Exclusive Interview: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pt 1)
Years ago, before I ever met her, I wrote an intro, in my mind, for my imaginary interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Now, I finally get the chance to write that intro, to gush about Chimamanda the person and Chimamanda the world famous author, and I can’t find my qualifiers. When you get through this interview, perhaps you will understand why. Chimamanda takes us on a very personal journey and it does make sense to just let her speak.
Olisa.tv: I have been requesting this interview for about a year now and you finally agreed to it. Thank you.
Chimamanda Adichie: I decided I wanted to address certain things and you were the one person I wanted to talk to. So thank YOU.
A few weeks ago, the UK Guardian published an article online that you wrote about depression. Then a day later the article was removed. Many people were confused about this. There was much speculation. Some people even suggested that you might not have been the author of the article. I’d like for you to talk about depression and the story surrounding that article; why was it removed?
I was certainly the author. I have actually always been quite open about having depression. By depression, I don’t mean being sad. I mean a health condition that comes from time to time and has different symptoms and is very debilitating. I’ve mentioned it publicly in the past, but I have always wanted to write about it. I was meeting many people who I could tell were also depressive, and I was noticing how hush-hush it all was, how there was often a veil of silence over it, and I think the terrible consequence of silence is shame.
Depression is difficult. It is difficult to experience, difficult to write about, difficult to be open about. But I wanted to do it. For myself, in a way, because it forced me to tell myself my own story, which can be helpful. But also for other possible sufferers, especially fellow Africans, because there is something very powerful about knowing that you are not alone, and that what happens to you also happens to other people.
Depression is something I have recognized since I was a child. It is something I have accepted. It is something I will have to find ways to manage for the rest of my life. Many creative people have depression. I wonder if I would be so drawn to storytelling if I were not also a person who suffers from depression.
But I am very interested in de-mystifying it. Young creative people, especially on our continent, have enough to deal with without thinking – as I did for so long – that something is fundamentally wrong with feeling this strange thing from time to time. Our African societies are not very knowledgeable or open or supportive about depression. People who don’t have depression have a lot of difficulty understanding it, but people who have it are also often befuddled by it.
I wanted to make sure I was emotionally ready to write the piece. I don’t usually write about myself and certainly not very personally. I wanted it to be honest and true. The only way to write about a subject like that is to be honest.
Last year, a major magazine that I admire asked me to write a personal piece for them. I decided to use that as a prodding to finally write about depression. They liked the piece and were keen to publish it. They suggested some edits, and at some point I began to feel that the article was being made to follow a script, and that its integrity was being compromised. So I withdrew the piece. This was the most personal thing I have ever written and I felt it had to be in the form that felt most true. My agent then said that the UK Guardian was launching a new section that was supposed to publish long, serious pieces. She sent it to them and they were interested. But I had already begun to re-think the piece itself. I was no longer sure I was ready for it to be published. I thought about changing the structure. To make it two essays, one about women’s premenstrual issues and one about depression, so as to be more effective as a kind of advocacy memoir. Most of all, I decided I was not emotionally ready to have the piece out in the world. I wanted first to finish the new writing and research I was doing. So a day after my agent told me that the UK Guardian wanted it, I told her to please withdraw the piece completely. That I no longer wanted it to be published. The Guardian told her they were sorry I was withdrawing, but they understood. I didn’t think about it after that. My plan was – put it away, go back to it in a year, and see how I feel and revise and edit it.
This happened in September 2014. Then a few weeks ago, I was travelling and I get off a plane, turn on my phone, and see messages from acquaintances telling me how ‘brave’ I was. I was astonished. I had just written a piece for THE NEW YORK TIMES about my issues with light in Lagos and so I thought ‘haba, since when is writing about light brave?’
I read that article about light in THE NEW YORK TIMES and loved how you wrote about something all of us Nigerians can identity with and all of us complain about but you turned it into a poem and a political statement at the same time.
Thank you. A friend of mine was teasing me about how diesel is Big Man Problem, and how she deals only with petrol for her generator. Which I thought was funny, and true. But also interesting is how the light situation stunts everyone, how the privileged – except maybe for diesel importers – are not immune. Anyway I soon realized that the messages I was getting were not about the article on light. Somebody specifically mentioned the Guardian. So I immediately went to the Guardian website.
Do you remember what your first reaction was when you saw that an article you decided not to publish had suddenly appeared in public?
I felt violated. It felt like a horrible violation. This was the most personal piece I had written and the only person who deserved to decide when it would be read publicly was me.
Even their choice of words felt like a violation. They wrote that it was about my ‘struggling’ with depression. I would never have agreed to that caption. I do not think of the article as being about my ‘struggle’ with depression, but about my journey to accepting something I have had since I was born, and my choosing to ‘come out’ about it. I also hated that the sentence they highlighted from the whole piece was about how ‘the nights are dark…’ etc. It felt sensationalizing and cheap.
I was angry with the Guardian. Especially as their first apology was ‘we are obviously sorry.’ Any apology that contains the word ‘obviously’ is not an apology. They took it down and replaced it with an explanation about a ‘technical error,’ which even a child would have reason to doubt. It’s probably naïve of me but I had expected that they would be quick to admit their fault and make amends. There is something predatory about Big Journalism. Big Journalism doesn’t care about the humanity of it subjects. Big Journalism cares about ‘good copy’ and about not being sued. It took longer than it should have, but at least they subsequently published a proper explanation and apology, with the prodding of lawyers.
(Editor’s note: Read Guardian’s clarifications here)
What did you make of The Guardian’s explanation that they had produced a ‘mock-up’ of the piece and then forgot to delete it in their system after you withdrew it and then it was automatically launched on their site? Also after it was taken down, many websites had already copied it and posted it, especially here in Nigeria.
I don’t understand how something stays on the website of a major, widely read newspaper for a whole day, something you have no right to publish, and nobody in your organization notices. As for the Nigerian websites, I think any website that puts it up is using what does not belong to them, which is called stealing. But this is the Internet age and of course I can’t really control any of that.
Well, I know for a fact that that article has been very widely-read and the consensus was that you were brave to write it and many people praised you. So I think it had positive impact.
I really hope other people who have depression found strength in it. My agent got many moving emails from people who were grateful that I had written about depression because they too had trouble even accepting that they had depression. I got responses from some distant friends and most were thoughtful and full of empathy and I was struck by how many said the piece made them feel better about acknowledging their own depression.
I also got a few responses that troubled me. Because I was generally quite upset by The Guardian, those responses further upset me.
William Styron who wrote the great novel Sophies Choice also wrote a memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, where he writes about being enraged by people patronising him and simplifying his depression to platitudes. I got a patronising email, for example, from an acquaintance which was full of passive-aggressive comments and then ended with ‘you are loved.’ And I thought: but that is obvious from the piece. I have a small solid circle of family and friends and I feel very loved and very grateful. But the piece is about the paradox of depression, that it is often a kind of sorrow without a cause. That being depressed makes even the sufferer feel bad and guilty because you are thinking of all these people you love and who love you and who you now feel strangely disconnected from. Another patronizing person told me ‘don’t worry, I won’t judge you.’ Which infuriated me beyond belief. Judge me? I didn’t know judgement was an option. Shame is not an option for me and never will be. Writing this piece was a choice I made. Being open about my vulnerability was a choice I made, and I don’t regret making it. There was also the usual Nigerian response of ‘just pray about it.’ I realized that many people who contacted my manager had either not understood the piece or had just read The Guardian’s choice caption of ‘nights are dark and I cry often’ and then decided to send me solutions ranging from bible quotes to various churches.
Did any of the responses really affect you?
I feel strongly, on principle, about the right to tell my own story. By publishing something I was not ready to publish, The Guardian violated that right, and I was very much affected by that. One particular response really saddened me. Someone asked my manager whether this was just a publicity stunt. I thought – have we become so soullessly cynical? Somebody actually thinks that if I wanted to pull a publicity stunt, I would write the most personal essay I have ever written about my own life?
Well, if you were looking for publicity, I would say you have the best source – Beyonce. One of the most famous pop musicians in the world used a part of your speech WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS in her song ‘Flawless.’ Many people say that you helped her shore up (or even create) her feminist credentials. What are your thoughts about that and on having given permission for Beyonce to sample your TEDxEuston Talk?
I think Beyonce is a cultural force for good, in general. It’s a shame that we live in a world so blindly obsessed by celebrity – an actor or musician talking about a social issue should not be a reason for the press to pay attention to that issue, because they should pay attention to it anyway – but sadly it is what it is. Ours is an age in which celebrities have enormous influence. Beyonce could easily have chosen to embrace something easy and vanilla like ‘world peace.’ Or she could have embraced nothing at all because she is, after all, immensely successful and talented and she can actually sing – we all know that not all famous musicians can sing. Feminism is not a subject that will win you universal admiration as an entertainer and to make the choice she did is admirable. I was happy to give my permission.
But people have questioned her right to identify as feminist because of the sexual nature of some of her performances?
This is actually the question I kept being asked, and I found it tedious. There is a moralistic and troubling strain of feminism that equates all forms of female sexuality with shame. What matters is that Beyonce controls her own image. Female sexuality is a feminist issue only when there is a power imbalance. Actually Beyonce’s brand of sexuality is mainstream-conservative, with the whole idea of ‘put a ring on it’ and the title of ‘MRS’ as an honorific and so on. It seems to me that people who criticize her for being sexual should also acknowledge that underlying her version of sexuality is quite an old-fashioned wholesomeness. If the fear of a subversive depiction of female sexuality is the problem, then they really should leave her alone.
You seem to be more in the camp of subversion.
I am indeed. I do not believe that female sexuality needs to be clothed in ‘respectability.’ Male sexuality certainly doesn’t need ‘respectability’ to be valid and the same should be true of female sexuality.
A friend of mine said I should ask you why you are falling her hand. She said you are too humble about this Beyonce thing. She said if she were you she would be giving interviews about Beyonce everyday and putting things on Instagram about your collaboration. She said she felt very proud to hear your voice at the VMA awards but that you didn’t even give any interview about it. Her words were ‘Chimamanda has never made noise about this Beyonce thing.’ I hear you turned down every interview that wanted to focus on Beyonce.
Yes, when the song came out I turned down all interview requests. I was also a bit taken aback because I had expected some interest but I was startled that even the so-called serious news sources wanted to talk about it and in a kind of frenzied and goading sort of way. It all just seemed like too much noise. I realized it was something I would not be able to speak about with any nuance because whatever I said would be reduced to one line and become yet another source of noise. So I turned everything down. I was also working on some writing and wanted to be able to focus.
Later, when I was on book tour, there were people who wanted to talk about Beyonce and when I responded by saying I was happy to give her my permission and happy that so many young people would now become aware of gender issues and happy that my nieces and nephews now thought Aunty was cool – which was how I truly felt- people kept pushing and prodding as though they wanted me to say something I was not saying. Or people who were eager to tell me how excited they were about Beyonce using my speech, but oh, they hadn’t read my book. A serious literary person introduced me as ‘Beyonce’s favourite writer,’ even though my novel had just won a well-respected prize. Another person said to me – tell me how excited and honoured you were when she called you! – and I thought: what an inane question and what a limited choice of options. I very quickly became tired of such questions. The point is that I am a writer. I gave a talk about a subject I feel passionate about. When I gave the talk, I had no idea that anybody would even be really interested in it. It ended up that a music star watched it and was inspired by it and wanted to use it. I was happy to give my permission. But I refuse to have that define me in any way. If I am doing an interview, I should be talking about my work, not being asked to speculate on the authenticity of somebody else’s feminist motivation. By the way, please tell your friend to forgive me for ‘falling her hand!’
So do you think the Beyonce song increased the sales of your novel AMERICANAH?
I’m not sure, but I doubt it. Mostly because many people who were excited about Beyonce having used my talk in her song didn’t go off to buy my novel, but instead watched the TEDxEuston Talk that she had sampled – which I was quite happy about. What actually happened is that at around the same time as the ‘Flawless’ song release, AMERICANAH was chosen as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the New York Times and won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. Those certainly had a major impact on the sales, especially the former.
This is a good way to switch to literature. The general rule is that books that are well reviewed do not sell and that books that sell are not well reviewed. Very few writers have both. I can think of Ian McEwan for example. AMERICANAH was a New York Times bestseller and I hear it is still a bestseller in many independent bookshops in America. It has just been published in France and is a bestseller there. It has also done well in Germany, Sweden and other countries. It is a bestseller here in Nigeria. What is it like to have both critical and commercial success?
Even if I did not have the good fortune of being widely-read, I would still be somewhere writing, because writing is my life’s passion. When you write a book, you just never know if it will do well or not. And so I feel this immense gratitude to be widely-read and I haven’t lost my sense of wonder – each time I hear about what the book means to somebody, I am newly moved. In the case of AMERICANAH in particular, a novel in which I broke with a certain kind of convention and a certain kind of sense of duty, it is a feeling of double pleasure and double gratitude because I honestly didn’t think it would do too well.
With your novels published in more than thirty languages all over the world, you seem to travel a lot on book tours. I was asking your manager about your travel schedule and he said you are really cutting down now. I was not too surprised to learn that you receive requests from all over the world, what was astonishing was learning that you accept only about ten percent of them. Why ten percent? Why not more?
When I was first published, I was thrilled by the idea of a book tour. I thought – somebody is really going to buy me a flight ticket, put me up in a hotel, have people take care of me, go and read and sign books somewhere? It felt like a wonderful dream. But after the novelty wore off, it became tedium. It’s a very good problem to have, but it doesn’t make it less wearying. Increasingly I like to do a few events, because I quite enjoy them, and I get to meet interesting people, and I find that I learn from people who have read my work, but long tours exhaust me mentally. I am also a slow writer, and I really like silence and space, and travel gets in the way. So even though many of the invitations are interesting, I now reluctantly turn many down.
Are there any recent events that have stood out for you?
Last year I was a keynote speaker at an Anambra State Government event in Awka. When I was done speaking, a large group of women in the audience burst into song. They sang ‘Nwanyi bu ife’ which translates to ‘women are now something.’ It was so moving to me. Another one that stands out is Nairobi. I spoke in this huge hall full of Kenyans. I know it’s a bit sentimental but I felt myself welling up with emotion, standing there. I felt this wonderful pan-African thing, and also an odd sense of duty that was beautiful. And I had an event in Oslo recently that was very special.
What about ‘the fans?’
I think I have some of the loveliest fans in the world. The greatest compliment to me is to have my work read carefully and thoughtfully. The best moments are from ordinary people who take ownership and who disagree or agree with specific things because it means that they have really engaged with the book. A character must be real to you before you can like or dislike them.
One of my favourite stories happened some years ago at Yellow Chilli restaurant here in Lagos. A woman anonymously sent a waiter to me with a serviette. On it she had written: ‘I don’t mean to interrupt your dinner but I just wanted you to know that you gave me a history that I may never have come to know, and for that I and my generation will always be thankful.’ I have that serviette framed and hanging on my study wall. (By the way, if that lovely woman reads this interview, I just want to say thank you. I owe you a hug.)
You must receive many such letters. Why did that one matter so much to you?
It seemed so genuine and real and utterly lacking in both affectation and entitlement. I appreciated that very much.
Do you notice affectation or entitlement in fans?
Sometimes. There are people who are loath to say a simple kind word without some preface or some sort of self-styled edge to show you how cool they think themselves to be, as though there is, for them, a competition even in the act of paying you a compliment. This mostly comes from people who think themselves intellectuals or who imagine themselves to be very good writers if only the wicked world would publish them.
I can imagine that interaction with fans of all kinds is something celebrities have to become used to…
I don’t really think of myself as a celebrity.
But you are. You have transcended just being a writer. You have an impact on the culture. People respond to what you say, whether for good or for bad. Even the interest in your personal life is a sign of your celebrity. I know of young women who are inspired by you and not just by your books.
The word celebrity feels alien to me. It makes me think of people who are more visually public figures, if that makes sense, like actors and musicians. I have a lot of sympathy for them because it must be very hard to have a career whose main requirement is placating strangers.
So I mean that I don’t see myself as a celebrity in that way. But of course I am very much aware that I have become a public person.
A woman once got nasty when she asked to take a picture with me and I said no, because I was exhausted and I looked terrible. Another person once said to me – “you must always smile no matter what.” I thought: “how absurd. Do YOU always smile?” I’m actually quite the smiler but I certainly will not smile if I am upset about something. Everyone has good days and bad days and I treasure my human right to have good days and bad days.
I think the idea of celebrity is that you are supposed always to be ‘on,’ always in performance mode. And I certainly can’t and won’t do that.
I do not gauge what I say or do based on how somebody will respond. I gauge it based on what I truly think and feel. My only responsibility is to speak truthfully. I never set out to offend anybody but I also never censor myself because of the fear of causing offence. I like to be honest and open with people and I like them to be the same with me. I am not sure real celebrities have that choice.
I have a great amount of sympathy for famous people who have to live a certain kind of pretend-life because they are afraid of the consequences hurting their career – that maybe somebody won’t go and see their film or won’t buy their album. You become trapped in a performance of your own life. I could never live like that. And I think it’s become worse in recent years, with celebrities expected to make their choices based on what other people think and what other people want. I realize some celebrities might be happy with that kind of life but my sense is that many talented people find it constraining.
Talib Kweli wrote a fantastic piece about Lauryn Hill that challenged this idea of a celebrity as a person owned by fans.
(Editor’s note: Read Talib Kweli’s article here)
I read that article; loved how he captured that thing that we more often than not miss: celebrities are human and suffer from human frailties. However, I think it would be apt to ask what your relationship to fame is?
Interesting question. There are some wonderful benefits – strangers secretly paying for my dinner at restaurants for example, ha! But seriously, I think I have a conflicted relationship with it. There are things it has made happen in my life for which I am grateful and appreciative but there are also times when I deeply resent being a public person, when I don’t want to be.
You have celebrity friends like Kerry Washington and Thandie Newton. Tell me about the friendship, and what it means to know these black women who have also made a mark in their own professions – Thandie Newton is the top-ranked Black British actress today and Kerry Washington is the first black woman to star in an American prime time show since the 1970s.
They are both intelligent, thoughtful and beautiful inside and out.
I can see you don’t want to talk about your friends. I heard Will Smith is a fan of yours. If you won’t talk about your friends at least you have talked about this one before. Just try for me.
Some years ago his people called and said he wanted to set up a call. So we had a nice chat. He said he just wanted to let me know that he had been following my writing and my speaking and loved what I was doing and wanted to encourage me. He spoke in specifics. It meant a lot to me because it wasn’t just an empty ‘well done!’ but there was a kind of thoughtfulness that I really appreciated. And of course I made sure I told him how much I loved Fresh Prince of Bel Air when I was growing up in Nsukka. I love his humour and I loved his remarkable transformation in the movie Ali.
You are well known in Nigeria and I would say that you first became famous in Nigeria after your first novel Purple Hibiscus was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2004 and then won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize the next year. There was the generation of Achebe and Soyinka that made names for themselves internationally, and the generation after them did not quite achieve that level of international success. There were some successes, but no writer achieved the resonance that you did with Purple Hibiscus. I think it was because it was a novel that spoke to a new generation of Nigerians and had a contemporary setting. Purple Hibiscus is now on the WAEC syllabus and you have gone on to have so many other recognitions. Let’s talk about your youth. You started very early with these recognitions, making the best results in your secondary school, University Secondary School, Nsukka, in both the JSCE and SSCE.
Yes, I did. I never liked mathematics but I was determined to do well. I ended up with an A2, not an A1, and I was a bit upset with myself. I was one of those annoying people who got upset when they scored 96 percent in a test.
Which is why you were expected to study medicine at University.
Yes. And so I did. I always knew deep down that I really didn’t want to study Medicine. I liked Chemistry but Biology bored me and I am quite squeamish so laboratory dissections made me sick. The only thing I liked about Medicine was psychiatry. I have a certain intuition about people; I am actually an amateur psychologist otherwise known as ‘winch.’ I did one year of medicine at Nsukka then switched to Pharmacy before leaving for the US. The real reason I wanted to go to America was to escape the sciences.
The world of literature gained from that decision. I was researching your awards. Very impressive. Fellowships from Harvard and Princeton. Shortlisted three times for the Orange Prize (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize) and won once, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award, the New York Times Top Ten Best Books of the Year, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, The Macarthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Award, the Global Ambassador Achievement Award from the Nigerian government and many others. What do these prizes and recognitions mean to you? Do any of the prizes stand out or have a particular meaning?
It’s always lovely to have your work recognized. Prizes are nice, but they are not the reason I write. I would still be somewhere writing even if I had never won a single award. I like and respect the Orange Prize, sorry Baileys prize, because I think the shortlist is always strong, and I like the worldview of the Prize, if that makes sense. I was particularly thrilled about the National Book Critics Circle award because I wasn’t expecting it. I was on a shortlist of writers I respect, and it really is such a cool prize, judged by a group of fiction critics, people who actually read a lot of books. The recognition of Americanah as a New York Times Top Ten book made me squeal in surprised pleasure. The New York Times has a 100 notable books list every year, which is quite nice to be on. But the top ten books of the year? I never knew that would happen. So when my editor sent me an email telling me, I actually said ‘No way!” aloud. It made me very happy. And the next thing I did was what I do when anything good happens – I tell my parents. The pride in my father’s eyes is one of my life’s greatest sources of joy.
You speak about your father often. He seems to be a great inspiration to you.
He is more than an inspiration. He is the loveliest, kindest, wisest, funniest, sweetest man in the world. I am an unabashed Daddy’s Girl. I have wonderful parents. I adore my mother. My father just turned 83, and you realize how important it is to cherish time spent together. We have these long precious meandering conversations where he tells me about our family history and I find myself wishing I could pause each moment, make it stay still, savour it for longer. He reads everything I write and he tells me exactly what he thinks, which I deeply appreciate. If he thinks something isn’t very good, he says so, and if he thinks it’s good, he says so.
Before your first novel was published, you were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for a short story in 2002. How instrumental was the Caine Prize in your career? Did it help you get published?
The honest answer is no. By time I was shortlisted for the Caine prize, I already had an agent and a finished novel, Purple Hibiscus.
Let me give you a bit of the background story. My first publication was a poem written when I was 15 and published in Nigeria. Then I wrote a terrible book of poems published by a vanity press. Then at the age of 17, I wrote a play that was published in Nigeria. I don’t really think of them as real publications, mostly because prose is my true love. When I got to the US, I did some research and learned that, if you wanted to get published, you needed an agent who would then find you a publisher – if you were lucky. I finished my novel and started sending it out to agents. I got many, many rejections. Some of the agents told me that they liked my writing but because I was writing about Nigeria, they would not be able to sell my work to a publisher. Others told me they had nobody to compare me to. One agent told me nicely, “If you were Indian, it would be easier.” There was no contemporary Nigerian writer who was well known in the US. And nobody really cared about Nigeria as subject matter for fiction. At the time, in American publishing, ‘African writing’ was something students read in a college course.
So it was extremely difficult. But I kept at it. I wrote and re-wrote stories and kept sending them out to agents. I went to the library and spent hours researching publishing journals. I was a student and I had a job, so every night I stayed up until 3 AM working on my fiction. It was my real passion. Finally, an agent told me she was ‘willing to take a chance on me.’ Those were her words. Willing to take a chance. She was very honest. She told me my chances were low since I was completely unknown and I came from a part of the world that nobody cared about. She said it might also be a problem that I used bits of what she called ‘an African dialect’ in my novel.
I told her that Igbo, like English, was not a dialect but a language with many dialects. (I have never understood why people say that Europeans speak ‘languages’ but what comes out of African mouths is described as ‘dialect’ or ‘tongue.’ Even some Africans themselves use this distinction and I find it profoundly annoying).
I made the case that it was important for me to have the Igbo bits in the book because I wanted to try and capture the reality of characters who were constantly straddling two languages. I had read books written in English where bits of French or bits of Italian were thrown in, because the writers wanted to create the texture of their characters’ lives. I didn’t see why it should be different for an African language.
It was at your writing workshop that I first heard you tell the story of how you got published. You were very generous and told us all the details and it was good to hear because it made us realise that this Successful Chimamanda did not just fall from the sky like that and it came with a lot of hard work. So after the agent took a chance on you, she then sent the manuscript out to publishers?
Yes. Not long afterwards, a publisher told her they were interested. A small but very good publisher based in North Carolina. I was really happy that they took me on. They had a small budget. They didn’t have much money for publicity and marketing. But what was lovely was that they really believed in the novel. I did a small book tour and I remember one event somewhere in the American Midwest to which only two people came! Because there was just very little publicity around the book.
The book itself became popular with booksellers, and independent booksellers are simply the best and most committed readers of literature. Even without much publicity, the booksellers were hand-selling the novel: people would come into their shop and the bookseller would personally recommend the novel to them. I think even my publishers were surprised when the novel very soon became an independent bookshops bestseller. It didn’t mean much money because actual sales numbers were relatively small, but it did mean a certain grassroots legitimacy that quite frankly is priceless.
My British editor heard about the book from another editor in New York. She read it, loved it and knew right away that she wanted to publish it in the UK. So the Caine Prize didn’t play a role. Actually I remember that at the Caine Prize, which was attended by some agents, I excused myself from meeting agents because I already had an American agent.
Is there anything in particular you would say was your ‘big break?’
Being shortlisted for the Orange Prize definitely. I was the only first-time author on the shortlist and I think I was also the youngest author to be shortlisted and so that brought large-scale attention to my work. I was on the shortlist with the great Shirley Hazzard and it was such an honour. I will always be grateful to that agent who took me on as a complete unknown. And I will always be grateful to the Orange Prize.
You have called for the west to respect us as equal citizens of the world in the past (I read and loved your piece on real heroes in the war against Ebola), in the light of that, what do you think of Binyavanga Wainaina’s call, in a recent interview, for us to develop our existing literary platforms and stop overly legitimising the Caine Prize?
It is true that the Caine Prize benefits African writers but the benefits go both ways. The Caine Prize also gains legitimacy from African writers. Some people think that the response to any kind of ‘foreign help’ should be an unquestioning, near-servile gratitude. It shouldn’t be.
Prizes matter because they bring recognition to writers. But what is even more important for us here in Nigeria is to start at the root of the problem. Our education system is a disaster. Our graduates are barely literate. You often hear Nigerians bemoaning this and blaming the young people. But it is not the young peoples’ fault. If you are in a system that has failed you, there is little that the majority of people can do to overcome a poor foundation. I sometimes see how much money is spent in Nigeria on things like music, and indeed how much money exists in Nigeria albeit in severely limited hands, and I realize there is so much more we can do for literature. I would like Nigerian corporate sponsorship to fund programs in Universities. Fund a journalism program, which would mean the students have access to visiting professors from all over the world, the proper computer hardware and software, access to the latest scholarly research. Fund an English program. Fund a library. Provide books and demand some kind of accountability from the institution. Fund a program like ‘Teach For America’ that organizes short-term training for graduates who can then go to all parts of Nigeria and be paid well for teaching. The current practice of sending Youth Corpers to schools is not useful because many of the corpers don’t know the first thing about teaching. Make writing and reading a fundamental part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools. We still have an attitude that a ‘story book’ is not as much real study as maths. Actually both are equally important.
Before Binya’s declaration, there was another big controversy surrounding the Caine Prize and your statement about it not being the true representation of African writing. One of your workshop attendees who insiders say you gave a lot of support was in the middle of the Caine Prize uproar. You’ve never talked about this, I am sure people want to know what you think about that incident.
I remember I was at home when a friend came by and saw me having dinner with family and friends and he said – ah you are here laughing and eating while they are talking about you online. I remember later being amused because I thought: so now I’m not supposed to eat?
I asked him what was going on and he told me that this person who had been at my workshop the year before had written a misogynistic, insulting piece about me because he was angry that I had referred to him as ‘one of my boys at the workshop’ in an interview. I was very surprised.
First, I have to give some background: This person applied to my workshop and was accepted. I was interested in one of the early pieces he wrote at the workshop, which was about homosexuality and was progressive in tone. He was from the North and I have always particularly wanted to support writers from the North because I think we don’t have as many stories coming from Northern Nigeria as we do from Southern Nigeria and if we are going to make any sense of Nigeria as a nation, we need more stories. More human stories, not just check-the-box journalism. Especially from the minorities in the North, because it is easy to think of the North as one huge monolith.
So it was the major reason I chose to support him. I remember telling him at the workshop that a lot of his work was about provoking for the sake of provoking which I thought was hollow. He seemed more focused on the response he could elicit than on the integrity of the story he was telling.
I also remember that he often acted very superior to the other workshop participants in a way that was unpleasant. As far as I was concerned, if you choose to apply to a workshop that I am teaching, then you are a student like everyone else. And all the students are there because they have talent, you can learn from anyone and you really should save your superiority until you have actually published something worthwhile.
Anyway, after the workshop, another workshop alum sent me a story that this person had written, which the alum thought I should see because it was good. I also thought it was good. So I took my time, read it and sent this person an email saying he needed to make some edits but that I thought he should get it published. Time passed. He wrote me from time to time. I did not always reply because I am often overwhelmed and am quite terrible with emails. But I wrote back a few times, to send him my good wishes, to encourage him to keep writing, that sort of thing. His emails were always very polite. Mine were always warm and encouraging. He sent me a collection of stories that he had finished writing. I then decided to introduce him to my agent.
Introducing an unpublished writer to your agent is serious compliment.
I certainly don’t do it often. And by the way, I don’t do it anymore. I asked my agent to please contact him and to look at his collection. She read his stories and thought he still needed to do some more work on them. The idea was that if he revised them or wrote something else, he would send to her. He now had the possibility of being represented by one of the best literary agents in the world. For this story to continue making sense, we have to go back to another story about natural hair.
Are they related? I mean, does the natural hair controversy have any bearing on the ‘one of my boys at the workshop’ controversy…
Well, yes, because it was the last communication I had with this person before he turned into an attack dog. After somebody put out that headline about weaves and low self-esteem, I was told that people were tweeting this quote that I had never said, and that this person had tweeted it as well.
So I wrote to him and told him I expected better from him, that I was disappointed he would join a bandwagon in repeating what I never said. I expected that somebody like him would be astute enough to go and read the actual interview.
He wrote back and was very apologetic, effusively apologetic, and said he had not actually been referring to me and that his tweets had been misunderstood. I believed him.
That was the last communication I had with him. Which is why I was astonished to hear, later, that he had written this attack piece about how I had called him ‘boy’ in an interview. He knew that there was no way I meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way. It was a playful and affectionate way of saying that he was a protégé of sorts. Which at the time he was.
This was somebody I had been helpful to and supportive of. This is somebody who once knelt down in front of me as a greeting, in public, to show how grateful he was for my support. He didn’t have to write a public attack piece, he could have written me himself if he genuinely minded the ‘boy.’ I don’t often use the word immoral but I think what he did was immoral.
What he wrote was apparently so full of ugly innuendo that people said to me that there must be some “back story.” There was of course no “back story.”
Some of my friends told me that I should release all the emails I had ever exchanged with him. Because to anyone who saw those emails, seeing that he had spent months being (in hindsight) falsely extra-nice and borderline sycophantic, it would be obvious that his ‘outrage’ about being called boy was a cynical attempt to grab attention for himself. But I decided against it. It just wasn’t worth the emotional energy. I also didn’t want to feel that I had to ‘open’ my private space because of this person’s cynical action.
I cannot blame the public for their response. To be honest if I were an observer I think I too would have taken on that outrage of ‘how dare she call him boy.’ I used to automatically think that there was virtue in the non-famous person and vice in the famous person. If you read the interview in which I referred to him as ‘one of my boys’ in its proper context and with an open mind, it is clear that I am being very pro Nigerian nationalist and also mocking Nigerian nationalism at the same time. But I can easily see how people would take on an outrage. We live in an age of easy shallow outrage. It’s a case of ‘what is the twitter outrage of the day?’ Many people don’t even read the original article that is being referenced before they join the outrage bandwagon. And remember the source of outrage was not my actual referring to him as ‘one of my boys’ but his own piece about it. I am sure many people read his piece and so I can’t blame them at all for then attacking me. I am told he referred to me as a cocoyam of some sort. An unfortunate choice of metaphors, by the way. I had hoped he might have learned better at my workshop.
You have a way with sarcasm that can be bitingly funny.
I am the proud granddaughter of Nwabuodu of Umunnachi, and my grandmother had the most deliciously cutting tongue. Her sarcasm was an absolute art form, and I aspire to that. I admire a certain kind of female sarcasm, which has a wonderful tradition, with such people as Jane Austen and Rebecca West and Dorothy Parker. So yes, I am often sarcastic. Happily so.
To be continued in part 2