Africa’s best literary flower

Sunday September 12 2010



She is widely regarded as one of Africa’s brightest literary stars of the past decade. But before her filament shone, the works of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie almost never saw the light of day. Kamau Mutunga writes the flower that was neglected for some time:-

What a good turn of events that, today, the literary daughter of Chinua Achebe is an award-winning novelist, an accomplished author whom Achebe lauds as ‘a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers… she came almost fully made’!

Sample this paragraph from Purple Hibiscus, her debut effort in 2003: “He looked like a stuffed doll, and because he was always smiling, the deep dimples in his pillowy cheeks looked like permanent fixtures, as though someone had sunk a stick into his cheeks.”

When she first presented the manuscript, one American agent piped: “I like your book. I like your writing, but I can’t sell you as ethnic, because right now, ethnic is Indian.”

Another told her that she should set Purple Hibiscus — the story of the painful awakening of a girl coming of age — in America and relegate the African bits into the background.

Not bothered
In an interview with Insight Africa on CNN in September last year, Adichie recalled how another Western literary agent said her book didn’t feel “authentically African” as the characters drove cars and watched TV. “They are not eating human flesh and jumping around a fire, it can’t be the real Africa.”


Nonetheless, Purple Hibiscus went on to be short-listed for the Orange and Man Booker prizes, and won the 33-year-old alumni of Drexel and Eastern Connecticut State Universities, the Common Wealth Writers Prize.

Adichie was promptly signed up by Andrew Wylie, one of the world’s most celebrated literary agents. Sample another para in Purple Hibiscus: “Amaka put the comb down and pulled her dress over her head. In her white lacy bra and light blue underwear, she looked like a Hausa goat: brown, long and lean….”

Emboldened by rave reviews, the communication and political science major wrote two other books, Half of a Yellow Sun, which won her some Shs6 billion via the Orange Prize for fiction in 2007, and The Thing Around Your Neck.

But it was Half of a Yellow Sun that made the fifth born in a family of six a sensation. In it, Adichie, who studied pharmacy in Nigeria before flying to America at the age of 19 “to be closer to my sister”, packs her trademark mastery of minute details that turns her writings into such wondrous reads.

The daughter of James Nwoye and Grace Ifeoma, Adichie grew up reading Enid Blyton at their home, coincidentally Achebe’s former house, at the University of Nigeria, where her parents worked as a professor and registrar, respectively. Nwoye is also a character Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

And, although her family was not “bookish” and “academia is not for me,” Adichie still pursued a masters degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, besides an MA in African Studies in Yale.
She pegs her inspiration on colonialism, patriarchy and Nigeria’s history, and is now ranked alongside some of Nigeria’s new generation of talented writers such as Helon Habila, Uzondinma Iweala, Helen Oyeyemi and Chris Abani.

But her writing stands out with her combination of incredibly vivid, flowing sentences of remarkable simplicity and depth.
I cannot help picking one such in Half of a Yellow Sun: “He was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.”

Half of a Yellow Sun, which sold more than 650,000 copies in Britain alone, is a harrowing drama set in the backdrop of the Biafra War, an event that has had a powerful hold on the literary imagination of notable Nigerian writers. War broke out when a group of army officers took power through a coup in January 1966.

Most were from the predominantly Christian Igbo inhabitants of east Nigeria. Several months later, a different group of officers from the Muslim north executed their own coup, escalating ethnic tensions.
In May 1967, Col. Odemegwu Ojukwu proclaimed Biafra an independent state, thus heralding the three-year war.

It is this historical tapestry of a violent past that Adichie employs to gain a sympathetic leverage to embroider the present. Half of a Yellow Sun revolves around a radical academic, his beautiful lover, physically and temperamentally divergent twin sisters, a house boy (who is the soul of the novel) and how they got swept up in the horrors of the Biafra War in which Adichie’s parent’s “lost everything”.

On why she wrote it, she told Charlie Kimber in 2006 that it was “because I lost both grandfathers in the war, because the war changed the cause of Igbo history. I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, which is a subject we are not honest about, don’t want to talk about. But what was most important to me was emotional truth. I wanted this to be a book about human beings, not faceless political events.”

It is this generational distance and familial obsession that laces Half of a Yellow Sun with a tag of detachment and intimacy. And with such a pithy, literary punch. Adichie took four years to write it, and kept the early draft “because (Kenyan writer) Binyavanga Wainaina tells me when I’m 60, it could be worth something”.

Though she’s found success in novels (she won the lucrative MacArthur Fellowship and thus can write full time), Adichie confesses that short stories are her forte.

And The Thing Around Your Neck, a mixture of snapshots of Nigerian life but largely set in America, is one such result. Sad thing is, “that thing round your neck” isn’t a necklace, but the suffocating loneliness the woman feels at night. Chimamanda was once asked how it was like being Adichie. She had no answer... “because I am just me!”