By Jessamy Calkin
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos Photo: Akintunde Akinleye
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, Americanah, is a story of romance, race and the politics of hair.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, is the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian who travels to America to study and stays there for 13 years before deciding to return to Lagos.
The book is an atmospheric and vibrant love story – the love between Ifemelu and Obinze, the high-school sweetheart she leaves behind, the love between Ifemelu and her American boyfriend, the love she has for her young cousin Dike, whom she looks after in America, and the love of her homeland, Nigeria. It is also a novel about race and immigration and what it feels like to be black in America.
But the book’s biggest love affair seems to be Adichie’s enduring relationship with hair. Hairstyle is such a constant presence in the book that not a page goes past without a mention of it: straight weaves, box braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, afros, twists, raucous curls, kinky coils and TWAs (teeny weeny afros).
Not to mention texturisers, relaxers, oils, pomades and hair butter. No character in her book gets away without having their hairstyle mentioned, and many are defined by it. And not just the girls.
‘The greying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot.’ ‘A dreadlocked white man sat next to her on the train, his hair like old twine ropes that ended in a blond fuzz.’
Chimamanda Adichie, 36, sits before me now in a hotel in London: contained, amused, sexy and intellectual. Her own hair is succinctly tethered, but it looks as if, were she to free it, it would be ready to spring into action at any time.
‘I am obsessed with hair!’ she exclaims, before settling happily into a long session on the subject. ‘As you can see I have natural, negro hair, free from relaxers and things. My hair story started when I was a baby. My mother had boys and she desperately wanted a girl, a girl with hair. I came out with a lot of hair and she was thrilled. As I was growing up she would do things to my hair but what I loved the most was when she stretched it with a hot comb. I was terrified too, because when the comb touched your ear it was so painful, but I loved the idea that my hair would then be straight. So when I was three years old I already had the idea that straight hair was beautiful and my hair was ugly.’
In secondary school her hair had to be natural or in braids. Even now, Adichie says, her two nieces who go to school near Lagos have to have their hair cut short, like boys. (‘They are continually texting me, to ask me to buy them a wig. I believe strongly that we should be proud of our hair, but if my 15-year-old nieces want a straight wig, I’ll buy them a straight wig! Life is short.’)
On the last day of secondary school Adichie ‘relaxed’ her hair. ‘It was this huge girl occasion for me and my friends,’ she says. ‘A relaxer alters the hair chemically and makes it permanently straight. But it also burns the scalp. And sometimes the hair just refuses to be totally straight, so they’ll use a tong and then it smells just like burning goat.’
She progressed through a series of hairstyles before she moved to America. ‘But here’s the thing – in America I suddenly found out I was black. I’m black! What does that mean? Suddenly I started thinking, why do I want my hair to look like white girls’ hair? This is absurd.’
In Americanah, after Ifemelu gets the relaxer treatment in the salon for the first time, the hairdresser says, ‘Wow, girl, you’ve got that white-girl swing!’Adichie writes. ‘She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss.’
Adichie well remembers the day she cut off all her hair, and is now a keen exponent of the natural hair movement, though it is only popular in America; back in Nigeria hair is still straight. She has a friend who will not even answer the door without her wig, and ‘the salons there don’t know how to care for our hair any more. They only know about wigs and weaves and relaxed hair.’
A loud and vivid sense of Nigeria is present in all Adichie’s books – Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize) and her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. In Americanaha major character in her book is Lagos, a city of 16 million people, which is expanding by roughly 600,000 every year.
Three quarters of the city is made up of slums. Recently, the ambitious governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola, who is committed to turning it into a megacity, has been forcibly clearing the slums. The Makoko slum on the lagoon was cleared last year by police wielding machetes; last month the decades-old Badia East slum went, with inhabitants being given 20 minutes to remove their possessions. (Adichie was horrified by this as she had broadly admired Fashola, though she describes him as the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.)
Adichie loves Lagos, where she spends half her time. She loves the culture and the spirit of the city, and the resilience and initiative of its people. ‘People-watching is one of my favourite things. And the best people-watching happens in Lagos. I love to sit in traffic when I’m in a good mood and watch everyone. There’s a lot of hustling, a striving spirit in people, from the drivers and mechanics to the doctors and lawyers.
‘I love the diversity of Lagos. In Nigeria people find humour in the most absurd things. Something terrible can happen and minutes later people are making jokes about it.’ When I ask her to give an example of Nigerian humour, she raises an eyebrow. ‘I was going to say it’s very different from Ghanaian humour, but then I thought, hang on, do Ghanaians have a sense of humour?’
She is defensive but amused by the bad reputations that Nigerians have in parts of Africa, and outside it. ‘It is down to what I call the aggressive confidence of Nigerians, that is why we are not very popular. In South Africa we are not liked at all; they think we are all drug dealers, and that Nigerian men are taking women away from South Africans. There is an idea that Nigerians come to a country and want to take it over.’
I tell her that a Kenyan friend told me that Nigerian men all ‘wear coloured pants and dance very vigorously’, and she laughs. She points out that within Nigeria there are strikingly different cultural traits (among the Igbo, of which she is one, and the Yoruba for example) but adds, ‘There is a showiness to the Nigerian national character which cuts across our different cultural groups.’
Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a quiet university town in south-east Nigeria. She is the fifth of six children and had what she describes as ‘a fortunate childhood’; her father, James, was a professor of statistics who became deputy vice-chancellor at the university; her mother, Grace, was its first female registrar.
Adichie did exceptionally well at school, ‘and if you do well in school in Nigeria you have to be a doctor.’ She wanted to write but her plan was to get a good job and write at night, so she started studying medicine, but became very unhappy and left.
‘If you tell a Nigerian this story they would think, what? Nobody leaves medical school, especially for a reason like that.’ Stuck in the ‘science track’, she moved to studying pharmacy for a year but hated it and applied to go to college in the States, where her sister Ijeoma was living in Connecticut. She got a scholarship to Drexel (in Philadelphia) but left after a year because her sister needed help.
‘I’m a loyal Igbo sister, so I moved to Eastern Connecticut State University, which was much cheaper. I helped raise my nephew Tuks and I adore him. He’s a funny, smart, kind boy and I like to think I had a hand in him turning out like that.’
Adichie says she is grateful to America because it made her grow up. ‘In Nigeria we had a cook, a gardener, a driver – and in America I suddenly had to fend for myself. I think I was born a feminist but growing up in Nigeria there are some things you internalise without realising and I think if I hadn’t gone to the States the idea that somehow a man should be responsible for me would have stayed with me. I have friends in Nigeria who are smart, wonderful women but they still think like that.’
In her senior year at college, she wrote Purple Hibiscus. The book got wonderful reviews and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize. The following year Adichie became a Hodder fellow at Princeton, and while there she wrote Half of a Yellow Sun, an evocative and epic novel set in Nigeria in the 1960s, centred on the Biafran War.
Adichie lost both her grandfathers in the war, which had three million casualties. Initially told through the eyes of Ugwu, a young houseboy to a maths professor, it is partly set in Nsukka and is the story of Olanna, and her sister Kainene, and the war of secession of Eastern Nigeria.
Half of a Yellow Sunwon the Orange Prize in 2007, and became a bestseller. It received rave reviews, including one from Adichie’s mentor, Chinua Achebe (who wrote Things Fall Apart and is known as the father of African literature), who died last month. ‘We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners,’ he wrote, ‘but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war.’
Achebe, Adichie says, ‘is the writer whose work is most important to me because he gave me permission to write my own stories. I started writing very young and before I read his work, my stories were imitative, I was writing my own versions of the British and American children’s books that I was reading. (We just don’t have access to many Nigerian children’s books.)
His novels made me realise I could write about my own reality, that my own world was worthy of literature. I admired his integrity. His was a moral, as well as literary, voice. Arrow of God is one of my favourite novels.’
This autumn will see the release of the film based on Half of a Yellow Sun, directed by her friend Biyi Bandele and starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the main roles. Adichie (who had nothing to do with it once she had sold the rights) likes the film.
She had confidence in Bandele, who is a Nigerian playwright, and the producer, Andrea Calderwood, who made The Last King of Scotland. Adichie knew that it would not be one of those films where Africa is just the background.
There was some controversy about casting Newton as an Igbo woman (including an online petition). ‘Nigerians went up in arms. On one hand I thought, what nonsense, but I also liked the fact that Nigerians have taken ownership of this book: it’s their story. But a Nigerian doesn’t have to play a Nigerian. Thandie Newton is wonderful in the film.’
Adichie was nervous about going to see it but became so absorbed that at one point she found herself on the edge of her seat wondering what was going to happen next, before she remembered that she had written the book.
Americanah took five years to write. ‘For a long time I’ve wanted to write about two things: a love story that doesn’t apologise for being a love story, in the grand tradition of the Mills & Boon novel; and I also wanted to write about race in America.
I hadn’t felt ready until now.’ The title refers to an immigrant who has become Americanised – Ifemelu gets called ‘Americanah’ by her friends. Adichie writes with great affection for her subjects but she is not sentimental. Americanah is a dense story with a very light touch – it moves effortlessly between time frames and countries, making acute political points without haranguing.
Adichie has compared America to ‘a very rich uncle who doesn’t really know who you are, but all the same you can’t help being fond of him’.
‘I like America but it’s not mine and it never will be,’ she says now. ‘I don’t really have a life there. I travel and I speak and I sit in my study trying to write, but in Nigeria I have a life. I go out, I have friends, I feel emotionally invested in what’s happening.’
She is married to a Nigerian doctor, and divides her time between Maryland and Lagos, where she has set up an extremely successful annual writers’ workshop. A residential two-week course, last year it attracted 2,000 applications from all over Africa for 20 places. Guest teachers have included Tash Aw and Dave Eggers.
One of her original graduates (now a published author) helps her to make a shortlist and then whittle it down to 20. Adichie is keen to have a diverse class. ‘I want the privileged kid who went to school in America and I want the person who has never left Nigeria and went to a village school.’
Last year Adichie was the youngest person to deliver the annual Commonwealth lecture at the Guildhall, and her TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) lecture on national identity, The Dangers of a Single Story, is one of its most popular.
She is an eloquent person with big ideas, who is very interested in pan-African politics. ‘The idea of aid as a solution to Africa’s problems is something I don’t agree with at all. When you look at countries that have succeeded, aid didn’t do it. Aid creates dependency.’
She resents how applying for aid has become a job in itself. ‘It’s not looking for money to start a business, it’s writing a proposal so someone gives you money. Nigeria is not like that yet, and I hope we don’t become like that as it’s unhealthy. If we had electricity every day and it was constant and we had good roads and water, people would do things, they are full of initiative.’
It would, she believes, make a huge difference to productivity, self-esteem, motivation. Instead they are plagued by inconsistency in the most basic infrastructure. In Lagos Adichie has a bore hole because she cannot depend on the water supply. Whoever can afford it has generators because the power is so infrequent. She cannot remember it ever being any different.
‘Our entire economy is very oil dependent, which is a disaster for many reasons. We have all this oil but we can’t refine it because our refinery is not in good shape. And there is so much corruption in oil. I think we should focus on agriculture and manufacturing.
‘I am very much a social engineer at heart,’ she says. ‘I love Nigeria and Africa and if you love a place that you know is kind of broken, you want it to be whole. I am always watching. For example, when I have my hair done I am watching the women in the salon, wondering how things could be better for them.
The salon has to close at seven because they turn the generator off. And diesel is expensive so what they have to pay to maintain the generator is already taking a lot from what the salon makes, which in turn affects how much the workers in the hair salon are paid.’
We’re back to hair, but as in her books, it’s an entertaining detail making a much larger point; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incessant curiosity about people is what makes her such a wonderful storyteller.
‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, £20, published on 11 April) is available to pre-order from Telegraph Books at £18 plus £1.35 p&p. Call 0844-871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Source: The Telegraph