Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Living In the Same House With Achebe

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie burst onto the global literary stage at the age of 26 in 2003, with her award-winning debut novel Purple Hibiscus, the world rallied around her. Fifteen years on, she has kept faith with that mandate by churning out two more award-winning novels, a collection of short stories and two treatises on feminism. She has worked so hard to earn the fame and status of a rock star, that people mill around her everywhere she goes.

This is not coming as a surprise as her works have been translated into over thirty languages across the globe. She has also, over the years, become a strong voice for feminism, sometimes receiving flaks from men in her home country, who believe she is taking feminism too far. But she is undeterred. Back home in Nigeria, she pulls the same stunt, as her novels are sold in the corridors of the vehicular traffic of cities, big and small bookstores, and about every other space in between, and her readings always attract a mammoth crowd, jostling to catch a glimpse of her and buy her books, and also for her to append her autograph to the purchased books.

So when the opportunity came for Nigerians to hear her speak recently at a press conference held in Angels and Muse in Ikoyi, Lagos, where she rebooted the international creative writing workshop she has midwifed for eleven years, they all came in droves.

Adichie was radiant in a sparkling white gown, wore confident smiles and a stylish coiffure that has become her wont. She spoke eloquently about feminism, her relationship with Chinua Achebe, her passion for the writing workshop that has produced over two hundred writers who have become award winning writers, editors and have excelled in various fields. Still, the importance of the workshop notwithstanding, it was an opportunity for the multiple award-winning writer to clear the air about whether Achebe had any role to play in her writing, aside just being one of her influences, and, perhaps, put to rest the ghost of the father of the African novel that seems to haunt her works. …the relationship between the two writers, aside from the near-similarity in terms of style, structure and use of Igbo proverbs and idioms, was one of mutual awe and respect. After all, they lived in the same house in Nsukka, communed with the same “spirits”, though at different times.

Adichie said the programme, which has been renamed Purple Hibiscus International Writing Workshop, will be sponsored by Trace Nigeria and will continue to provide her the opportunity to contribute to the growth of the writing community in Nigeria. It will also serve as a platform for writers to learn from one another and from established writers: “I have been so happy and proud to see many of the alumni of this workshop who want to do so many wonderful things … What is happening here is that people are being validated, that people are being made to understand that this thing they want to do matters. Every society needs its storytellers. Because if we don’t have them, we lose something. We lose something in our souls,” she said.

Adichie also spoke effusively on feminism as she engaged journalists who took her on what they believe is her own brand of feminism. She was quick to say that feminism is not only universal but also about equal rights and justice and bemoaned the fact that people have inadequate knowledge of what feminism is about and are therefore not engaging when an issue as important as women’s rights is being discussed. But the high point of the conference came when a journalist, like the biblical Nicodemus, asked Adichie whether it was true, as the rumour went the rounds, that Achebe wrote some part of Purple Hibiscus.

Adichie who grew up in the same house on the university campus at Nsukka, where Achebe had lived with his family, before he relocated to the United State, saw it as the opportunity to rest speculations about her relationship with Achebe. She then rose to her own defence, saying she only met Achebe twice before the accomplished writer died, and that was after she had published her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.

“I met Chinua Achebe only twice in my entire life. And we had a conversation for a total of seven minutes. Because I had adored Achebe and his works my entire life. And his novels have meant so much for me, especially Arrow of God, which is just a beautiful work of art. And so the point of meeting him was not something I wanted because I was too much in awe of him,” Adichie said.

Adichie also recalled that when her first novel was published, Achebe read it and told his son that he wanted to meet her. “I was terrified. I was like ‘No, no, no.’ The son gave me his phone number and said, ‘my dad said you should call him.’ I said, ‘No. What am I going to tell Achebe?’”

That fearlessness and audacity, which Achebe pointed out, has defined Adichie’s work and activism. It has made the world to see her as a writer who not only knows what she is about but is also ready to stand for what she believes in.

Adichie said the first time she met Achebe was at a public event in New York, where he was being honoured. “I drew up to him. I was shaking a little. And I said ‘Good evening, Sir.’ And he looked at me and said (mimics him), ‘I thought you were running away from me.’ I couldn’t look his face. And I was happy that other people came and started talking with him. I just used that opportunity to move away.”

The multiple award-winning writer and feminist said the second time she met Achebe was at a luncheon in the House of Lords in England. “And they had seated him opposite me. Throughout that moment my eyes were down. I did not want to look up to see Achebe because I was too shy. And at the end of the event, I walked up to him and bent down and said, ‘Good afternoon.’ And he said, ‘How are you?’ I said I was fine. He said, ‘You make us proud.’ I nearly started crying and I left. And that is for the people who say that he wrote my book. Maybe he did it in the spirit world,” Adichie said. That did not only draw a round of applause from the audience but also put an end to the Chimamanda Adichie/Achebe controversy.

It would be recalled that when Half of a Yellow Sun was about to be published, Adichie’s editor in the United Kingdom sent the book to Achebe, who wrote the following testimonial on the front cover: “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war, Adichie came almost fully made.”

That fearlessness and audacity, which Achebe pointed out, has defined Adichie’s work and activism. It has made the world to see her as a writer who not only knows what she is about but is also ready to stand for what she believes in. “My editor did not tell me she had sent the book to Achebe because she knew how much I adored him. She also said in case Achebe didn’t get back or respond to her, she didn’t want me to be disappointed,” Adichie reminisced.

So rather than ask whether Achebe wrote parts of Purple Hibiscus, which was rather too simplistic and naive, the journalist should have asked whether the Eagle on the Iroko influenced her writing. And of course Adichie has always spoken about her love for Achebe’s works, how they have shaped her writing. But there was never any instance where the late writer said he helped Adichie write some parts of her novel. Rather the relationship between the two writers, aside from the near-similarity in terms of style, structure and use of Igbo proverbs and idioms, was one of mutual awe and respect. After all, they lived in the same house in Nsukka, communed with the same “spirits”, though at different times. This is not also about whether Adichie is stepping into Achebe’s shoes. There are no shoes to step on. Achebe has trodden his path; Adichie is also treading her own path, a path she has constructed herself through hard work, perseverance and tenacity of purpose. And that is instructive.

Nehru Odeh, a journalist, is the author of “The Patience Of An Embattled Storyteller”


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