By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published December 27, 2013
“I just want to breathe the same air and be in the same hall with Chimamanda Adichie. I have heard so much about her,” a student of Economics said just before the USA-based Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie arrived at the University of Nairobi for her lecture on African Literature.
This student, like many others—students, academics, fans, literature enthusiasts, journalists—needed not to have been a scholar of Literature or an ardent reader to have been excited about meeting Chimamanda Adichie in the Multi-Purpose Hall in which she presented her first lecture at the university in the afternoon of November 29, 2013.
To welcome Adichie—whose step into stardom came with her 2006 debut novel—Purple Hibiscus –were performances by Free Travelling Theatre, a performing arts group based at the university. The performances praised Adichie for her unwavering feminist stand, exalted her and praised her for her great achievement in the literary field as well as applauded womanhood for bringing forth such a great woman.
The writer whose arrival on the scene is said to have been endorsed by the writer of Things Fall Apart, the late Chinua Achebe, as possessing the gift of ancient story-tellers after reading the manuscript of her first novel, was in Kenya for the 10th Kwani? Litfest—an annual literature festival organised by Kwani Trust that also represents her in East Africa and partners with her Farafina Trust to offer writing workshops in Nigeria.
Adichie talked about her uncertain beginnings in the writing career. Though her subject was ‘African Literature’, she appeared to be skeptical about what she called the lumping of writers’ works into what is called ‘African writing’. She insisted that a writer is just a writer and being put in particular shelves and then being labeled African or European or Caribbean or whatever else could be detrimental to both the writers and the readers because this kind of categorisation is not normally clearly defined.
“What criterion do they use when they categorise a writer as African? Is it the country of origin of the writer? Where the work is set? What the work is about? Who the work is about? Or what?” she posed rhetorically.
Adichie advised up-and-coming writers not to focus on the money or fame when they go into writing because that may not come as promptly as they expect and it may even lead not just to disappointment but also to the abandonment of dreams.
“Talented writers should not shy away from the art for any reason as it is important that Africans tell their own stories so that they are not misrepresented by foreign writers,” she said. “We need many African writers to tell the many true stories of Africa.”
Since the release of Purple Hibiscus, Adichie has remained a force to reckon with where African Literature is concerned. It is almost impossible to talk about African Literature without talking about her and her four books—Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck and the latest addition, Americanah. And that doesn’t include the many short stories, essays, educative talks on YouTube, including the one that went viral because of how candid it is at pointing out the risk that lay in wait for anyone who rushes into conclusion without first of all getting all the relevant facts about a subject; “The problem of the single story is not that it is untrue; the problem of the single story is that it is incomplete” —The Danger of a Single Story.
That Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most vibrant literary voices of this generation may not be in doubt. She says she not only began writing at the age of four but that writing chose her.
The Guardian newspaper of United Kingdom listed Adichie as the 9th most influential woman of Africa in 2012 besides the numerous literary awards such as the Orange Book Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun and the Commonwealth Prize for the Best First Book which she has won since the publication of her first novel in 2006. All her writing—themes, setting, characterisation—is based in her native Nigeria with stories that touch on issues of the day; like violence within the family, the effects of war on a country, immigration, homosexuality and education. A recurring theme in all of these books is the fight against the violation of human rights.
Prof Henry Indangasi who teaches Literature at University of Nairobi says that he was charmed by Adichie’s personality during her lecture in Nairobi.
“She came across as perceptive, deep, warm and sincere as a person,” Prof Indangasi said. “But for Chimamanda to maintain her upward spiral, she should strive for more believable characters.”
Prof Indangasi was referring to Chimamanda Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus in which Papa, the main male character, abhors the traditions of his people with an unexplained dislike.
“Her characters may come across as melodramatic for a reader who seeks believable characters because the motivation of her characterisation is not fully clear to the reader.”
The journey appears to be just beginning for 36-year-old writer who says she adores Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo and is heavily influenced by the late Achebe. Will Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie be carried away by the hype and fame that her name carries as witnessed by the almost cultic following at University of Nairobi or will she live up to her own prophecy—writing chose me—and go on to become a legend in the league of compatriots Achebe and Wole Soyinka?