You’ve said, “I didn’t choose writing, writing chose me.” How did this happen? How did you discern this calling to become a writer? Would you identify it as a vocation?
I have writer friends with elaborate and exciting stories about how they came to writing, but I just don’t have that. I wrote from when I was six. Even then I knew that this was something that truly mattered to me. When I was ten, though I had a lot of friends, I remember looking forward to when I could go up to my father’s study and be alone and write. It was considered something odd for me to want to do when it was sunny outside. Now, as an adult, I realize it’s what I care about. It gives me a sense that this is what I am meant to be doing.
Would you use the word vocation to talk about that?
I think so. I’ve often said that even if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be published I would be writing. I love that I am published, and it was a choice that I made to try and get published. But publishing is very different from writing.
Of course one wants to be published. Otherwise I would just write in my diary and put it in a drawer. But publishing is public, which is why I feel a sense of distance from my books after they come out. I get stupidly emotional about my own work when I am with it alone. I don’t show people what I am doing until I am done, until I feel comfortable enough to let it out. The writing part is very private and gives me that marvelous high when it’s going well, but when I finally send something out to my editor, that’s when I have to put on my practical glasses and think about the work in a less intuitive and more pragmatic way. My editor will say, “I don’t think this character would say that.” And I will think, “Well, in my head she did, but all right.”
Initially you wrote poetry and plays, but you seem to have found your voice and your genre in fiction. What is it about fiction in particular that attracts you? Why are you a storyteller?
Why indeed. Because poetry’s too hard to do well. Also, my process isn’t an entirely conscious thing. I just do. But I will say that fiction is true. This is something my friends who write nonfiction and I argue about all the time. I feel that fiction is much more honest than nonfiction. I know from my limited experience in writing nonfiction, particularly memoir, that in the process of writing I am constantly negotiating different levels of self-censorship and self-protection, and protection of people I love, and sometimes protection of people I don’t necessarily care about but I worry that the reader might have biased feelings about. When I write fiction, I don’t think about any of that. Radical honesty is possible in fiction. With fictional characters, I don’t have to think about protecting anybody.
You’ve spoken of the influence on you of Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart, who is often called the father of African literature. Purple Hibiscus opens with an echo of that famous novel, and the final story in The Thing Around Your Neck essentially presents an alternative feminist rendition of the final chapter of Things Fall Apart. What is it about Achebe that inspires you? In what ways are you attempting to build on but also to move beyond his example?
I respect and love Chinua Achebe’s work, but I don’t want to be a second Chinua Achebe, or a third. I just want to be Chimamanda Adichie.
Achebe is a man of immense integrity. I believe him. There are some writers whose work you read and you think, “This is a performance. I don’t think you believe this.” And for me, fiction should be truth. There are times when I’ve thought, “I’m going to write this story because I want to show that I can.” But then I’ll think, “No, it’s a lie,” and I won’t, because life is short and I want to do what I care about. Chinua Achebe’s work is full of integrity. He does what he believes in. Growing up an Igbo child, I was fortunate to be educated, but my education didn’t teach me anything about my past. But when I read Things Fall Apart, it became my great-grandfather’s life. It became more than literature for me. It became my story. I am quite protective of Achebe’s novels in a way that I don’t think I am with any other book that I love.
Who else has been important to you? What other books or writers do you love?
I fall in love and out of love quite often. I went through an Edith Wharton phase where I wanted to read everything she’d ever done, and then at some point I thought, if I read one more thing of hers, I will die.
I like Philip Roth quite a bit, much to the annoyance of my feminist friends. I like his technique, and the way he refuses to hide. I admire a writer who has the courage—and it does take courage—to look social realities in the face. It’s easy in the name of fiction to hide behind art, because you’re afraid somebody will say you’re a little too political, or that politics is not the job of fiction. But Roth is fearless, and I respect that.
Is there anyone who stands on the same level as Achebe for you?
No, Chinua Achebe has the misfortune of standing alone. I grew up reading mostly English and Russian novels, and I liked them quite a bit, mostly the English ones, but until Achebe, I hadn’t read a book and felt it was mine. The other book I felt that way about was The African Child, a very slim novel by Camara Laye. I read it when I was in grade five, about the time I first read Things Fall Apart, and I remember there was something magical about it. It was about his childhood in Guinea, and there were things that were quite unfamiliar. There was a level of exoticism in it, but also a level of incredible familiarity. I remember falling in love with the book, with the beautiful melancholy of it. I keep meaning to go back and read it again and see.
You mention that you teach creative writing workshops. What do you tell young, aspiring creative writers?
To read and read and read. I’m a believer in reading, to see the wide range of what’s been written. I’m also a believer in reading what you dislike at least once, just to know. I often say to my students, “I’m going to have you read something I don’t like.” I don’t like cold fiction. I don’t like fiction that is an experiment. I find that often it’s the boys in the class who love the fiction I don’t like. I say to them, “I’ll tell you why I don’t like it. And, then, if you like it, I want you to tell me why.” Most of all I believe in reading for what you can learn in terms of not just craft and technique but worldview. It’s important to think about sentences and how one develops character and all of that, but also to think about what the story is as a big thing. Most of all, we have fun in the workshops. For me, it’s important that we find reasons to laugh. And we mostly do.