The lift deposits me into the middle of a throbbing crowd on the top floor of the Royal Festival Hall. Confused, I ask the person in front of me if I am in the right place. Yes, the young woman assures me, this is the BBC World Service recording of an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Adichie has been highly acclaimed by critics and reviewers, and judging by the throng, it seems the public concur. After the recording there is a long queue of eager, autograph-seeking fans. Adichie greets each of them warmly, signing and writing personal messages in piles of books.
This scene repeats itself everywhere Adichie goes in Britain and America: her audience is huge, diverse and star struck. Despite being only 32, she has been prolific, with two award-winning novels under her belt (the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning Purple Hibiscus and the Orange Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun), plus a recent collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, as well as several essays. Her achievements have also been acknowledged by America’s MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which endorsed her as a ‘genius’ in 2008.
She asserts that she writes the kind of fiction she likes to read: social realism, character-driven, a bit melancholy. Indeed, her fiction focuses on the impact of world events, emigration and dislocation on ordinary Nigerian women’s lives. But her writing is more than just melancholic story-telling, it is also a lesson in the craft of writing. Her ability to draw powerful characters in a single sentence, without losing verisimilitude, is a testament to her skills of observation and is an inspiration to every student of creative writing. Her cool, detached exploration of both domestic life and world events bridges the cultural divide between her Western readership and her Nigerian characters with an effortless grace. And so it is that when I ask to interview her for Writers’ Hub, she accepts with a graceful smile.
A graduate of a creative writing programme (she received an MA from John Hopkins University, in 2003) she is unusually reluctant to consider aspects of her craft. She seems to prefer the title "story-teller" to "writer", almost as if her writing, about which critics have been so complimentary, is a happy by-product of her story-telling efforts rather the result of hours of work. "I do not like, in general, to analyze my creative choices. It leads to a kind of hyper self-consciousness that I would rather avoid."
She is even vague about how her fictions might begin: "It depends on the piece really – it can be something somebody said to me, something I read, something I remember of my own personal experience." Her techniques for invoking the muse? "I eat ice cream. I read books I admire." She says she likes to read everything, although confesses to not being very keen on fantasy.
And while many of the characters in her novels and short stories are defined by their religious affiliations, she rejects the idea that she uses religion as a tool: "I write about religion because I am interested it – having grown up Catholic, coming from a country that is very religious, watching a world in which religion plays a huge role. But whether it is a ‘tool’ in my writing or whether it has any ‘significance’ in my work I really can’t say and have no interest in."
Similarly, when asked whether one of the functions of fiction is to provide a critique of society, she is adamant that she doesn’t "think of fiction as having a ‘function,’ I think of fiction – and of story-telling – as simply being essential for human beings."
The only subject she seems prepared to opine on is feminism. Unusually for such a popular author, Adichie describes herself as a “happy feminist” and she is eloquent about the importance of feminism in contemporary society. "Feminism, as I understand it, is simply the idea that, while we acknowledge the biological differences between men and women, we must never use those differences to justify or anchor access to social, economic or political privileges. In other words, men and woman should have equal access. It hasn’t happened yet, either in the Western and non-Western worlds." So, what advice does she have for feminist writers? "They should deal with feminist issues by writing honestly about the world, which I feel consists of gender inequities." But the character Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun seems to epitomize an active feminism: financially and emotionally independent, she courageously decides to trade across enemy lines. In writing her, Adichie seems to be leading by example.
Which brings me back to Adichie’s audience. If the attendance at the various publicity events is anything to go by, it consists almost entirely of women – from sixth-formers reading Half of a Yellow Sun for school to middle-aged Nigerian ladies who remember the ravages of the Biafran war the novel depicts. Clearly, Adichie’s brand of story-telling and feminism resonates with them. Enough to bring them out in huge numbers – to see a writer who, when asked whether she has any obligation to entertain, educate or challenge her readers, answers with a crisp and simple ‘No’.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story ’My American Jon’ is included in The Mechanics’ Institute Review: 6.