Author Interviews
5:30 am
Sat May 11, 2013

A Nigerian-'Americanah' Novel About Love, Race And Hair

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 5:22 pm

School romances face a lot of obstacles: the big decision at graduation, the competing demands of two burgeoning careers, perhaps a period spent in a long-distance relationship. But the young lovers in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest novel, Americanah, must overcome even more challenges than usual: military rule, immigration restrictions and, during their years apart, other relationships.

Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as students in Nigeria, when the country is under military rule and those with the means to leave the country do so. Ifemelu goes to America to study, and she prospers there, trying out different jobs and relationships while writing a blog about her sudden new awareness of race.

Obinze, on the other hand, can't get into to America in the days following Sept. 11. He winds up living in London, under assumed names, and nearly gets married there before he's sent back to Nigeria.

Obinze and Ifemelu find each other — over the Internet, at first. Then Ifemelu returns to Nigeria. But she doesn't want to see the man she has loved for so long. At least, not yet ...

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a MacArthur fellow, and her previous novels have won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction). Adichie joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about race in America, the politics of hair and the loss of Chinua Achebe.


Interview Highlights

On the immigration of Nigerians into the U.S. and U.K.

"I think the immigration story that we are very familiar with, when it concerns Africa, is the story of, you know, the person who's fleeing war or poverty, and I wanted to write about a different kind of immigration, which is the kind that I'm familiar with, which is of middle-class people who are not fleeing burned villages, and who you know had ostensibly privileged lives, but who are seeking what I like to think of as choice — who want more, who think that somehow over there is more exciting, is better. For my generation it's the U.S., and I think this is probably the case for much of the world, because America just has this enormous cultural power."

On how Ifemelu's hair is important in the novel

"I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair. In particular I want to talk about natural black hair, and how it's not just hair. I mean, I'm interested in hair in sort of a very aesthetic way, just the beauty of hair, but also in a political way: what it says, what it means.

"[Ifemelu] is going for an interview and she's told that if she really wants to get the job — and she is qualified for the job — but she's advised that the best thing to do would be to take the braids out and get her hair straightened, because that's the way to look more 'professional.' "

On the difference between race in America and tribal affiliation in Nigeria

"I sometimes wonder whether we should change the terminology and instead of talking about race, maybe just talk about skin color, because Ifemelu didn't really think of herself in terms of her skin color when she was in Nigeria. So coming to the U.S. and discovering that she was black was an entirely new thing. And it's quite different from being in Nigeria and knowing that there are tensions between Igbo and Yoruba and Hausa. It's a very different thing. But you know, what's, I think, particularly absurd about race is how immediate it is. That it doesn't matter what your history is, what your — it's really about how you look.

"And I'll tell you a story. So when I first came to the U.S., much like Ifemelu, I just didn't think of myself as black. And I wrote an essay in class, and my professor wanted to know who 'A-dee-chee' was — Americans often call me 'A-dee-chee,' and often tell me that my name makes them imagine that I might be Italian. And so when I raised my hand, because, you know, 'Who wrote the best essay? This is the best essay; who's A-dee-chee?' I raised my hand. And on his face, for a fleeting moment, was surprise. And I realized that the person who wrote the best essay in the class was not supposed to look like me. And it was quite early on in my time in the U.S., but it was just sort of that very tiny moment where I realize, 'Oh, right, so that's what this is about.' "

On having one foot in the U.S. and one in Nigeria

"I think I'm ridiculously fortunate. I consider myself a Nigerian — that's home, my sensibility is Nigerian. But I like America, and I like that I can spend time in America. But, you know, I look at the world through Nigerian eyes, and I am happiest when I am in Nigeria. I feel most — I question myself the least in Nigeria. You know, I don't think of myself as anything like a 'global citizen' or anything of the sort. I am just a Nigerian who's comfortable in other places."

On Chinua Achebe's death and how he impacted her

"It really was the world's loss. I think he was remarkable, and you know, not only was he a wonderful writer who wrote about the dignity of a people, he was also a man of just incredible integrity. I like to say that he gave me permission to write, because until I read him, when I was about 10, I was writing stories — I started writing quite young — and I was writing copies of the British books I was reading. So, you know, my characters were all white and were playing in the snow and here I was in small-town Nigeria. And then Chinua Achebe's work came. And you know, the best of literature is that you are reading but you're learning as well, and you're growing, and at the end of it you feel that you know more about human nature, that there's a sense of just being human that's just really wonderful."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sometimes school romances last. But what if the people involved fall in love with others before they realize that? Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as students in Nigeria when the country is under military rule and those who have the means to flee do. Ifemelu goes to America to study and she likes it. She takes odd jobs, falls in and out of relationships. America makes her conscious of race, as she rarely was back home, and she begins to blog about it. Obinze can't get into America in the days following 9/11 and winds up living almost invisibly under assumed names in London. He's minutes away from getting married there, but is sent back to Nigeria, where he strikes it rich. Obinze and Ifemelu find each other over the Internet at first, and then Ifemelu returns to Nigeria too. But she doesn't want to see the man she's loved for so long - at least not yet.

"Americanah" is the title of the new novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her previous novel, "Purple Hibiscus," won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. And her stories have appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and the Financial Times. She's also a MacArthur fellow. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who divides her time between the U.S. and Nigeria, joins us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Thank you.

SIMON: What sent so many Nigerians into the U.S. and/or the U.K.?

ADICHIE: I think the immigration story that we are very familiar with, when it concerns Africa, is the story of, you know, the person who's fleeing war or poverty, and I wanted to write about a different kind of immigration, which is the kind that I'm familiar with, which is of middle-class people who are not fleeing burned villages and who, you know, had ostensibly privileged lives, but who are seeking what I like to think of as choice. Who want more, who think that somehow over there is more exciting, it's better. For my generation, it's the U.S., and I think this is probably the case for much of the world, because America just has this enormous cultural power.

SIMON: Ifemelu adjusts to America by the time that we see her. She holds odd jobs, has a couple of nice boyfriends. But her hair keeps emphasizing some problems of adjustment.

(LAUGHTER)

ADICHIE: I mean, I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race and about hair. In particular I want to talk about natural black hair, and how it's not just hair. I mean, I'm interested in hair in sort of a very aesthetic way, just the beauty of hair, but also in a political way; what it says, what it means.

SIMON: Well, for example, Ifemelu is about to go on a job interview and she gets some advice about her hair and takes it.

ADICHIE: Yes. So, she's going for an interview and she's told that if she really wants to get the job - and she is qualified for the job - but she's advised that the best thing to do would be to take the braids out and get her hair straightened, because that's the way to look more "professional."

SIMON: I was struck by the fact that there she is noticing the play of race in the United States and yet at the same time she's come from a country where race is also a factor. It just seems to be expressed by tribal affiliation rather than skin color.

ADICHIE: You know, maybe I sometimes wonder whether we should change the terminology and instead of talking about race, maybe just talk about skin color, because Ifemelu didn't really think of herself in terms of her skin color when she was in Nigeria. So, coming to the U.S. and discovering that she was black was an entirely new thing. And it's quite different from being in Nigeria and knowing that there are tensions between Igbo and Yoruba and Hausa. I mean, it's a very different thing. But, you know, what's, I think, particularly absurd about race is how immediate it is. That it doesn't matter what your history is, what your - it's really about how you look.

And I'll tell you a story. So, when I first came to the U.S., and much like Ifemelu, I just didn't think of myself as black. And I wrote an essay in class, and my professor wanted to know who Adichie was - Americans often call me Adichie, and often tell me that my name makes them imagine that I might be Italian. And so when I raised my hand, because, you know, who wrote the best essay? This was the best essay; who's Adichie? I raised my hand. And on his face for a fleeting moment was surprise. And I realized that the person who wrote the best essay in class was not supposed to look like me. And it was quite early on in my time in the U.S., but it was just sort of that very tiny moment where I realize, oh, right, so that's what this is about.

SIMON: Yeah. What do you think it does to your perspective in the world to have - if I phrase this correctly - one foot in the United States and the other in Nigeria?

ADICHIE: I think I'm ridiculously fortunate. I consider myself a Nigerian. That's home, that's - my sensibility is Nigerian, but I like America, and I like that I can spend time in America. But, you know, I look at the world through Nigerian eyes, and I am happiest when I am in Nigeria. I feel most - I question myself the least in Nigeria. You know, I don't think of myself as anything like a global citizen or anything of the sort. I am just a Nigerian who's comfortable in other places.

SIMON: The world lost Chinua Achebe recently, and I know he was a great admirer of yours and vice versa. What did he mean to the world and African literature?

ADICHIE: I think you've put it so beautifully - the world did lose; it really was the world's loss. I think he was remarkable, and, you know, not only was he a wonderful writer who wrote about the dignity of a people, he was also a man of just incredible integrity. I like to say that he gave me permission to write, because until I read him, when I was about 10, I was writing stories - I started writing quite young - and I was writing copies of the British books I was reading. So, you know, my characters were all white and were playing in the snow and here I was in small-town Nigeria. And then Chinua Achebe's work came. And just the best of literature is that you are reading but you're learning as well, and you're growing. And at the end of it you feel that you know more about human nature, that there's a sense of just being human that's just really wonderful.

SIMON: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her new novel, "Americanah." Thanks so much for being with us.

ADICHIE: Thank you. What a lovely chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.