8.23.2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Hothouse Career (So Far)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is only in her early thirties but she has already written a lauded coming-of-age d├ębut (Purple Hibiscus), won the Orange Broadband Prize for her definitive novel of the Biafran war (Half A Yellow Sun), published a collection of insightful short stories set in Nigeria and the U.S. (The Thing Around Your Neck), completed a Master's in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins and also a Master's in African Studies from Yale, and in 2008 she received a five-year "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. A native of Nigeria, Adichie has spent a significant amount of time in the U.S., and plans to continue her bi-continental residency.

I doubt the MacArthur Foundation panel had to deliberate more than 30 seconds before awarding her a fellowship. Lord knows what she will accomplish now that she is free to write full-time--I myself can't wait to read her next book, but in the meantime, there are several interesting Adichie audio interviews available to while away the anticipation and deepen your understanding of her work.

What you discover listening to the podcasts is that Adichie is a most genial genius. In spite of her many garlands, she is modest about her awards, responds to all questions with an open mind, and sports a very low laugh threshold. Adichie is also serious about difficult topics without being preachy or shrill, and explains her views of the Biafran struggle and current Nigerian politics in a way that is easy to understand whether you are familiar with the history or not. Her interviewers wisely give her plenty of air time, creating podcasts that showcase both Adichie's intelligence and good nature.

An Hour of Family and Power
In June of 2009, close to the publication date of her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie spent nearly an hour with Eleanor Wachtel of CBC's Writers & Co. The podcast provides a survey of Adichie's fast-track career and a comprehensive profile of the artist in her own words. Wachtel's questions cover a lot of Adichie's family background and the process through which the experiences of family members and family friends inspired her to write about a war that ended before she was born. Wachtel also draws Adichie out on women's roles in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria, with anecdotes about Adichie's great-grandmother, who inspired the story "The Headstrong Historian" in the new story collection (Minute 4), and how the lingering effects of Victorian Christianity continue to distort contemporary Nigerian women's attitudes toward work and marriage. The podcast also includes Adichie's perceptive comments on the aspirational culture of America, and the effect that emigration has on couples who move to the U.S. from Nigeria.

The Writers & Co. Adichie audio interview is only available for online listening at the CBC online archive--scroll down the June 2009 schedule listing to the second interview and click on the arrow beneath the photo of Adichie and Wachtel. (Podcasts of more recent Writers & Co. interviews are available on iTunes are available for download; listings expire after four weeks.)

Half A Yellow Sun Burns On
In her interview with Wachtel, Adichie says she wrote Half A Yellow Sun to start a conversation about the Biafran War, and indeed her novel has filled a gap in history, even in Nigeria, where the events of May 1967-1970 are not yet taught in schools and not always discussed, even within families who experienced loss and displacement. There are two podcasts that cover the novel in detail, both of which would be best listened to after reading the novel, as they reveal a fair amount of plot.

A MacArthur Genius At Your Book Club
Imagine Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attending your book club meeting, answering a bunch of questions, plus reading aloud three excerpts from Half A Yellow Sun. This 52-minute World Book Club podcast on Half A Yellow Sun from the BBC (recorded in June of 2009) can fulfill the fantasy. All that's missing is the wine. Host Harriet Gilbert and the assembled World Book Club studio and email audience do a great job of asking questions about the novel's inspiration, characterization, structure, and politics.

The excerpts that Adichie reads aloud include an early scene when the new flag of Biafra, with its image of half a yellow sun, is unfurled (Minute 4:20), a description of a family reunion at a refugee camp (Minute 23:30), and a near-mythical yet possibly historical train scene that conveys the personal and familial horror of war (Minute 38:10).

This Half A Yellow Sun book club interview is available for downloading from the World Book Club iTunes podcast and also online at the BBC. But I can't emphasize this enough--unlike your real-life book club, you must finish Half A Yellow Sun before you listen, or you will do yourself the disservice of diluting the book's power in advance.

Pre-Genius At Ease
Edward Champion interviewed Adichie back in 2007 for his inimitable Bat Segundo Show (BSS #141) when Half A Yellow Sun was already on the rise. The result is a 36 minutes of frank and provocative chat in a tone of intelligent informality. (Minute 1 contains a bit of funky Bat Segundo audio theatricality which should be skipped if you are offended by off-color Kleenex humor, which Adichie apparently is not). The conversation, which sounds like it was recorded in a coffee shop yet is clearly audible, contains interesting exchanges on the use of point-of-view in war novels, and also some rather unique topics not found in other interviews, including Adichie's literary approach to sex scenes (Minute 13) and the themes of class and body odor (Minute 16), as well as a serious discussion of the effectiveness of using evocative rather than exhaustive detail to depict scenes of violence. The BSS #141 Chimamanda Adichie interview is available for listening online. Other unique author interviews are available from the Bat Segundo Show A-Z Guest List.