‘We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Adichie is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made.’ As I read these words by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, one of the most well established and widely read writers in African literature, to up-and-coming award-winning novelist Chimamanda Adichie, her eyes fill with tears. Giving her a moment to collect herself, I watch this woman, sitting before us, who has risen above being a mere a writer to become a phenomenon.
Born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, Adichie grew up in what she describes as ‘the shadow of the Nigerian-Biafran War’, which had ended seven years earlier. This was a war that wreaked havoc across the country and cost Nigeria millions of lives, a war that, as the author claims, caused both ‘physical destruction’ as well as ‘mental destruction’. Adichie is one of just a few Nigerian authors who have taken on the daunting task of discussing this topic, telling the story of the war in her latest novel – which is only her second – Half Of A Yellow Sun.
‘It was exhausting, it was emotional,’ she says of writing this moving tale. ‘It’s very difficult to describe; it’s as though your mind has been rubbed raw. It was moments of despair and depression and then moments where I would write a passage and sort of be high.’ We are just a few minutes into our interview and already it has become abundantly clear that this book is not simply a novel; it is Adichie’s heart and soul. ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun nearly killed me,’ she confesses. ‘I was so immersed in the lives of the characters that when I finished the book I was horribly depressed, because I just had no idea what to do with my life. I was bereaved.’
When I ask why she chose to write about the Nigerian-Biafran war, Adichie says she did not consciously choose to write about the subject but that she had, for a long time, been obsessed with this part of her history. She lost both of her grandfathers in the conflict, the impact of which, clearly, is still keenly felt today. Her father’s father, she says, was ‘a man who was fiercely moral, who was so inspiring in so many ways. And for me I think, as a child, knowing that I would never know this man because of this war was a great loss.’
But, while the human losses were tremendous, the smaller losses were just as encompassing: her mother’s piano, her father’s graduation gown and his books, all were lost in the war. It was the combination of these things, great and small, that made this battle, one that happened before her time, an event she had to pursue. ‘In a sense this is a book that I have always wanted to write; a book I always knew I would write, but I was just waiting to write it,’ she explains. ‘It has been an almost life-long story.’
Adichie is adamant about her determination to base the story in fact, despite it being a fictional account. She explains that although she wanted to write about the human aspect of the conflict, she realised that it was impossible to do so without writing about the politics as well. It is this flexibility, this ability to weave fiction with immutable, uncompromising fact, that makes Adichie the commanding author she is. But, despite the success she has achieved, the author maintains her humility, stating that she wasn’t sure the novel would go on to become the success it did (Yellow Sun picked up the UK’s prestigious Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007). She wrote it, she says, simply because it was something she was meant to do.
As our interview draws to a close, Adichie politely declines discussing her next novel, but reveals – with a laugh – her cure for writer’s block: lie in bed, eat a lot of ice cream, call someone you love and read. ‘I find that reading helps,’ she adds, more serious now. ‘I lie in bed and I start to read. If it doesn’t get the juices flowing, at least it makes you remember the beauty of literature; what literature can accomplish.’
Adiche’s work is the embodiment of this sentiment. Here is a woman who has managed to articulate a horrific event in a way that maintains the essence of the political turmoil, but also shows the human paradigms of the happenings. Lives were lost, people were broken, victims emerged, and Adichie, a woman of great courage, not only faced these demons with compassion and understanding, but has ensured that generations of readers will be able to do the same.
Half Of A Yellow Sun is published by HarperCollins. Dhs45 at Magrudy’s