Sunday 16 August 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an outstandingly talented young writer. She has now had three books published, two novels and a collection of short stories. I have read all of them and have thoroughly enjoyed each one. Chimamanda is an Igbo, but all her work is written in English. She was born in 1977 in Nigeria and grew up in Nsukka in the heart of what used to be known as Igboland. Her father worked at the University of Nigeria which was located in Nsukka. He was Nigeria's first professor of statistics, and later became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University. Her mother was the first female registrar at the University. By a happy omen for a future writer they lived in the house formerly occupied by Chinua Achebe, one of the greats of Nigerian literature and like Adichie also an Igbo.

When she was nineteen Chimamanda moved to live in the United States to pursue her University studies in communication, political science and creative writing. She now spends her time between the USA and Nigeria. While still at University she started writing short stories and began what was to become her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.

Purple Hibiscus
was published in 2003 and won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book), and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction. This is a very assured and impressive first novel and Chimamanda makes a significant statement right from the very first sentence: "things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagère." This not only introduces some of the key themes of the novel, but starts with an almost direct quote from the title of one of Chinua Achebe's most famous novels - Things fall apart. This is no ordinary talent here. This is the literary equivalent of a young Mozart showing off his precocious talents. The novel unfolds in the 1990s Nigeria, and the narrative unfolds from the perspective of 15-year-old Kambili Achike, the daughter of a wealthy catholic family. Though, or perhaps, because he is a strict catholic the father is an extremely violent man with his family - wife, son and daughter. The story emerges gradually as Kambili discovers more and more about her father. In this she is helped by her experience of living with her aunt Ifeoma and her altogether more open and relaxed family. The background to the story is the advent of another military coup and though this plays a significant part in the development of the story the focus is always on the family and Kamili's growing self awareness. A very sensitive and engaging novel.

Her second novel, Half a Yellow Sun, was published in 2006 and won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. The novel is again set in Nigeria, this time in the 1960's and covers the period just before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War. This is quite an ambitious novel as it covers the war from its origins through the actual fighting to the eventual ceasefire and peace. As with Purple Hibiscus we experience all this through the interweaving personal lives of the main protagonists. The two key ones are Olanna and Kainene, two sisters of a wealthy Igbo family. Both live for most of the time in Nsukka, the university town. Other perspectives are provided by their respective partners, Odenigbo, an Igbo professor and Richard, an English lecturer at the University. Though crucial in the development of the story, neither features as prominently as the sisters. All four are of course relatively well off and much of the earlier part of the novel describes the rather attractive, lively and interesting livestyle of members of what might be called the burgeoning "liberal" middle class of Nigeria. We do however get to see the events from the completely different perspective of Ugwu, Odenigbo's devoted house-boy who comes from a poor rural family.
The novel gradually gathers pace as the horrors of war and there effects on the various protagonists become more and more the centre of the drama. This is a very compelling and moving account of how war can destroy lives. Though there is no happy ending as such this is nevertheless very much a life affirming novel and a wonderful read.

Chimamanda's latest offering is The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories published this year. As is the case with collections, many of these stories were written and first published some years ago in magazines. The stories are fairly evenly split between Nigeria and the USA. The odd one out is Jumping Monkey Hill, which is set just outside Cape Town in South Africa. It stands out in other ways too as the focus is not on Nigeria but on the challenges facing writers from all over Africa. A group of African writers have been invited to a workshop organized by the British Council. The leader is a British academic who tries to impose his own ideas of what a real African story should be about. A rather dry tale and a bit atypical of her work. In all the stories bar one, the main character is a woman, as is the case with her novels. They are all about the challenges, hardships, violence and humiliations facing women living in Nigeria and as immigrants in the USA. Most are set in the present day or very recent past, though a couple go back to the times of civil war and religious and ethnic strife. One of the most moving is A Private Experience,in which a well off Igbo woman, a catholic, recounts how she was sheltered and helped by a poor uneducated Hausa woman, a Muslim, during an anti Igbo riot. The final story is set in the distant past and in some ways this brings us full circle back to the first sentence of Purple Hibiscus. The Headstong Historian though a short story gives an account of the changes in Igbo society and culture brought about by the arrival of the white man in the late eighteen hundreds. This recalls the works of Chinua Achebe, many of whose novels highlight the inner conflicts brought about by the intrusion of European ways into traditional Igbo life and culture. Altogether a highly recommended collection.

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