Rising Star “Americanah” Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Speaks on Race and Identity

March 17, 2014

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel at New York’s Asia Society and Museum (Photo Credit: Erin Baiano).

On March 14th, award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her most recent novel, “Americanah.” The Aspen Institute Arts Program recently hosted Adichie in conversation with Arts Program Director Damian Woetzel at New York’s Asia Society and Museum.

During the discussion, Adichie spoke about experimenting with different genres; her conflicting experiences of home, heritage, and national identity; the presence of politics in her writing; and the portrayal of race and gender in “Americanah,” which was included in The New York Times’10 Best Books of 2013” list. See below for the full-length video and excerpts from the conversation with Woetzel.

Adichie on being Nigerian in America:

“I had many opportunities to get an American passport, but I chose not to because I felt, in a slightly misguided way, that I wanted to somehow be authentically Nigerian. Which meant that I would travel with only a Nigerian passport, and I would therefore be forced through the various indignities that attend a Nigerian passport, such as having difficulties in getting visas to different countries and being harassed at different airports. I watch people’s faces, and the minute I present my green Nigerian passport, something happens. It’s a mask of distrust.

…My immigration was slightly easier [than that of some characters in “Americanah”]. I had a visa, it was documented, I could go back to Nigeria. But there are people for whom that is not a choice or option, and there is something about that which I feel is deeply moving, the way it is an accident of birth. There is a sadness to it for me.”

Adichie on storytelling and writing fiction:

“I don’t remember when I wasn’t interested in storytelling… I think the general idea of writers, especially writers who start young, is that they are learners, and they don’t have friends, and books are their friends. I had many friends and I was quite a social child, but I was always drawn to storytelling. Not just reading books but also listening to stories, those of my friends and families. You can call it ‘not minding your business,’ but I was always very interested.

[In writing fiction] I’m not really conscious of what I’m doing. I always feel one step removed, but it’s not like I’m not present. The storyteller in me is always watching. It’s not so much that I become a character, it’s just that I can observe. I go through life watching. I take notes…”

Adichie on writing nonfiction:

“With non-fiction, I censor myself, I protect myself, and I’m very much aware of my audience. My ego is present when I write nonfiction. I’m very much aware of myself as a character. [In writing fiction] obviously I write socio-realism. I’m a human being, I live in the world, I’m very politically aware, I have certain political positions, and surely my writing reflects that. But it’s never intentional or overt.”

Adichie on Ifemelu, the protagonist of “Americanah,” and feminism:

“Many people have just assumed that Ifemelu is me, which I mostly find amazing, and sometimes I don’t really want to dissuade people because I don’t really mind. A friend of mine said to me, ‘Obinze is very much you,’ and I realized in many ways he is: the part that watches, dreams, and mourns. I have immense nostalgia. I’m nostalgic for things I never knew, and there’s a lot of that in Obinze.

I admire Ifemelu, and I did want her to be a character who — and I suppose this is what I mean about my political positions coming up — has a feminism about her. I wanted her to be a character who challenges all the ideas about what femininity should be. If Ifemelu had been male, and been exactly the way she was in the novel, the interpretations of the character would be very different.

We bring all these gender expectations even to how we read. So Ifemelu is the person in a relationship who cheats, and she doesn’t cheat in the way we expect women to cheat, because the man hurt her or abandoned her. She cheated because she was curious. It doesn’t matter how progressive we think we are; women are not supposed to cheat for these reasons. When I say I admire her, I admire women who live life on their own terms. Not to make a point, but simply because it is the life they want to lead. And often the world doesn’t give them the room.”

Erica Sheftman is project manager of the Aspen Institute Arts Program.