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In conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Dr. Emily Zobel Marshall, Course Director in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities, discusses her interview with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which took place at the Kings Hall in Ikley on Friday 30 May as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival. The event was sponsored by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett.

As I sat with her publicist in the Ilkley Kings Hall dressing room, receiving updates on Chimamanda's journey up the congested M1, I thought the event would have to be canceled. She was nearly an hour late – and still in Headingley. The audience, (of around 450 people), were extremely patient. When she finally arrived, unflustered and glamorous in a striking pink dress and high heels, we were ushered straight onto the stage.

Chimamanda and Emily

Chimamanda and Emily, by Max Farrar

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the world's most accomplished contemporary writers. She grew up in Nigeria and at the age of nineteen she left for the United States to study. She completed a masters degree whilst working on her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003 (Chimamanda was only twenty-six), which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.  Her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is set before and during the Nigerian Civil War. It won the Orange Prize for fiction and has been made into a film, which was released in April, starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave).  Her latest novel Americanah (2013) has received numerous accolades and focuses on the lives of two Nigerians in America and the UK to examine the affects of leaving home on their understanding of their identities and values. Like all her books, it is written with great passion, it’s a gripping read, and is huge in scope but tight in structure.

I have long been awed by Chimamanda’s talents. I teach her books to my postgraduate students because I want to introduce them to an author who is capable of capturing the nuance of human emotion whilst always questioning perceived historical and contemporary truths about our world.

Chimamanda, by Max Farrar

Chimamanda, by Max Farrar

I began by asking her about storytelling. Chimamanda is of Igbo origin and I wanted to find out more about the role of storytellers in Igbo culture. She responded that oral storytelling was central to Igbo culture and that she had always enjoyed listening to and writing stories. Unpredictably, the first stories that she loved reading were by Enid Blyton – although she was perplexed by the lashings of ginger beer the characters continually seemed to consume – what was this bizarre drink? As she grew up, as well as enjoying European and American classics she began to read books by African authors and discover representations of the world that she could recognise and relate to.

Chimamanda’s responses were in turn entertaining, profound, moving and always generous; she took her time to consider each query and answered at length, especially when she took questions from the audience after her interview and a short reading. In one of Chimamanda’s famous TED (Technology, Enterprise, Design) lectures, available here, she talks about the ‘danger of telling a single story’ about the world – a one sided narrative which can lead to bias and stereotyping.  How did she avoid telling a ‘single story’, I asked her. In response she discussed writing her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the brutal history of the Biafran conflict (1967-1970). She said she felt it was a story she had to tell, as both her grandfathers had died during the war, but there was a silence about the conflict in Nigeria. To research the novel she spoke to people who had lived through the fighting and she poured their memories and stories into her novel. This allowed her, as the famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (one of Adichie’s sources of inspiration) puts it, to create a ‘balance of stories’. She also explained that she endeavours to challenge stereotypes of Africa as a place to be pitied for its poverty or admired for its 'exotic' natural beauty, whist always writing with ‘emotional truth’ (Achebe, 2000).

In her latest novel her protagonist Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, moves to America and writes a popular blog about race. Adichie spoke about how, like her protagonist, she felt she had to ‘learn’ to be black in America, as in Nigeria her race did not define her in the eyes of others. Also fascinating were her views on feminism; Adiche recently gave another TED lecture entitled ‘We should all be feminists’. I asked her what being a feminist meant to her. She said being a feminist is about not being afraid to assert yourself with conviction, not pandering to the expectations of others and not worrying continually about being ‘liked’. Her TED lecture on feminism was recently sampled by the American pop star Beyoncéand critics have questioned Beyoncé's claim to feminism. Adichie pointed out that feminism was not an exclusive party to which only a few are invited -  if Beyoncé wants to ‘dance in her pants’, and this is how she embraces her sexuality, then she can call herself a feminist.  Laughingly, Adichie added that her young nieces and nephews finally listen to what she has to say now that she has been sampled by an international pop star.

Emily, by Max Farrar

Emily, by Max Farrar

It was truly inspiring to meet Adichie, a woman of my age (thirty-six) who is so self-assured, honest, grounded and extraordinarily intelligent. As the event was sponsored, in partnership with Ilkley Literature Festival, by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Met a number of VIP tickets were available to students. Three students from the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities were keen to share their experiences of the event.

Olawale Kuponipe: Third Year BA (Hons) English Literature

"Before the event the only piece of work I heard from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was on TED talks and her piece on feminism. After this event, I understood why people spoke so highly of her. It was an honour to be in the presence of such an authentic human being. Hearing her views on race, identity, history, and stories was an unforgettable experience. The influences behind her writing added much depth and elegance to her novels. In particular, her views on the role of storytelling changed my perspective on novels and literature itself. In addition, her obsession with looking back at the past was relevant to my reasons for aspiring to become a Sports journalist, as my love of writing about the history of Sports makes sense of the present. One quote which spoke to me, in particular, was, 'Storytelling makes history come alive.' The reason this quote touched a soft spot was also because it carried similarities to the nostalgic beauty of the stories I was told in my own childhood.

"The main thing which stood out for me was her love of tackling issues on humanity and it showed in the wide variety of people who attended the event. I remember her saying, 'In Nigeria, race doesn’t matter', and this left me with the impression that everyone is equal and capable of succeeding, no matter what your background or race is."

Scott Kingshott: Third Year BA (Hons) Media, Communication, Cultures

"What stood out for me was Chimamanda's insightful account of moving from Nigeria to America stating she had to ‘learn to be 'black'. It was interesting to hear her discuss having to come to terms with the construct of race; having not read her third novel, this was a fresh perspective to hear. I’ll certainly buy it now."

Laurence Grant: Third Year BA (Hons) English literature. Representative of New African TV (NATV), a student initiative based in Leeds aimed at providing media services to promote cultural diversity

"Entering the foyer of King's Hall, which must be one of Ilkley's finest spaces, the first impression was one of community, unity and a readiness to learn. All those that attended the interview between Dr. Emily Marshall and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, despite having to wait a while for the latter's arrival, were greatly anticipating an exchange between a respected local academic and a globally recognised author - neither of whom disappointed. As a student of postcolonial literature Chimamanda and Dr. Marshall's discussion of on-going colonialism was eye-opening.

"The main sentiments that lingered long after the event was concluded were largely concerned with making a difference, be it a small one or otherwise, to the community around you.

"After being offered complimentary tickets by Rachel Feldberg, the Director of Ilkley Literature Festival, as part of the New African TV team, we felt welcomed to this momentous event and left the building rich in knowledge and inspiration."

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About the Author

Dr Emily Zobel Marshall

Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.

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