How to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Chim-muh-MAHN-duh en-GOH-zee ah-DEECH-ee-(ay) The “ay” is soft, not quite a diphthong.
What led you to write a book about the Nigeria-Biafra war?
I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because the war changed the cause of Igbo history, because Biafra is still an incredibly potent word in Nigeria today, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, and my mother has never spoken at length about losing her father, because almost every Igbo person alive in the 1960s was affected by the pre-war massacres, because colonialism makes me angry, because the thought of the egos of organizations and men leading to the unnecessary deaths of children makes me angry, because I think we are in danger of forgetting.
I have always been fascinated by Biafra. I have always wanted to write about it. It was not just because my parents told so many stories of how they lived through the Nigeria-Biafra war but because I realized how central Biafra was to my history. Because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra.
Given that, at the time of the war, you hadnt yet been born, what sort of research did you do to prepare for writing this book? Was it important to you that you get all the facts of the war correct for this work of fiction?
My parents stories formed the backbone of my research. And I read a lot of books about the war. I talked to a lot of people. In the four years that it took to finish the book, I would often ask older people I met, Where were you in 1967? and then take it from there. It was from stories of that sort that I found out tiny details that are important for fiction.
As far as adhering to the facts, I invented a train station in Nsukka, invented a beach in Port Harcourt, changed the distance between towns, but it was important that I get the facts that mattered right. All the major political events in the book are factually correct. But what was most important to me was emotional truth. I wanted this to be a book about human beings, not a book about faceless political events. For research, I have a lot of research notes that I did not end up using because I did not want to be stifled by fact, did not want the political events to overwhelm the human story.
You say you think we are in danger of forgetting.Can you talk further about how the war is treated in Nigeria today?
The war is still talked about, still a potent political issue. But I find that it is often talked about in uninformed and unimaginative wayspeople repeat the same things they have heard and often dont know the full story. It also remainssurprisinglyvery ethnically divisive. The (brave enough) Igbo talk about it and the non-Igbo think the Igbo should get over it.
There is a new movement called MASSOB, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, which in the past few years has captured the imagination of many Igbo people. MASSOB is controversial; it is reported to advocate violence and its leaders are routinely arrested and harassed by the government. I am not exactly sure what the group stands for but I think that they have managed to capture the imagination of so many Igbono matter how inchoate their objectivesbecause there are a lot of unaddressed issues that the country may have officially swept aside but which continue to live in individual hearts.
The book focuses on the experiences of a small set of people who are seeing the conflict from very different points of view. When we step into their individual worlds, one at a time, we dont learn their every thoughtthe narrator who follows them isn't omniscientbut rather we have a partial, or selective, understanding of them. Can you describe your narrative style and why you framed these characters the way you did?
I have always been suspicious of the omniscient narrative. It has never appealed to me, always seemed a little lazy and a little too easy. In an introduction to Giovanni Vergas novel, it is said about his treatment of his characters that he never lets them analyze their impulses but simply lets them be driven by them. I wanted to write characters who are driven by impulses that they may not always be consciously aware ofwhich I think is true for us human beings. Besides, I didnt want to bore my reader to death, exploring the characters every thought.
The character of Richard is a British white expatriate who considers himself Biafran, drawing a certain amount of criticism for his self-proclaimed identity. Another key narrator, Ugwu, is a thirteen-year-old houseboy who seems to react rather than act. Each is and interesting choice of character for the narrator to shadow. Why did you pick them?
Ugwu was inspired in part by Mellitus, who was my parents houseboy during the war; in part by Fide, who was our houseboy when I was growing up. And I have always been interested in the less obvious narrators. When my mom spoke about Mellitus, what a blessing he was, how much he helped her, how she did not know what she would have done without him, I remember being moved but also thinking that he could not possibly have been the saint my mother painted, that he must have been flawed and human. And I do think that Ugwu does come to act more and react less as we watch him come into his own.
Richard was a more difficult choice. I very much wanted somebody to be the Biafran outsider because I think that outsiders played a major role in the war but I wanted him, also, to be human and real (and needy!).
There is a conflict in this story between what is traditional and tribal versus that which is modern and bureaucratic. How has the conflict played itself out? What is the mix today?
Cultures evolve and things change, of course. What is worrisome is not that we have all learned to think in English, but that our education devalues our culture, that we are not taught to write Igbo and that middle-class parents dont much care that their children do not speak Igbo.
This is an exciting moment for Nigerian writers; who are some of your favorites, and why do you feel this worldwide resurgence in popularity for Nigerian writers is happening now?
Tanure Ojaide writes beautifully. Sefi Atta has a delicious wit. Chris Abani is wonderfully astute. I didnt know there was a worldwide popularity in Nigerian writers. I hope there will be.
Whats next for you?
The next book, and graduate school in the African Studies program at Yale.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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