Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks at Topping & Co about her new novel Americanah

Adichie discusses her latest novel Americanah, the politics of hair, her novel’s title and Nigeria as home. The late Achebe hailed her as “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”
Adichie at Topping & Co, Bath. 8th April 2013.
Adichie at Topping & Co, Bath. 8th April 2013.

Adichie stands gracefully smiling , amongst higgedly-piggedly, wooden book shelves, with her audience precariously arranged on top of one another in the corners between the books (books come out triumphant, always, in Toppings – you can hide in the shelves, with your complimentary cup of tea, particularly the poetry section snuck around at the back). Her hair is natural and plaited in small cornrows, arranged in a large ponytail, and I mention her hair because Americanah is fixated with it. Adichie has prompted a brilliant conversation about the politics of hair. This kicked off the discussion after she had read from passages of this her newest novel, confidently bashful over her first time reading from it, and which follows on from the triumphant success of Half of a Yellow Sun, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007. She is exuberant as she advises us to search ‘natural hair styling’ on YouTube, how relaxing hair was a rite of passage for her leaving school and advises a white lady with remarkably curly hair that she should try some African hair-styling techniques. One woman is surprised that so much time should have been given to hair in the novel and also so much time by ‘intelligent journalists’ in their reviews. Adichie came back with the indirect response that whole novels have been written on baseball, would it be so remarkable that ‘intelligent journalists’ remarked upon that? And she makes hilarious comments about afros and shea butter and yes, she knows all about colouring, blow dries and keratin serums too. She is evidently proud of her natural hair, so rare she says, and most prominent now in Nigeria with returnees. In hairdressers, she’ll be given an odd look and asked straight away whether she wants them to get the relaxers. With the amount of time that goes into our hair each day and my relative lack in knowledge of styling African hair, I’m glad to have been both amused and a little more informed…

Americanah is a contemporary novel, featuring blogs and a beautiful love story of a couple torn apart in times of conflict, separated by long distances only possible to traverse now in our globalised world. It feels very different  to the consciously historical Half of a Yellow Sun, whose two narrative presents are both in the 1960s and which includes factual entries from a book written by one of the characters, explicitly to educate her english-speaking readership about Nigeria’s past. She expressed her keen interest in history as a way of understanding who we are in the present but she jokes that people had said she was always writing about history, so wrote a contemporary novel.

The title, she says, is not symbolic. She had other, perhaps more poetic titles, but for her publisher this was short and memorable. The ‘Americanah’, a returnee from America and a joking term, in the novel is no more important than the other story line. It is a reminder, of course, that there are publishers behind the selling of this (and every other) novel in our bookshops, but somehow you feel when listening to Adichie that she could not care for doing anything but writing – it is her world and her joy to create the characters and story lines, calling herself “a relentless collector of people’s stories.” Like a ‘Madame Bovary’, she says, all her characters are in some way her. (It was easy to judge the literarily-educated from the knowing nods accompanying this reference.) She also notes that, like parents cannot in public admit to having a favourite child, she too should not pick a favourite character when asked. But she does mention an affiliation with Kainene (Half of a Yellow Sun) and says she sometimes wanted to give Olanna a good slap!

A moment of serenity breaks through her quips and witticisms, as she talks about the late Achebe, still finding it painful, she says, to talk about him in the past tense. It is difficult, she says, just to know that he is not in the world anymore, not to interact with but just as someone she knew was living. She clearly has a profound respect for his work, her self-professed literary hero. Coincidentally, too, she grew up in the house he had lived in on Nsukka University campus. Adichie lived in Nigeria until she was 19 and thinks of Nigeria as home, which is evident is her affection for Lagos in her novels.

She had been asked on Radio 4 the morning before giving this talk, about it being an angry book – which she felt was an absurd question. She put it this way: that of course in talking about race there would be some anger involved and satire, that the literary form needs to challenge. But she feels the book is funny and keeps referring to times when she laughed aloud reading it. She is upfront discussing race and feels that it has become an uncomfortable topic in literary fiction, addressed ambivalently or not at all. Americanah sets about changing this status quo.

Being fond of intriguing and unusual Igbo names, especially from her father’s generation and apologising for her bias, Adichie notes the beauty of the Igbo language, joking about how unimaginative Igbos are in naming their children with four common names. As an endnote, I suggest you only attend a talk by her if you have an interesting name. I felt very inadequate with the simple, ‘Rebekah’, even though I had to spell it out, because she left us with the inordinate task of providing her with names to fill her novels. She collects names at book signings, recording ones of interest and asking their origins to ensure she doesn’t wrongly cast a character. If you have a boring name too, be prepared to feel a little bit of a disappointment as she signs your copy.

Rebekah Ellerby attended the talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Topping & Co. Bath on 8 April 2013. Adichie is now touring with Americanah, released on 11 April 2013.