. His father, David, was born there, too, as were David’s father, Adichie, his grandfather Maduadichie, and his great-grandfather Olioke. David Adichie was a farmer, like everyone else in the village, but he converted early on to Christianity, because he saw that it was the way of the future. He saw that education was also the way of the future, so he sent James to school starting at the age of three. In some ways, Chimamanda was disappointed that her grandfather had not been an unbending Achebean hero, staying faithful to his traditions, refusing Western enticements; he was, instead, a pragmatic, forward-looking man who, seeing that the new world could not be resisted, joined it. Then again, a certain kind of forward-looking pragmatism was an Igbo tradition in itself. And she knew that if he had not sent his children to church schools she would not exist, and no other child of her father would have her kind of life. But she still wanted the other story.
James married young, and moved with his wife, Grace, to Berkeley in the nineteen-sixties to study for a Ph.D. Although he was offered a job teaching in his department there, he never considered staying: he felt it was his duty to his parents to study hard and go home. After he became a professor, one of the first things he did was to pay for his father to take up his title. David Adichie had been offered the town’s highest title, Ozo, but in order to take it up you were meant to throw a feast for the town, and he hadn’t been able to afford it. After he became a titled man, he was not supposed to eat in public, because it was beneath his dignity.
Many of her father’s colleagues had also gone abroad for graduate school, and some had brought home white wives: there was Irish Mrs. Moore, who lived on their street and spoke Igbo; there was Mrs. Ijere, who was Swiss. Other men came home alone and settled down with a Nigerian woman, and then many years later a biracial American or European would turn up and say, You’re my father. When Chimamanda read Barack Obama’s memoir and learned how his father had deserted his white American wife, whom he had married despite already having a wife in Kenya, she judged the father less harshly than Obama did. “It’s easy to understand it as deceitful,” she says. “But I don’t see it that way. To be an African man of that time, to have this privilege of being educated, often by people in your home town contributing money to pay part of your school fees—not only do you owe them money, you owe them in an emotional way, because you’re a shining star for them, you’re theirs. Then you go off and fall in love with somebody who would not be acceptable to them, and you feel torn. Often, the village wins. And so, reading Obama’s book as a person who was familiar with stories of that sort, part of me wanted to say, It’s not that he didn’t love you.”
She was the fifth child of six. The family was very close, always laughing and joking, but she felt that the three younger children were raised less traditionally, though whether this was just because they were later-born or because they were born after the war, she didn’t know.
In 1983, when she was six, there was a coup. She remembers the family crowding around the radio, the martial music, a neighbor shouting, “Coup! Coup!” She remembers her mother coming home from work and saying, I need you children to teach me the national anthem, because I have heard that soldiers will come to the university and if you cannot sing the anthem they will beat you. She remembers watching firing squads executing thieves on television. She knew that there were things you shouldn’t say, at least not directly. When she was twelve and writing a paper about politics, her parents told her not to write about the government. As a consequence of the political turmoil, government workers, including professors at the university, were sometimes not paid for months at a time, and there would be no bread, or milk.
She was raised Catholic, and as a child she loved the Church. She loved going to Mass, loved the drama of it, the robes, the candles, the incense, the Latin words, the different colors for the different seasons—purple for Advent, white for Christmas, red for Pentecost. She loved the singing, and the way everyone would hug one another at the end of the service. She never felt the pervasive Catholic guilt that she later encountered in Graham Greene. She knew the liturgy by heart, and would whisper it along with the priest. At some point later on, she stopped going to Mass, but when she was young she wished she could be a priest. “Nigerian Catholicism is almost feudal, and the priest is God,” she says. “The priest would sweep in in his long soutane, and you cleared the way because Father was coming. I wanted that! I wanted the power. But it was a beautiful kind of power, because I felt I would instruct people on . . . I had dangerous ideas as a child.”
As a child, she had a kind of natural authority. Many girls wanted to be her friend, and in an effort to win her they would present her with their lunches, and she would eat them. At the same time, she had episodes of depression—the beginnings of a disease that continues to afflict her—though she did not yet have a name for them. “I was a popular child who had tons of friends and did well in school,” she says, “but then I would have moments where I didn’t want to see anybody, didn’t want to talk to anybody, cried for no reason, felt that I was bad and terrible, isolated myself.”
Because of her popularity, when she decided to stick with Igbo all the way through high school, others did, too, despite the fact that Igbo was a very uncool subject that most kids dropped as soon as they could. She wanted to know Igbo deeply, not just as a family language, but her pride in the language was unusual. “There is something I call, unkindly, Igbo shame,” she says. “Igbos who grew up in Lagos try their hardest to run away from their Igbo-ness. If you meet them in public and say something in Igbo, they will not respond in Igbo.”
We lost the Biafran war and learned to be ashamed
In Nigeria, the stereotypical Igbo is loud, aggressive, greedy, even criminal. People will say, Don’t let an Igbo man work for you, because before you know it he’ll have taken over your business. People accuse Igbos of perpetrating the 419 scams that got Nigeria a reputation for being a country of grifters.
She finds it hard to say what it is about Igbo-ness that means so much to her. She believes that there is something to the stereotype that Igbo culture is too materialistic. And that Igbos are far more puritanical than Yorubas about female sexuality. It’s not that Igbo culture is better—it’s just that it’s hers. She feels she has people to whom she belongs, and to whom she could go back, if she needed to. But, in her family, she and her father are the ones who care most about the Igbo language. Her nieces and nephews hardly speak it. Even in Abba, in the heart of Igboland, many children in the generations after hers speak only English. She worries that within a generation or two the language will die out.
Her own Igbo was imperfect enough that when she wrote poems as a teen-ager she wrote them in English. When she was seventeen, she managed to get a chapbook published. She went to meet with a Big Man in the media in the hope that he would promote the book; as they were talking, he walked around behind her, reached under her shirt, and squeezed her breast. For several seconds, she did nothing—too shocked to react. Then she pushed his hand away, but nicely, gently, because she didn’t want to offend him. Later that day, she developed a rash on her face, neck, and chest, as though her body were protesting in a way that she had not. She told a friend about it that day, and then told no one else for twenty-five years.
In the eighties and nineties, there was an emphasis on the sciences in Nigerian schools, so even though she had already published a book of poems, she started university, in Nsukka, studying medicine. She thought maybe she could become a psychiatrist and use her patients’ stories in her fiction, but she couldn’t stand the cadavers. After a year, in 1995, she decided to apply to colleges in America. At that time, many students were doing the same. It could take extra years to get your degree in Nigeria, because the university lecturers were so often on strike, and when you graduated there seemed to be no jobs. And so, many students sat for the SATs in the hope of escaping, as she put it later, in “Americanah,” “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness,” and because they were “eternally convinced that real lives happened . . . somewhere else.”
She had always imagined that she would marry someone flamboyantly unfamiliar—she pictured herself shocking the family by bringing home “a spiky-haired Mongolian-Sri-Lankan-Rwandan”—but the man she ended up marrying, in 2009, was almost comically suitable: a Nigerian doctor who practiced in America, whose father was a doctor and a friend of her parents, and whose sister was her sister’s close friend. Before they had a baby, she spent about half the year in Nigeria, and her husband would join her when he could. But her husband doesn’t want to be apart from the baby for too long, so now she lives most of the time in the U.S. “One of the perils of a feminist marriage is that the man actually wants to be there,” she says. “He is so present and he does every damn thing! And the child adores him. I swear to God, sometimes I look at her and say, I carried you for nine months, my breasts went down because of you, my belly is slack because of you, and now Papa comes home and you run off and ignore me. Really?”
In America, they live in a big, new house in a suburb of Baltimore, on a cul-de-sac alongside four other similar houses arranged in a semicircle. In “Americanah,” she describes Princeton as having no smell, and her neighborhood has no smell, either. It is calm, spacious, bland, empty—the opposite of Lagos. If she looks out the window, she sees nothing. She doesn’t know many people in Maryland, and doesn’t want to. She can go out and people don’t recognize her. It’s a good place to work.
In Nigeria, when a woman in her family had a baby, all of her female relatives came to help and she lay in bed like a dying queen. She loved the idea of that in some ways, but when she had her baby, in Maryland, she instructed her mother not to come for a month. She realized afterward that she had internalized what she took to be an American notion, that having help with a newborn was something to be slightly ashamed of. You were supposed to do everything on your own, or else you weren’t properly bonding, or suffering enough, or something like that.
Right from the beginning, she found that she was consumed by anxiety. She seemed to have become a slightly different person—neurotic, on edge. She didn’t much like this version of herself, but she couldn’t help it. Even now that the child was two, when she slept, she checked to make sure that she was still breathing.
When she was younger, she wasn’t sure she wanted a child at all. She felt that since writing was the point of her existence, if she couldn’t write she might as well die, and she worried that she couldn’t both write and be a good mother. She decided to chance it, but already during her pregnancy she began to see signs of trouble. At one point, she wasn’t getting anything done because her parents were visiting, and the house was full of workmen because she’d decided that since they were having a baby they needed to redo the kitchen, and not writing was driving her crazy, so she decided to go away for ten days just to work. She planned to come back with the draft of a short story. She found stories punishing in a way that novels weren’t—in novels there was room to fail, room for bits that she didn’t like that much, but short stories were all pressure. She checked into a hotel room in Annapolis and set up her computer, but then she spent the whole time sitting on the bed watching episode after episode of “Spiral,” a French police procedural, and eating chocolate cake.
Once the baby came, finding the mental space to work became even more complicated. Working for her meant becoming wholly consumed by people who didn’t exist, which felt harder and more perverse when confronted by a baby who did. She and her husband split the childcare fifty-fifty. After the birth, he took six months off work, and then he started working again, but only three days a week. She was supposed to work on the days he stayed home, but often she found that she was so run down after her time on duty that she just fell asleep. Those days were exhausting. “I’d take her to the playground, with what I call the Society of Stay-at-Home Mothers, who are all deeply good and pure and righteous, and their entire lives are about the well-being of their child, and I’m, like, Oh, Lord, I haven’t even read the damn news, I’m reading fiction only for thirty minutes before sleep, that’s not the person I am.”
Aside from not being able to write, the thing that had most worried her about having a baby was the immediate emotional aftermath. Her doctor had told her that she was likely to suffer from postpartum depression, so she went online to find out how other women had coped. Most of them seemed to advocate doing a lot of yoga, which was not at all what she wanted to hear. But in the end, after her child was born, she was fine.
She dreaded falling into that pit again. She knew that some people thought there was a link between depression and art, that it gave you insight or depth or something, but the idea that someone could write while depressed made no sense to her. “I can’t even read. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. I can’t see my life, I’m blind. I feel myself sinking—that’s the word I use with my family and friends. Well, actually, I don’t talk about it with my family much, as lovely as they are, because they don’t really understand depression. They expect a reason, but I don’t have a reason.” Nobody else in her family got depressed, and they thought she should keep it quiet—certainly not talk about it in public, as she felt she ought to do. “There’s such a stigma attached to illness in general in this culture,” she says. “Nigerians will have cancer and they will hide it and lie about it.”
When she is in a depression, she sits for hours and watches films about the Holocaust. Her family tries to discourage her from doing this—it seems to them unlikely to be helpful—but she does it anyway. “They somehow connect me to something about human beings. I don’t know. I just know that I have a connection to the story of the Holocaust. I find that I’m drawn to stories in which life is normal, and then it’s not, overnight.” She isn’t trying to cure herself—to turn depression into happiness. That wouldn’t work anyway. She is, perhaps, trying to turn depression into bereavement: something that at least has meaning, a story with people in it, rather than a grim blank. She hates depression, but sadness is different. “I think I’m addicted to a certain kind of nostalgia,” she says. “I watch these films and I find myself in a state of mourning for all the things that could have been. They just make me cry and cry. I don’t know. All I know is that I will continue to watch them. I go on Netflix all the time to check, to see.”
The months she spends each year in Lagos are mostly very pleasant. Her house is in Lekki, an upper-middle-class neighborhood on a peninsula separated from the mainland by a lagoon, and bordering the ocean. She has her cook and a driver, Gabriel. She is surrounded by people she loves. She doesn’t write much—there are too many people around. She is happiest when she is home.
Nigerians in bleak houses in America, their lives deadened by work, nursing their careful savings throughout the year so that they could visit home in December for a week, when they would arrive bearing suitcases of shoes and clothes and cheap watches, and see, in the eyes of their relatives, brightly burnished images of themselves. Afterwards they would return to America to fight on the Internet over their mythologies of home . . . at least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become.
On the other hand, so much about Lagos was infuriating. The traffic was so bad that it could take several hours to drive a few miles, and the honking and exhaust and yelling and awful behavior that went with the traffic were even worse. People stuck in their cars, unable to move, were liable to be robbed. When she drove in Maryland and saw cars immediately pull over at the sound of a siren, she felt like weeping in frustration, because that was how people ought to behave on the road, and in Lagos they didn’t. Security and thieves were a problem, so she lived in a gated neighborhood with armed guards at the entrance who checked the trunk and the engine of every vehicle coming in, and another guard and another gate securing the driveway to her house. Part of the reason she was happy in Nigeria was that she knew she could leave.
In Lagos, she is as recognizable as the President. Her face is on billboards. People crowd around her at the airport. When she enters a restaurant, there is a ripple of recognition. Sometimes she will ask for the check and discover that someone else has paid for her meal. Her books are widely pirated—her publisher tells her that the most pirated books in Nigeria are her novels, books by T. D. Jakes (the pastor of an American megachurch), and the Bible. She is admired as a Nigerian who has become an international celebrity, bringing renown to her country and a sense that now, for a Nigerian, anything is possible. But, because she is so visible, everything she does or says is scrutinized.
She feels she can’t leave her house in Lagos without dressing up, because she might be commented upon, and she is not wrong: when she appeared on television with natural hair, it was an event. She had started wearing her hair natural as an undergraduate, in part because she’d grown sick of the physical discomfort of straightening it, but she also hated the idea, instilled in her when she was young, that natural black hair was unsightly and had to be made more like white hair to be pretty. She started talking about natural hair in public, which annoyed many women who felt (correctly) that she was judging them for straightening theirs.
This was only one of the issues on which she had started, in recent years, to rub Nigerians the wrong way. When she said that she hadn’t revealed that she was pregnant because she didn’t want to “perform” her pregnancy, she was taken by some Nigerian women to be shaming those who liked to post pictures of their growing bellies on social media. The kind of feminism she espoused in her TEDx talk—women should be permitted to hold positions of power; if a woman arrived alone at a hotel or a restaurant, she should not be assumed to be a prostitute—is not particularly controversial in America. But in Nigeria any feminism could be taken as a declaration of war against men. When it emerged that she had got married and, later, had a baby, many people in Nigeria were genuinely shocked: they hadn’t realized that feminists did those things.
Even among progressive Nigerians, she was controversial. Some said that feminism was a Western concept, and accused her of promoting a colonized notion of women; some Nigerian feminists felt she wasn’t radical enough. When she became a spokesperson for No. 7 makeup, people said that wasn’t a feminist thing to do; when she permitted “We Should All Be Feminists” to be printed on Dior T-shirts that sold for more than seven hundred dollars, people said she’d been corrupted by capitalism. When she said on British television that the experience of trans women was different from that of women born female, because they had once experienced the privilege of living as men, she was castigated for implying that trans women were not real women. She found this criticism particularly wounding, because she had stuck her neck out for L.G.B.T.Q. rights for years, so she fought back, decrying what she felt was a simplifying orthodoxy that, in the name of supporting trans women, denied that there was any difference between their experience and that of cis women at all. On the other hand, some Nigerians were pleased that she’d said something sensible for once.
When she talks about feminism or gay rights in Nigeria, she knows what she’s getting into, and she does it on purpose. But her celebrity is such that even an offhand remark can set off a fracas that she did not anticipate. A few years ago, when asked by a journalist to comment on the shortlist for the Caine Prize, an English award for African fiction, she said she had no interest in the topic, although one of the nominees, she said, was “one of my boys in my workshop.” Her antipathy to the Caine Prize was long-standing, due to her dislike of a former administrator of the prize, whom she had found sexist and patronizing, and whom she venomously fictionalized in her short story “Jumping Monkey Hill.”
as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face
Asked where she went instead to find the best African fiction, she said, “My mailbox,” where she received her workshop students’ stories. On Nigerian Twitter, all hell broke loose. “It doesn’t take much brain juice to realize from her interviews that Ms CNA’s ego can sink an island,” wrote Manny. “So the best African fiction is in Chimamanda Adichie’s inbox?” Abubakar Ibrahim, a novelist, wrote. “I hail thee, queen-god mother. Go fuck yourself, Chimamanda.”
Earlier this year, Chimamanda commented to a reporter in France, “Post-colonial theory? I don’t know what it means. I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.” Nigerian academics reacted with hurt and outrage. “That’s it!” Difficult Northerner wrote. “We need to put Chimamanda in rice. How can you shit on postcolonial theory while claiming not to know what it means. The same postcolonial theorists who assign your books & videos in classes.”
She is O.K. in principle with not being liked: she thinks that the desire to be liked is something that women need to get over. A male friend of hers told her that Ifemelu, the main character of “Americanah,” was Chimamanda without her warmth, and she bristled at this, even though she thought it might be true. Why the hell are you judging her like that? she thought. If Ifemelu were a male, would you expect and want warmth? All the same, it is painful to be attacked. “Ta-Nehisi Coates said to me once that what hurt him the most, becoming successful, was how much it was black intellectuals who seemed to be out for him, and I know what that’s like. I told him that there’s a circle of Nigerians who are resentful of my international success, and it’s very hurtful, because I want my people to wish me well.”
One day in the summer of 2015, she was at home in Maryland, in the early stages of pregnancy, feeling nauseated and generally crappy. It was a warm day, so she was sitting in the garden. Her husband was inside, cooking and chatting with her brother Kene, who had come over to visit. All at once, they both emerged from the house and started walking toward her and she knew instantly that something was wrong. She thought, One of my parents has died, which one is it? She thought, I don’t want to know what has happened, whatever it is, because life is going to change forever. Her husband told her that her father had been kidnapped, and she screamed, then vomited, then started to cry. Her father had been in a car driving from Nsukka to Abba, but he had not arrived. When her mother tried to call him, his phone was switched off, as was the phone of his driver. Two hours later, her mother received a call from his phone: the kidnapper told her, Madam, we have him, and hung up. Her mother had not called Chimamanda to tell her the news, fearing she would have a miscarriage.
She pulled herself together and started making phone calls. She called the governor of Anambra, her home state. She called the American consul-general in Lagos, because her father was an American citizen, through his two elder daughters, who were born in Berkeley. The American consul sent a Nigerian-American F.B.I. agent, a kidnapping expert, to her mother’s house; he told her mother what to say when the kidnappers called back. Chimamanda called the house to talk to the F.B.I. agent. He told her he was a big fan and had read all her books. Later, she would find this funny.
There were no demands until the next day. This was the usual method: kidnappers delayed, so that you worked yourself up into a panic. The next day, they called and demanded five million naira—around fourteen thousand dollars—and told her mother that if she told the police they would kill him. They didn’t call for another day. On the third day, they demanded ten million naira. There were laws against taking out too much money at once, but kidnappings were common enough that the banks made an exception.
She was terrified that her father was dead. When the kidnappers called her mother, her mother had asked to hear her husband’s voice, but the man on the line refused. Her father was diabetic and didn’t have his medicine with him. The F.B.I. man told her mother to forge an emotional connection with the kidnapper, so she called him “my dear son,” and told him she was an old, old lady, and begged him for mercy. The family made a plan to drop off the money. The kidnappers knew all about them: they said that Okey or a particular son-in-law could go, but no one else. Okey drove to a point on the highway near Nsukka, then, as instructed, set off on a motorcycle taxi for the designated meeting place, carrying ten million naira in a sack. Nobody knew if he would be seen again. They had heard that sometimes a family member would bring the money, only to find that the victim was already dead, and then be killed himself.
Okey rode on the back of the motorcycle, talking to the kidnapper on his phone. The motorcycle driver asked where they were going, there was nothing around here. Okey said to him, Just keep driving. When they entered a forest, the kidnapper told Okey to stop. The kidnapper told him not to look to the right or left, just keep walking, then drop the bag. Okey obeyed; the kidnapper on the phone told him to leave. Back at the house, the family held their phones, willing them to ring and afraid that they would ring. Then her father was delivered.
A few days after he was released, her parents flew to America. Her father seemed to her to have shrunk. He had a cut on his head from when the kidnappers threw him into the trunk of the car. When they got to the forest, they had left him sitting in the dirt for many hours. He hadn’t eaten, because he thought their food might be poisoned. Now any loud noise made him jump—her husband took to making his smoothies in the garage, because her father would startle at the sound of the blender. He rambled when he spoke.
She felt anxious all the time, although she knew he was safe. She would go to his room often, to make sure he was still there. For months, as her pregnancy progressed, she barely slept, and when she did she dreamed about the kidnapping. She dreamed that she had found out where he was being held but she couldn’t get to him, and she woke up crying and sweating. She also felt very guilty. The kidnappers had said to her father, Tell your daughter Chimamanda to come up with the money. She thought, It was all my fault: I should have known that my parents would be a target because of me, I should have arranged for a guard to protect them. Why did I not do that?
For six months, she refused to go to Nigeria or to read Nigerian news. What really hurt was that the problem wasn’t just her country—it was Igboland. Kidnappings were more common in Igboland than anywhere else, and it was well known that it was often your own relatives who were the kidnappers.
Her child is two. Soon she will have to go to school and become part of the world, and this brings up several quandaries that Chimamanda has postponed thinking about. She recently wrote a short manual on rearing a child—“Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions”—but although she is now a published authority on the subject, and holds fully formed opinions on questions such as how gender stereotypes imprison boys as well as girls, she finds that when one descends from principles to logistics things become complicated. She cannot create a child in the way that she can create a character, of course, but she can choose the setting and the language of her daughter’s childhood, which is already to choose one set of possible selves over another.
She wants to raise her child in Nigeria, because she wants her to be protected as she herself was protected, growing up there: not knowing she is black. Someday she will talk to her about what it means to be black, but not yet. She wants her daughter to be in a place where race as she has encountered it in America does not exist.
Even as a privileged Americanah, she found that arriving at an American airport was often jarring—a reminder that she was once again black and foreign. And it wasn’t just the white customs officers who hassled her. “There is a certain kind of black American that deeply resents an African whom they think of as privileged,” she says. “Privileged Nigerians especially. My husband and I have got to the airport and they’ve said to us, You’re Nigerian, I bet you have twenty-five thousand dollars in your bag, let’s see it.”
Her neighborhood in Maryland is more diverse than most, but it’s still America. She moved into her current house just before the 2016 election, and when, the morning after Trump won, she began reading about post-election vandalism in Baltimore, and about how someone had spray-painted “nigger” on a black woman’s car, and how Trump had been elected not by the white working class after all but by suburbanites, she started to panic. She became convinced that her new neighbors had guns and were going to shoot them because they were black and supported Clinton. All day, she refused to leave the house. Then the doorbell rang, and it was the neighbors bearing welcome gifts, and they turned out to be a Japanese couple, a Bangladeshi couple, a white-black couple, and a lefty white couple. She was so relieved that she almost cried.
“There aren’t enough middle-class black folks to go around,” Bill said. “Lots of liberal white folks are looking for black friends.”
Another advantage of raising her daughter in Nigeria would be that she would spend more time speaking Igbo. She was determined that her daughter should grow up speaking the language, but her husband is not Igbo and doesn’t speak it perfectly, so she had hired an Igbo nanny. She had noticed that her daughter was picking up a lot of words and phrases from her books, which were all in English. She thought about translating them, but they described things, such as flying elephants, for which she could not imagine an Igbo equivalent, so she decided that she had to write some Igbo children’s books herself.
On the other hand, raising her daughter in Nigeria would mean that she would likely learn much sooner, and more definitively than she would in America, that she was a girl. She doesn’t want her to know that too early, either. Of course, there was sexism in America as well, but nobody was going to say to her in an American school, You! Go to the girls’ line. In “We Should All Be Feminists,” she told the story of her ambition, when she was nine, to be class monitor, because the monitor was empowered to patrol the classroom, holding a cane, and write down the names of noisemakers. Told that the child who scored the highest mark on a test would become monitor, she concentrated hard and attained the highest mark, only to be told by the teacher that the monitor had to be a boy. The boy who got the second-highest mark duly took up the post, although he was unsuited for its responsibilities. “The boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling the class with a cane,” she said, “whereas I was full of ambition to do so.” Should her daughter grow up cherishing similar ambitions, she did not want them thwarted.
What was the right age to begin indoctrinating her daughter in feminism? she asked herself. “If I tell her when she’s four, They don’t let women do that!, will it do something to her?” she wondered. “You know that English word ‘chippy’—will she become one of those people who are called chippy?” Then again, maybe she shouldn’t worry about that—why shouldn’t her daughter be chippy? There was plenty to be chippy about.
Did she have to choose between trying to protect her from racism and trying to protect her from sexism? If she did, she would pick racism. Then again, she found herself getting angrier about sexism more often, because the fight felt lonelier. Her friends never said, Was that really racist?, but they did say, Do you really think that was because she’s a woman?
For now, she watches her child play in the playground in Maryland with both girls and boys, of several races, and allows herself to feel sentimentally happy at the sight. If her daughter still knows only stories about flying elephants, in the wrong language, in a childish genre where anything can happen, and wants to be liked, and is not yet a feminist, that is O.K. She watches her playing and thinks, Right now she doesn’t know yet. None of those children do. But in a year or two they will. ♦