Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel touches on many things: race, love, immigration and the fraught topic of black women’s hair. “Americanah” unfolds across three continents, raising questions about identity everywhere it goes. We talk with Adichie about her latest work, her popular TED talks and her place in the world of literature.

Guests

  • Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie author, 'Americanah'; MacArthur Fellow

TED Talk: The Danger Of A Single Story

TEDx Talk: We Should All Be Feminists

Transcript

  • 13:06:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We know that race is a complicated, sensitive and nuanced issue, but the writer who has warned us of the danger of a single story might also argue it can also be funny.

  • 13:07:10

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere is certainly humor in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest novel "Americanah," a story that unfolds across three continents in several decades raising questions about identity everywhere it goes. Here to talk us through some of those questions is the author herself, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning author and MacArthur fellow whose novels include "Half A Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus." Her latest work is titled "Americanah." Chimamanda, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:07:41

    MS. CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIEThank you.

  • 13:07:42

    NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850 if you have read "Americanah" or earlier works and have questions for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, give us a call. 800-433-8850, you can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:08:02

    NNAMDI"Americanah" is a story about many things, love, race, the cultural norms and morals of three countries and here among them. Let's start, though, with immigration. The notion of immigrant is poor refugee is challenged in this story. Instead, who are the characters leaving Nigeria and why are they leaving?

  • 13:08:25

    ADICHIESo they, the sort of middle-class Nigerians who are leaving because they want more traces and I think the reason it's interesting for me, in particular, is that when it comes to Africa, in particular, I think we've come to expect that immigrants from the continent of Africa are destitute, they're fleeing terrible poverty or war.

  • 13:08:51

    ADICHIEAnd while that story's true and I think important, it's not the story I know. The story I know, which in many ways is my story and the story of my friends, my family, is the story of Nigerians who were not fleeing poverty. Who had relatively had some choices in Nigeria, but who wanted more.

  • 13:09:10

    ADICHIEI mean, the idea that over there -- over there, of course meaning overseas, meant that you could do more, you could, you know, the palette of choices was larger. So that's what I think these characters are looking for.

  • 13:09:25

    NNAMDIWell, let me tell you what a difference a generation can make. When I arrived in this country in 1967, this was even before the Biafra War had started, most of the Nigerian immigrants I met, most of the African immigrants I met, were the type you described.

  • 13:09:43

    NNAMDIPeople who were middle-class who were coming over here for their education. In the generation since then, because of wars and refugees there has been such a large number of immigrants coming from Africa who fit into that category that the perception has changed completely from the African immigrant being the most educated middle-class immigrants who were coming to the image that you refer to in the book of refugees coming here so fascinating for me.

  • 13:10:12

    NNAMDIIn many countries, there's a prevailing notion that education is your ticket to success and stability, but in the Nigeria that you write about, that is not necessarily the case. What in your experience does foster opportunity there?

  • 13:10:29

    ADICHIEI think education does, can. I think that, but it's not just Nigeria. I think its education, but also often its access. It's, you know, there are people who are educated in Nigeria can't find jobs because they don't know the right people, which I don't think is a problem that's limited to Nigeria. I think Americans can identify with that as well.

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIExactly right. Ifemelu and Obinze, your main characters, not only leave Nigeria for reasons that readers might not expect, they, for different reasons, return. Have you found that Americans often consider immigration to this country a one-way move, a single story?

  • 13:11:10

    ADICHIEYes, yes. And I remember when I came to the U.S. to go to university and I remember people sounding very surprised when I said I planned to go back to Nigeria after I graduated because they just couldn't understand it. I mean, you're in the perfect golden land of America and you want to go back?

  • 13:11:27

    ADICHIEI think what's happened, I mean, unlike my character who was in the U.S. for 13 years before she moved back, I went back to Nigeria after four years so it wasn't that bad.

  • 13:11:36

    ADICHIEBut I think what's happening now is that there's a growing movement of people moving back from the U.S., from Europe and moving back to the continent of Africa and I think part of it started with the credit crunch.

  • 13:11:51

    ADICHIEAnd I think what meant was that suddenly opportunities were even more limited in the U.S. and in Europe and many people thought, you know, maybe we can more money if we go back to Nigeria with our fancy new degrees. So there really is a movement and I try to capture that in the novel, of people moving back and trying to do new things.

  • 13:12:10

    ADICHIEAnd I think that what it does is that there's a new dynamism in Nigeria because of that in addition to also new resentments.

  • 13:12:21

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, our guest is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author and MacArthur fellow. Her novels include "Half A Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus." Her latest work is titled "Americanah." Is immigration to this country a process you tend to think of as a one-way move? Give us a call if you're an immigrant to the U.S. who plans to move back to your country of origin, tell us why.

  • 13:12:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. This story in "Americanah" takes place on three continents and in each of the countries where the action unfolds we move among several cities. You evoke in each a very tangible -- well, you evoke each city in a very tangible way. How did you decide on the settings?

  • 13:13:09

    ADICHIEI wrote about places where I had lived because it's just easier to write about what you know and I've been fortunate enough, I think, to live a number of places mostly actually all in the Northeast. So the America that I know is the Northeast and I, and each place has a different meaning and significance for me and so I wanted to try and capture that.

  • 13:13:30

    ADICHIESo much like a family in the novel my favorite American city is Philadelphia. It's only because it was my first, I first lived there and I came to love, I came to, yes.

  • 13:13:42

    NNAMDIHow about Baltimore, where you now spend the time when you're here?

  • 13:13:44

    ADICHIEI lived in Baltimore for a year when I was in graduate school and now I live outside Baltimore and I feel very -- I have a kind of fond -- my feeling for Baltimore is fond, gentle. There's one thing about Baltimore, there's something of a faded splendor about Baltimore that moves me very much.

  • 13:14:04

    NNAMDIIndeed there is. Well, Baltimoreans want to hear you say that, say our city is coming back. What are you talking about faded splendor?

  • 13:14:11

    ADICHIEActually it is coming back. I think it is, but, yes.

  • 13:14:16

    NNAMDIIt's stealing a lot of artists too from Washington D.C. because the artist community is now finding it less expensive to locate in Baltimore than it is here so Baltimore can boast of that. Onto the telephones. Here is Clyde in Mitchellville, Md. Clyde, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:14:32

    CLYDEHow are you, Chimamanda, this Clyde McElvene with the Zora Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation. How are you today?

  • 13:14:38

    ADICHIEI'm very well, thank you.

  • 13:14:41

    CLYDEI want to congratulate you on your newest book and to just say that we're just so pleased that you have been a recipient the Zora Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for twice now. I think. So just great to hear your voice on the radio and wish you the best.

  • 13:15:01

    ADICHIEThank you.

  • 13:15:02

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Clyde. Say hello to your founder for me.

  • 13:15:05

    CLYDEWill do, thank you.

  • 13:15:07

    NNAMDIYou're welcome. On now to Larry, in Fairfax, Va. Larry, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:15:13

    LARRYThank you, I didn't think I'd ever get a chance to talk with you. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria '66 and '67. I was sitting in my front room, 2:00 in the morning and I saw the Biafran troops come through the midwest and take over Tubanin (sp?) so...

  • 13:15:38

    ADICHIEWhere were you?

  • 13:15:40

    LARRYI was in Isialuco (sp?) which is right between Ogbor (sp?) and Asaba. and I read your book "Half A Yellow Sun" and anybody who hasn't read it and wants to know what it was like in there for the Biafrans, you got it right. It was right on. I compliment you highly.

  • 13:16:01

    ADICHIEThank you.

  • 13:16:02

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Larry. I immediately realized that this is an interview that's going to jump all over the place because his talking about that reminded me of a conversation of an interview you had in which you talked about Chinua Achebe who, of course, is passed and nobody wants to think of him as having passed. But when he mentioned that war, I think of Wole Soyinka and the novel, "The Man Died," the book, "The Man Died."

  • 13:16:27

    NNAMDITalk a little bit about the influences of those kinds of writers on (word?) , Achebe, Wole Soyinka.

  • 13:16:33

    ADICHIEI'd like to say that Chinua Achebe is the writer whose walk is most important to me. He meant so much to me. And I think in some ways, as a writer and as man, as a man of integrity and "Arrow Of God" remains my favorite novel, I think that for me, Achebe gave me permission. Achebe made me realize that I could write about my reality.

  • 13:16:53

    ADICHIEWole Soyinka, I deeply admire. And I think, in particular, that book "The Man Died" because here he was this man who was not really in the thick of the conflict. He was not Ebu. He was Yoruba. But he was trying to make peace and then he ends up being jailed and that book is this really magnificent sort of recording of a man who is trying to keep himself sane while in prison and how and the way that his mind works.

  • 13:17:21

    ADICHIEI just really love that book and it was important to me when I was writing "Half Of A Yellow Sun."

  • 13:17:26

    NNAMDIAnd in my own case, while James Baldney (sp?) introduced me to African-American life here when I was still living in Guyana, when I first got here, I read "Things Fall Apart" and Chinua Achebe introduced me to life in Africa and it had a profound effect on me. This is the first of your novels not set in Nigeria. How did you know it was time to explore other places, so to speak?

  • 13:17:48

    ADICHIENot entirely, but the last bit is set in Nigeria. But I suppose because a lot of it is about the U.S. I don't know if I decided. I have lived in the U.S. off and on for, I think, about 15 years and I suppose I just thought I have a few things to say and maybe it's time to write a novel that's -- it's about America in many ways, but it's America through Nigerian eyes. So I consider it still a very Nigerian book.

  • 13:18:16

    NNAMDIYou take your time writing your novels and you say that you even want to rewrite them even after they've been published. Are you going to rewrite "Americanah" again?

  • 13:18:27

    ADICHIEI'm thinking about it. I do take my time, don't I? I did an event in legals recently and a woman said to me, why did it take you six years to write this book and it made me think about the sort of thing my cousins, for example, would say. I mean, it's just a book. Surely it can just take six months, you know.

  • 13:18:44

    NNAMDIWell, it's worth the time that it takes and I'm sure Liba in northwest Washington will attest to that. Liba, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:52

    LIBAI certainly will. I could not put it down. I just finished your book last night so I was thrilled to find out that you were on the show today.

  • 13:19:02

    ADICHIEOh, that's lovely.

  • 13:19:02

    LIBAAnd I just wanted -- I also watched your TED Talks, which I would highly recommend. So I guess what I'd like to say is it's so perfect because it's about so many different things which intersect and are fully developed, but in a complicated way. You know, race, class, love, consequences of choice so it's an African perspective, I understand, but it's universal themes.

  • 13:19:32

    LIBASo thank you so much for what you've given. And I also have resolved to read "Things Fall Apart."

  • 13:19:39

    NNAMDILiba, you said you could not put this book down, which means, like me, you're probably sleep deprived at this point, aren't you?

  • 13:19:46

    LIBAYeah, well, I had -- I mean, of course I'm exaggerating but I'm usually reading many books at once...

  • 13:19:52

    NNAMDISame here.

  • 13:19:53

    LIBA...and some of them I never finish. And this one, it's just an unbelievable book. And I'm going to read everything you've got. And I'm sure you're going to win many more prizes.

  • 13:20:04

    ADICHIEThat is so kind. Thank you.

  • 13:20:06

    NNAMDILiba -- in addition to being kind, I think Liba underscores a very important point. And that is one of the reasons that you took so long to write this book is that it is nuanced, it is complex and you have to tie everything together. It is my understanding that you have said in the past that your characters essentially come to life. And even if you think of killing them off, sometimes you cannot kill them off. Tell us how that process worked in this book.

  • 13:20:31

    ADICHIEWell, it's very hard -- it's one of those things that's quite hard to articulate because for me the writing process is not entirely conscious. I don't know how my books will end. I start off having a sense of what I want to do and then I start...

  • 13:20:43

    NNAMDIWell, you start with online shopping. Tell the truth.

  • 13:20:46

    ADICHIEYes, that. Maybe we should just talk about online shopping.

  • 13:20:50

    NNAMDINo, no, no.

  • 13:20:50

    ADICHIEI have these wonderful websites that have free returns and...

  • 13:20:54

    NNAMDINo. Talk about your writing process.

  • 13:20:56

    ADICHIENo, but the process for me isn't entirely conscious. And at some point -- and this is why I love -- and this is why I just love that I'm fortunate enough to do what I love -- halfway through the characters come alive. And it becomes almost magical. It really does. And the characters do what they want to do. So there are times when I'm thinking, okay this isn't going to end well for this character. But then somehow the character refuses to have an ending that isn't good for the character.

  • 13:21:22

    ADICHIEAnd I know it sounds a bit strange and a little crazy. It's a sort of thing when I tell my family that my characters took a life of their own, they look at me like, you might need help.

  • 13:21:32

    NNAMDIIs she really one of us? Got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. When we come back we will continue our conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about her latest work. It's titled "Americanah." 800-433-8850 is our number. You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org. And if you are a black woman who has encountered or has strong feelings about hair, that's what we'll be talking about later, and what it says about you. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:46

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is an award-winning author and MacArthur Fellow who's novels include "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus." Her latest work is titled "Americanah." You can call us, 800-433-8850. Well, let me check that because the lines are busy. You may want to send us an email to kojo@wamu.org . You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org to join the conversation.

  • 13:24:14

    NNAMDIYour main character Ifemelu's early attempts to have honest conversations about race after moving to the U.S. are complicated by cross cultural disconnects. How does her experience in coming to the U.S. mirror or differ from your own?

  • 13:24:30

    ADICHIEI think in general my experience was milder than hers. And I think that the thing about fiction is that I borrow very heavily form my life and from the lives of people I know. But I exaggerate things because, you know, real life is often quite boring. But when I came to the U.S. I didn't think of myself as black because I didn't need to. And so I like to say that I became black in America. In Nigeria, I was Ebu, a Nigerian, but I came to the U.S. and I became black. And I became African in the U.S. as well because again, I didn't think of myself as African in Nigeria.

  • 13:25:07

    ADICHIEAnd I think it was a long process for me to understand what it meant to be black in America, to understand the nuances. And I just didn't get it initially. I didn't get -- there were jokes that people said were offensive and I didn't get why or how they were offensive. So somebody said something about fried chicken to an African American woman. And I remember this very clearly, an undergrad. And she was very offended and she expected me to be offended. But I didn't understand what...

  • 13:25:36

    NNAMDIYou didn't get it.

  • 13:25:37

    ADICHIEYeah, I just thought what's wrong with fried chicken? I like fried chicken. Why is that a problem? So it took a long time. It took a lot of reading and learning. And it's interesting that she mentioned James Baldwin earlier because he was very important to me as well. And I think I read everything that he's written. And I just read a lot of African American history because I didn't know. I didn't have any context. And so it took a while for me, in some ways, to become black and to make peace with being black.

  • 13:26:03

    ADICHIEBecause I think America forces identity on you. And I don't know that I -- I didn't really have a choice. But what I've done, I think, is made peace with it and understood it. And now I have context, and now I get it.

  • 13:26:16

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Edward in Fairfax who said, "Adichie's discovering she was black only after coming to the U.S.A. seems strange to me because coming from the Caribbean I knew I was black before arriving here. Kojo, was it the same for you? Are we just more exposed to the U.S. media and culture because of our relative proximity?" Edward, I would say yes, that's one thing. A second is that because in the country that I came from, and in a lot of Caribbean countries, there are a variety of racial groups that occupy those countries.

  • 13:26:43

    NNAMDIIn my own country Guyana, there was and continues to be political division between the African and East Indian population. So the African population called itself black. I had the experience of reading "The Fire Next Time" before I left and so that is what really raised first the questions of identity in blackness with me. And by the time I heard Dr. King's speech in 1963 and by the time I got here in 1967, I was familiar with the black power movement. But I suspect that in Africa in people who live in countries that are predominantly black, people distinguish themselves by tribal or by clan and not necessarily by race. Is that correct?

  • 13:27:22

    ADICHIERight. That is correct. And I should be specific and say that for me as a Nigerian, I think West Africa -- or maybe I should say Anglophone West Africa in particular just is not a racially-based society. It's a lot more ethnic. I think if I had come from South Africa, I mean, obviously with its terrible history of racism, or even Kenya or Tanzania or (word?) I think my awareness of race as a form of identity would be greater because they had white seculars who stayed on.

  • 13:27:53

    ADICHIEIn Nigeria when the British left, they left. And so the very small percentage of white people who stayed on in Nigeria, it wasn't a relationship of power. So I grew up in a university campus. I had some friends who had white mothers but it was perfectly normal because they weren't people who occupied a racial position of power. They just happened to be my friends' mothers who just happened to have met their husbands when the husbands were in school somewhere in Europe.

  • 13:28:19

    ADICHIEYou know, so it was a very different kind of relationship. Only when I came to the U.S. did I understand that looking as I did meant, for example, that people would assume that I wasn't particularly intelligent, for example. Now that was news to me.

  • 13:28:33

    NNAMDIWhat was also different about your upbringing is that you got to grow up in a house in which Chinua Achebe actually lived. Please explain that. Explain yourself.

  • 13:28:43

    ADICHIEShall I tell you the stories of all the literary spirits that hovered around that night?

  • 13:28:47

    NNAMDINo, don't make stuff up. Come on.

  • 13:28:49

    ADICHIELife is too...

  • 13:28:50

    NNAMDIAbout your father.

  • 13:28:51

    ADICHIENo. Well, like I said, I grew up on the university campus. And Chinua Achebe had taught at the university in Nsukka and his family. And we lived in university housing on campus and usually it was the norm that if a family moved out of a house, a family would move in. And really it was just a coincidence that Professor Chinua Achebe had just moved out of a house, number 305 Margaret Cartwright Avenue. And Professor Adichie and his family moved in.

  • 13:29:17

    ADICHIEAnd I didn't quite realize how significant this was. I mean, at the time, I just thought, yeah. And until my novel was my first novel that was published and I said to my editor, by the way, you know, I grew up in this house in which Chinua Achebe lived. And she said, what? And then she said, that's the most interesting thing you've told me about yourself. And so since then I make sure to mention it at every opportunity.

  • 13:29:41

    NNAMDIBut you were at first intimidated at the thought of actually meeting Chinua Achebe and didn't at first. And it's my understanding that when you finally met him he said, well, have you been trying to duck me or...is that true?

  • 13:29:54

    ADICHIEThis is true, yes. This is true. I think it's also that I so deeply admired him and held him in such awe that I didn't want to meet him. I think in the way that one doesn't want always to meet one's heroes. And I was quite happy to worship from afar. And I felt also that he had done all he needed to do for me, which is that he wrote his books. That's all that mattered to me. And people had tried for very long to get me to do events with him and I would always just bow out, like, no, no, no, I can't.

  • 13:30:20

    ADICHIEAnd finally when I met him at a dinner in his honor, and I just slouched over and I greeted him and he looked at me very calmly and he said, I thought you were running away from me.

  • 13:30:34

    NNAMDISo she did not pick up her writing skill by osmosis, by living in the same house. You picked it up by hard work. On to the telephones. Here is Jeri in Washington, D.C. Jeri, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:45

    JERIHi, Kojo. What a sorely fascinating conversation we're having here. I have a number of things. I started off with one and then, you know, a couple things grew. But with regard to what Larry said about the Biafra. I remember being young and in San Francisco and being concerned. And one day I put a poster on my back about it and then I got -- a page, you know, not a -- and then I went to North Beach with posters for them to put up into cafes about Biafra and all the starving baby thing, you know, terrible thing.

  • 13:31:14

    JERIAnd the other thing is, do you have any thoughts on Boko Haram and the corruption problem in Nigeria? And my final thought is...

  • 13:31:24

    NNAMDIYou're going to ask a Nigerian, right, if she has any thoughts? We only have another half an hour here.

  • 13:31:29

    JERIAnd my final point -- good point, Kojo -- my final point is that we do see -- I mean, I see when I watch Al-Jazeera for example, or whatever else -- you know, African refugees on boats going to Africa and coming through Italy, etcetera. You know, so there is -- and Greece and things like that. So there are apparently poor people going to -- and maybe they go to Europe, the poor people, you know, and the middle class come to America. So that's the only distinction I would make on that one.

  • 13:31:59

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 13:31:59

    JERISo it would be great to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

  • 13:32:02

    NNAMDIAnd you have said earlier that all writers at some point -- or many writers at some point think about going into politics if you happen to be Nigerian. But that's not something that you have chosen to do yourself. But our listener would like to know your thoughts about Boka Haram.

  • 13:32:17

    ADICHIEI don't know. I mean, Boka Haram is clearly a problem that we have. I think it's much more of a political problem, that many people in Nigeria who believe that it's something that's engineered and politicized for internal reasons that many Nigerians understand. But I do want to say something about the distinction between poor refugees going to Europe and...

  • 13:32:39

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:32:39

    ADICHIE...because if I've suggested that in any way, that's not at all what I mean. I think people of all classes go to different places. I think that the people who go on boats -- and that in itself I think is a tragedy because many people die -- it's simply a question of proximity. So they can get on the boat and go across and get to the continent of Europe in a way that they can't to the U.S. But many poor refugees come to America as well.

  • 13:33:00

    ADICHIEAnd, you know, the idea of -- I mean, I do think that often to be asked about corruption and Nigeria, I don't know. I'm not quite sure I know what that means. I think that corruption is something that happens in every country. It's often a question of degree. It's a question of how it manifests itself. I don't think that corruption is the major problem we have in Nigeria. I think often it's incompetence and it's patronage. It's like people who should not be in positions of power are in positions of power.

  • 13:33:31

    ADICHIEBut I don't think I spend a lot of time worrying about corrupt Nigeria as if we had -- we have many competent Nigerians. They're just not where they should be. And if they were, I think Nigeria would, you know, vastly improve, corruption or no corruption.

  • 13:33:47

    NNAMDIPatronage you talk about, one of the things I found fascinating in this novel was the auntie who, when she -- even though she had been trained as a medical doctor, she enjoyed the patronage of a general when she was in Nigeria. And that allowed her to have a fairly opulent lifestyle. And when -- I don't want to give away everything in the book, but when that was -- shall we say, when she was deprived of that when that taken away from her, she was very upset. And I did find it surprising that a medical doctor would find the patronage of a general to be that important. Can you talk about that for a little bit?

  • 13:34:24

    ADICHIEI think it's a story that many Nigerians would find familiar. You know, the idea that -- and I also think it says a lot about gender, that women -- that still -- in a large way we still are raising women to think of themselves as people who have to be supported. So it doesn't matter what they've studied in university. They have parents, they have family, they have society constantly saying to them, you need to find somebody to support you. You need to find somebody to do for you rather than do for yourself.

  • 13:34:53

    ADICHIEAnd I think what she does -- the choice she makes -- but again, this is Nigeria under the military dictatorship and times of difficult -- much more difficult to find jobs, that kind of thing. And so she makes the easy choice, I think, which is to become that kind of woman. And she's not unusual, I don't think.

  • 13:35:11

    NNAMDII, and millions of others, have seen the TED Talks and that you talk about yourself as a feminist and you just talked about the condition or the status of women in Nigeria during military dictatorships. And to some extent, continuing today -- well, that can be said for the status of women around the world. To what extent has your reputation as a writer extended to reputation as feminist activist?

  • 13:35:36

    ADICHIEThat's sounds very grand. I don't know that I -- actually I think I should maybe introduce myself as that from now on. Hello, my name is Chimamanda. I'm a feminist activist. It sounds very grand. I don't know. I think of myself as a writer first. That's really what I am. But I'm also -- and I don't think every writer should make that decision to also have a public voice. But I do because there are things I care about and I speak out about them.

  • 13:36:01

    ADICHIEAnd so -- and gender is one of them. I feel very strongly about the way that being female reduces opportunity and access. And I've talked about them in Nigeria and I've been -- you know, it's interesting for me the kind of pushback that I get. And that a lot of it comes from women themselves, which I find very telling. So I suppose that people who know of my work in Nigeria would know much more about my fiction. And then a few would know that -- they probably would say something like, you know, from time to time she says these crazy things about how men and women are equal.

  • 13:36:38

    NNAMDIA notion that in 2013 some people still consider crazy, that says a great deal.

  • 13:36:42

    ADICHIEYes.

  • 13:36:43

    NNAMDIHere is Izzy in Bowie, Md. Hi, Izzy.

  • 13:36:46

    IZZYHi, Kojo. How are you doing today?

  • 13:36:48

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:36:49

    IZZYGood. Hi, Ngozi, how you doing today, my sister?

  • 13:36:53

    ADICHIEI'm very well. I prefer Chimamanda.

  • 13:36:55

    IZZYI'm very, very proud of who you are, making us proud. I'm (unintelligible) from Nigeria. I've been in the United States for about 23 years. All you hear about Nigeria's crime, criminals, that kind of stuff, but I'm proud of you that you are projecting a good image of Nigerians. Congratulations on your book. (unintelligible) my sister.

  • 13:37:18

    ADICHIEThank you, my brother.

  • 13:37:19

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:37:20

    IZZYLove you, my sister. Bye.

  • 13:37:22

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. There is a character in the book who is also Bartholomew I think his name is who is also obsessed with the image that is projected of Nigerians and obsessed with what he consider the old ways. But you're going to have to read the book to find that out. Eventually, Ifemelu starts a blog. And I wonder if you think the internet has provided a kind of safe space for people to both talk about race, share their experiences, and maybe find a sense of community that's missing from their real lives?

  • 13:37:54

    ADICHIEHum. I don't know. I wish it had but I don't know really. I think one of the things I find most troubling actually is how the internet seems to have provided a space for a lot of talk that is vile and ugly and really depressing about race. I -- when I was working on the book just -- and I started working on it before President Obama, but before he was elected the first time I would go online and look at what was being said. And I just -- I was -- I found a lot of it very depressing.

  • 13:38:30

    ADICHIEIfemelu blog in the novel was my way of wanting to talk about race. And when I say race I should say I mean black, blackness. Because, again, race in America is a multifaceted thing. And Ifemelu discovers that she's black and she wants to write about it. But she writes an anonymous blog. And I think that's important because often when you talk about race, people forget what you said and focus on who's saying it. And so Ifemelu is anonymous so that way she can just say what she thinks.

  • 13:38:58

    ADICHIEAnd I hope that it would be funny. I wanted it to be funny. I wanted to say things that I think are important but also things that are quite absurd. I mean, there's a lot about race that's just really absurd. And so that's what the blog -- that's what I hoped the blog would do.

  • 13:39:14

    NNAMDIIt is funny. Here is Oscar in Woodbridge, Va. Oscar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oscar, I think you're off doing something else so I'm going to put you back on hold for a while. And when you're actually listening we'll get back to you. One of the topics that Ifemelu blogs about, which is actually a theme present throughout the novel, is hair. Could you read for us the blog post that begins at the top of page 2 -- and I'm speaking slowly because I'm looking for the page myself -- page 299.

  • 13:39:50

    ADICHIEAll right. So this is a blog post.

  • 13:39:52

    NNAMDIShe found it before I did.

  • 13:39:53

    ADICHIEYes, because I already had it folded. The blog post is titled "A Michelle Obama Shout Out, Plus Hair as Race Metaphor.

  • 13:40:01

    NNAMDII'm ready.

  • 13:40:01

    ADICHIEOkay. "White girlfriend and I are Michelle Obama groupies. So the other day I say to her, I wonder if Michelle Obama has a weave. Her hair looks fuller today, and all that heat every day must damage it. And she says, you mean her hair doesn't grow like that? So is it me, or is that perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair. Did you ever notice makeover shows on TV how the black woman has natural hair, coarse, coily, kinky or curly, in the ugly before picture, and then in the pretty after picture, somebody's taken a hot piece of metal and singed her hair straight.

  • 13:40:45

    ADICHIE"Some black women, American black, and non-American black, would rather run naked in the street than come out in public with their natural hair, because you see, it's not professional, sophisticated, whatever. It's just not damn normal. And please, commenters, don't tell me it's the same as a white woman who doesn't color her hair. When you do have natural negro hair, people think you did something to your hair. Actually, the folk with the afros and dreads are the ones who haven't done anything to their hair.

  • 13:41:17

    ADICHIE"You should be asking Beyonce what she's done. We all love B, but how about she show us just once what her hair looks like when it grows from her scalp? I have natural kinky hair worn in corn rows, afros, braids. No, it's not political. No, I am not an artist or poet or singer, not an Earth mother either. I just don't want relaxers in my hair. There are enough sources of cancer in my life as it is. By the way, can we ban afro wigs at Halloween? Afro is not costume for God's sake.

  • 13:41:53

    ADICHIE"Imagine if Michelle Obama got tired of all the heat and decided to go natural and appeared on TV with lots of wooly hair or tight spirally curls. There's no know what her texture will be. It is not unusual for a black woman to have three different textures on her head. Now, Michelle Obama would totally rock, but poor Obama would certainly lose the independent vote. Even the undecided Democrat vote."

  • 13:42:20

    NNAMDIReading from her latest novel, "Americanah," is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And, you know, again, the generational thing, in the late 1960s, early 1970s when Black Power was the rage and Black is Beautiful was all the rage, natural hair was all the rage, and big bushes and low bushes, and a generation later it seems as if we have reverted to the way it was before where it's now considered even unprofessional...

  • 13:42:53

    ADICHIEYes.

  • 13:42:53

    NNAMDI...to wear your hair naturally.

  • 13:42:55

    ADICHIEYes. I do think--I feel very strongly about--I'm obsessed with natural black hair. I'm obsessed with hair that grows up, not down, and I--because I find it quite beautiful. And for me, it was a journey from thinking that my hair was a problem to be solved, wanting to straighten my hair all the time, to coming to fall in love with it and finding how beautiful it is, but also realizing that we live in a world that has defined beauty and professional and all of those things as something that we naturally are not.

  • 13:43:23

    ADICHIEAnd so I think a lot of black women spend so much time trying to approximate that idea of what is beautiful and what is professional. But to do that you need to sort of change the way that you're made, and I find that very odd. I guess I just a world in which all kinds of hair is considered beautiful. I hope we get there someday. And really, I want people to stop wearing afro wigs at Halloween. It's very annoying.

  • 13:43:46

    NNAMDIWell, if you're a black woman who has encountered, or has strong feelings about hair and what it says about you, give us a call. 800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break and then we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If not, you can send us an email to kojo@wamu.org, or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning author and MacArthur Fellow. Her novels include "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus." Her latest work is titled "Americanah." There have been people who have been waiting on the phone or a while, so here is Erik in Washington D.C. Erik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:46:14

    ERIKHey, Kojo, thanks for taking my call.

  • 13:46:16

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:46:16

    ERIKAs usual, you have just wonderful, wonderful people, and I'm glad Ms. Adichie is speaking. I'm an immigrant myself from East Africa. A vastly different experience from West Africa, no doubt. And I wanted to speak on the nuances of class. And by the way, Kojo, you are a rite of passage for African immigrants in the East African area.

  • 13:46:38

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:46:39

    ERIKIt is from you that we pick up a few things on how to negotiate around the streets and the elevator and that kind of thing. So you have been useful to me over the last 18 years. I think...

  • 13:46:50

    NNAMDIGlad to have been of service, yes.

  • 13:46:53

    ERIKYes, sir. So Ms. Adichie, I wanted you to touch on the elements of class, because I kind of disagree with you, I apologize, on the type of African immigrant who has arriving on the shores of the United States and Canada in the last 55 years. I mean, we have the benefit -- when I say we, we African immigrants here today, to cobble together $1500 or $1800 to purchase a ticket, and you and I might agree that 85 percent of our people cannot do that, or if they could, it would almost break their family to get up that kind of money.

  • 13:47:28

    ERIKSo the type of immigrant -- African immigrant is very different from the Caribbean immigrant like Kojo or other people in that the class that comes here is much better suited to actual progress. Look at Obama. His own dad (unintelligible) within a matter of months as soon as he touches down.

  • 13:47:43

    NNAMDIYeah. But he was from my generation. A lot of other people who came came differently. And I think -- because we're running out of time, I'll allow Chimamanda to respond, but I think what she's talking about is more perception than reality.

  • 13:47:53

    ADICHIERight. Right. So it's that -- my point is that if you ask the average American, I think they would say that African immigrants are all fleeing poverty, AIDS, war, that sort of thing, and while there are many people who are fleeing those, and while their stories are important and should be told, I don't think that's the only African story, and it's not the African story I know. So I couldn't even write about that.

  • 13:48:15

    ADICHIEThe African story I know is different. It's a story of middle-class Africans who -- and, you know, it's also interesting when you -- when the caller talks about cobbling together the amount of money needed for a ticket, it's not as though the average American family also wouldn't have some trouble getting that amount of money to pay for a flight ticket, right? And as to the question, I mean, the -- I just came up from Nigeria yesterday, and on the flight from Lagos to Atlanta, a white American man who was sitting next to me said to the flight attendant, I'm a doctor, just in the case pilot calls for a doctor during the flight.

  • 13:48:49

    ADICHIEAnd the flight attendant replied, if we call for a doctor on this flight, half the people would stand up. And I thought that was fascinating, and the flight was full of Nigerians. So I think that's quite telling.

  • 13:49:02

    NNAMDIWell, let me tell you about qualified Nigerians. Many of the taxi drivers, some would say most of the taxi drivers in Washington now tend to be Ethiopian. In the '70s they were mostly Nigerian, and half of them had PhDs from Nigeria. So here's a tweet we got from Theresa who says, "Why do some African women show animosity toward black women in the U.S. Why can't black and African women be sisters?"

  • 13:49:30

    ADICHIEI would very much like that to be -- I think that is, I mean, I think it's a big too -- it's not quite that extreme. I think there often is animosity on both sides, and I think it comes from -- as I think there is also sisterhood on both sides. I have African-American friends, women who I love and admire and respect, but I do think that often there is a lack of understanding on both sides, and I think we immigrants, black people who come to the U.S., often don't have context.

  • 13:49:57

    ADICHIEWe don't know African-American history. And we come here and I think we very easily absorb a lot of negative stereotypes, and I think on the other hand, the African-American community, many people in that community don't know very much about Africa. And these are people who I think have been raised to think of Africa as a place of negatives. Because I have African-American friends who tell me that to say you look African to somebody in the African-American community is an insult.

  • 13:50:23

    ADICHIEAnd I think because of both of those stereotypes on both sides, misunderstandings, people can clash, People can misunderstand each other very easily. But also, at the same time, their friendships formed understanding, and so I don't quite -- I'm not quite as -- I'm quite as pessimistic as the caller, but I think that more could be done, and I think one way to do it --one thing I would like to do is have every black immigrant take a course in African-American history, and then have every African-American take a course in African history.

  • 13:50:56

    NNAMDIIt would be very, very important. What I tell people also is that remember that you live in neighborhoods and in communities. Try to become a part of that neighborhood or that community. Take ownership of that community. Do not think of yourself as an outsider coming into that community. Think of yourself as a resident of that community because this is a country in which people move around a lot, and so the people who live in that community have not necessarily been there forever.

  • 13:51:21

    NNAMDIBut this book has a lot to do with love. Ifemelu has relationships with two very different American men, one black, one white. Do you think those relationships are nevertheless fundamentally different than her relationship with Obinze?

  • 13:51:37

    ADICHIEYes. And I suppose because Obinze is the love of her life, and this book is also ridiculously, unapologetically romantic, and so I think the premise of the book is that he's the love of her life. But I think the two relationships were important because they made her grow, and I believe very much that women I often give lectures that nobody wants to my cousins and friends, and I say to them, a woman should be 30 before she gets married. I woman should have had relationships to learn who she is and what works for her.

  • 13:52:08

    ADICHIEAnd I think that Ifemelu's relationships, they make her grow. They make her learn about herself. They make her--they help her to come into her own. I mean, the coming into her own is something she does on her own, but with the help of the structures of those relationships, I think. And, of course, also, she doesn't -- she behaves in ways that I think would be acceptable if she were male, but because she's female, the choices she makes, I think are difficult for some readers, which I love, by the way. That was point.

  • 13:52:38

    NNAMDII love them too. And I was wondering if the answer to that question about whether her relationship was fundamentally different with Obinze would be because of culture, and then I said, no. It's that love of your life kind of thing.

  • 13:52:51

    ADICHIEYes.

  • 13:52:52

    NNAMDIIt goes back a long way, and they have memories of it.

  • 13:52:54

    ADICHIEYes.

  • 13:52:55

    NNAMDISo it has more to do with that than it has to do with cultural differences.

  • 13:52:57

    ADICHIEYes. I think so. I mean, I think culture, you know, I'm such a believer in falling in love, in what guise it comes, but I also think that when you have a shared culture it's slightly easier because you don't spend time explaining anything. Right?

  • 13:53:11

    NNAMDIYeah. That's true. You don't have to explain a whole -- here now is Jennifer in Ashburn, Va. Jennifer, your turn.

  • 13:53:18

    JENNIFERHi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm really looking forward to reading this book. Just wanted to make a comment regarding wearing your hair natural versus straight. I struggle with this. I am actually biracial, and I have hair that grows both down and out. And I have girlfriends who are also biracial and who refuse to wear their hair curly. And I've embraced my curly girl in wearing my hair naturally, and it is a struggle, and I work in a professional environment, so it's a struggle I deal, and I wonder will I be taken seriously, will I be viewed as being professional with this sort of unruly, uncontained hair of mine.

  • 13:53:54

    NNAMDICare to comment?

  • 13:53:55

    ADICHIEI think it's sad that women like her have to think that. I mean, I think -- I do think it's very sad. And, you know, the idea as long as your hair is clean, right, and doesn't actually get in somebody's face when you're doing something at work, it shouldn't be a problem. I mean, you know, the idea of what's professional isn't -- there isn't an objective I don't think. There isn't some objective idea of professional. It's something we've defined culturally.

  • 13:54:19

    ADICHIEAnd we've defined it on the basis of a certain kind of hair. And maybe it's time to expand that definition. I know a young woman who just got a job. She's just graduated from Harvard, got a very good job in New York, and she said to me, just before I start, I'm going to cut my hair. She has dreadlocks, and she's grown them for long, and she's nurtured them. And she said it very matter of factly. And I said, well, do you want to? And she said, no, but, you know, I have to think about the clients.

  • 13:54:43

    NNAMDIOh.

  • 13:54:44

    ADICHIEAnd I think there's something colossally sad about that.

  • 13:54:47

    NNAMDIBut you turn on television shows and you see the most glamorous people on these shows wearing dreadlocks and it's accepted there, so how does it become unprofessional?

  • 13:54:56

    ADICHIEYeah. But I don't even know -- do we have glamorous people? I wish we had more glamorous people with natural hair. I think, I mean, it's sad, and it's always quite shallow, but the mass media, popular media I think makes a huge difference. If we had Beyonce wear her hair the way it grows from her head, I think many young people would then start to think it's not so bad.

  • 13:55:16

    NNAMDIOnto Rick -- and Jennifer, thank you for your call. Onto Rick in Washington D.C. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:23

    RICKThank you, my good friend. This is your friend Rick from years -- years back, and I just invited you to my 70th birthday party.

  • 13:55:31

    NNAMDIRick "Tingling" Clemons. Go ahead, Rick.

  • 13:55:34

    RICKMy friend, how you doing?

  • 13:55:36

    NNAMDIGood.

  • 13:55:36

    RICKFirst of all, I want to say, I joined kind of late, and this sweetheart, you are wonderful. You are beautiful. Thank you for your most insightful and in-depth and well thought out understanding of what's happening to us in this world.

  • 13:55:59

    NNAMDIYes. Rick and I were once fellow ideological fellow travelers, but even though we have parted ways over the years, we have stayed in touch. Rick, the only reason I cut you off is because we're running out of time, and I needed to ask one more question. It seems as though African literature has begun to reach a wider global audience with a number of new and anticipated releases garnering attention in the west. Do you think about your work in terms of its place in that bigger, growing tradition?

  • 13:56:26

    ADICHIENo. I mean, I'm excited and very pleased that many more African novels are being read outside of the continent. I think that's a wonderful thing, because what it does, it forces people to realize that there isn't one single story of Africa. But I don't sit down and think about, now, what is my place in the canon of African literature. I'm sitting down at my desk thinking how do I write a good sentence that I'm happy with, really. And I do think that as a creative person it's not my place to think about my work in that way.

  • 13:56:52

    ADICHIEI think, you know, I think people who are critics have to earn a living, and so it's really...

  • 13:56:58

    NNAMDII was just about to ask, or I was just thinking, is it important to you whether you're defined as an African writer, or whether you're defined as an African female writer, or just as a good writer?

  • 13:57:10

    ADICHIEI think of myself as a writer, but also, I realize that those -- I mean, it depends on who's defining on what the definition means, because two people can say African writer and have two different things in their minds. And, you know, I'm very happily African. I'm Nigerian. I'm feminist. I'm Ebu. I'm all of those things. I'm black, and I'm also -- I'm a writer. And when those -- when you join writer and some label, I'm always a bit worried about what it means because often it means something. It's not just a -- it's not a value feed description.

  • 13:57:39

    ADICHIEAnd so as long as it doesn't mean something that I disagree with, I'm fine with it.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIWell, she's a writer who was born in Nigeria and likes Baltimore, but likes Philadelphia more than Baltimore. How about that for a description. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning author and MacArthur Fellow. Her novels include "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Purple Hibiscus." Her latest work is titled "Americanah." Thank you so very much for joining us and good luck to you.

  • 13:58:07

    ADICHIEIt's been lovely to be here. Thank you.

  • 13:58:09

    NNAMDIShe had way too much fun. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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