Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Fiction, Feminism, And "Half Of A Yellow Sun"
On the 10th anniversary of Half of a Yellow Sun, the Nigerian author talks about the impact of her work.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared at London's Royal Festival Hall before a sell-out crowd on Sunday 7 August to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her acclaimed novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Her near 90-minute conversation with chair Ted Hodgkinson was filled with her trademark wit, warmth, and wisdom. Here are some of Adichie's best quotes from the night.
On Half of a Yellow Sun:
"Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel, but for me it's also a deeply felt statement about who we are."
"I think this is a novel about belonging, about what it is to belong, in all different ways."
"Writing the book I would just stop and cry, and that never happened to me before. And the reason that happened was because I knew I wasn't just telling a story. I'd suddenly realise, this actually happened. I found that in that period I was inhabiting a kind of emotional space that I haven't inhabited since, when writing."
"I knew I was going to write the novel, but also I think I was terrified of not doing it well. I felt that the way to do it, for me, would be to take gentle steps towards it. So 'Half of a Yellow Sun' the story, I remember writing that and thinking, If this works out well then it's a sign that I'm ready to write the novel."
"I think of Ugwu as the soul of the novel, as the anchor. When I was thinking about this book, Ugwu was the character through whom I imagined the world of the book. As a writer I'm very interested in how writers come to the place where they feel comfortable enough to tell their story, and I wanted to track Ugwu's journey to that."
"Ugwu is me, in that Madame Bovary way, but almost in a more literal way. I don't want to say his journey mirrors mine, because that's not necessarily true, but also Ugwu is the character in the novel who on the outside is the least likely, but who I think internally – how did you put it? – sees feelingly, and I like to think that I do."
"Olanna's trajectory, I think, was inspired by reading about women, but I was struck when researching by how little the stories of women were told, how rarely women's stories were the centre of narratives about that period. And I would read something and there would sort of be a 'by the way' mention of what a woman had done."
"I think Olanna might have decided to be the good one – you know, in the way that we have a sibling who's a troublemaker. You then feel the responsibility to be good because you feel you have to make up for the troublemaker sibling. [laughs]"
"Because Richard is white and English he's able to do certain things that Biafrans can't, and he does them. But at the same time, I think it's quite clear in the novel that it's not his story to tell. It's certainly something I feel very strongly about. So that's where I slipped in the politics – you know, 'We love you, but no.' [laughs]"
"I've been very amused by how many men – English, white – at events, all very respectfully I have to say, have taken slight issues with Richard. [laughs] Actually, I remember a woman saying to me that she felt I had been malicious, and I said to her, you know, the only reason you think I'm being malicious is because you come from a tradition that expects white English men to be at the centre of everything."
"I remember when I had what I like to call the breakthrough – when I actually realised, you know, Richard is me. So he's white, he's male, he's English, all of that, but he's human. I said to myself, He's human. And that made it so easy."
"I knew for a long time that I would write a novel. I was waiting to be ready emotionally. And I think also, in a more practical way, I was waiting to accumulate the knowledge I needed, which meant I needed to read all the books I needed to read about that period."
"I went out of my way to do a lot of research, to read everything I could find. But really it was the stories that my father told me that I think made me realise that I was ready to write the book."
"I was struck when I was talking to my father, and some of the other people I spoke to, that they went to weddings in the middle of the war. My father would say, 'And then we had to go to our friend's wedding,' and I remember thinking the first time he told me, Wedding? People found ways to hold on to things that make them human."
"I think the art of writing itself, the art and the act of writing, necessarily requires a certain outsiderness."
"I think it's almost a cliché that writers will talk about 'when I was growing up I didn't have friends,' sort of thing, [laughs] which I have to say is not my story."
"I remember when I first moved to the US and I made a few friends who were writers and I very quickly realised that this was the thing, and I remember thinking, Maybe I should lie, [laughs] because you know, I had many friends. I was the kid in the playground who was organising the girls and telling them what to do. [laughs]"
"I've always felt one step removed from my present. Even at family gatherings I'm sort of always watching everyone. There's a part of me that holds back and watches – there's a part of me that's not engaged because I'm watching. Because there's a storytelling thing in my soul that requires that."
"In general as I've become older I've become more superstitious. I like to describe myself as a superstitious Igbo woman, and Igbo women are very superstitious. [laughs]"
"My grandfathers died in that war, and I didn't know them, but I had their stories, which is the reason that Half of a Yellow Sun is the novel that is so meaningful to me, because it is about my ancestry. It's about the story of how we became who we are."
"Most families have the child who wants to know the story of who they are, and I think in my family I'm that child."
"A feminist is who and what I am. It's not a cloak I put on on certain days and take off on certain days."
"I just did not get the memo that men and women are not equal. I did not get that memo."
"I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, mother now, wife. All of those things, and being a good feminist, are not mutually exclusive at all."
On Beyoncé quoting her work:
"I want to live in a world where men and women are truly equal. I want to live in a world where gender doesn't hold women back, as it does today, everywhere in the world. I think we should do everything we possibly can. And having young people talk about feminism, even having people say that word, 'feminist', who would never have said it, I think it's a good thing. Is it ideal and perfect? No. But it's part of the journey, I think."
On feminism in Nigeria:
"I think for people who have a hostility to the idea of gender equality, they will say things like, 'You cannot be feminist and have a husband, actually,' [laughs] 'If you want to be a feminist, be a feminist in your husband's house,' [laughs] and it's nonsense really."
"I feel like younger Nigerian women are actually less progressive than even my mother's generation. It's not a question of blaming them, I think it's a product of the society we live in and the messages they're getting. And so people who are 23 are just obsessed with marriage, as the end-all and be-all. It's very interesting to me."
"I also think there's a kind of viciousness that underlies that obsession, and a kind of misogyny. I find that there's actually a strong strain of misogyny in the young generation of Nigerian women. It's very worrying. It's the young women who police women, even more than men. It's part of the same thing. In the end, for me, it's 'who does the system benefit?' and it benefits men. Even if women are participating in it, it benefits men."
On racism in the UK:
"I'm always struck by how the British are quick to point out racism in America. It seems to me in your own backyard would be a good place to start."
"I still look at her [daughter] in absolute wonder. And I think, You're really here and you're really mine. And she is just the most beautiful human being in the world."
"Having her I've realised how love really can manifest as anxiety. So I just worry about my child. I want to make sure everything is fine with her."
"I want her to live in a world where borders are not as policed as they are. It's very easy to move capital, but very difficult to move labour and people. I want that to change. I want her to live in a world where men and women have the same opportunities, where gender does not hold women back. I want her to live in a world where she's never told 'you cannot do this because you're a woman'. I want her to live in a world where it's possible to have a normal job and not have to worry about what you're going to eat. I want her to live in a world where healthcare is a human right."
On female sexuality:
"I think a lot of my work is infused with my belief about gender. I think it's so important that female sexuality be seen as a thing that is real, and complex, and is not at all connected with shame."
"It manifests differently but it's true everywhere: There is always an element of shame when it comes to female sexuality. And for me, in my writing, I want to find ways to make female sexuality the human, flawed, beautiful, sensual thing that it is."
"A country like mine, I don't think we've quite come to the place where we can have nuanced conversations about our history. The conversations we have are coarse. That's not necessarily a bad thing – it's much better than no conversations."
"I remember when I was working on the book, even just telling people I was writing about Biafra, everybody, everybody said to me 'why? Don't do it, leave it alone', that sort of thing. Nobody talked about it. I think there's a second generation, younger than I am, for whom this book really became history, because they did not know."
"I remember when the book came out some really unkind things people would say, for example, 'Adichie is tribalistic!' [laughs] That sort of thing. And I'd read it and chuckle, thinking 'nice'. [laughs] I didn't mind it – it comes with the territory."
"I find myself having to deal with bouts of irritation when people constantly insist that my characters are not characters, but [that] they actually represent something about my country's repressive military regimes of the 1980s."
"When you write realistic fiction, there's a sense in which of course it's going to be read politically. But I think there is also something that happens when you're black or brown, and people who are not black or brown read you, because then they read you as anthropology. They're less interested in love, and motivation, and they're more interested in, 'How does the father speak to the regime in your country?'"
On the impact of Half of a Yellow Sun:
"Since then, more stories have been told, more stories have been written about that period. I mean, Half of a Yellow Sun has done well in Nigeria, people read the book, people talked about it. And for me, the most moving thing is to meet people who say, 'I read your book and then I went and asked my parents about their stories.' I always find that so moving."
"This is the book that's made me cry most when writing and then when promoting it, because of how people come to talk to me about their own stories."
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Half of a Yellow Sun, 4th Estate have released a set of stunning new editions of Adichie's novels (above), out now.
Adichie's debut novel was Purple Hibiscus. An earlier version of this post said it was Half of a Yellow Sun.