“I write because I spend a lot of time in that space between the imaginary and the concrete. I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work,” said Chimamanda Adichie to her Andover audience on Friday as students and faculty listened to the acclaimed Nigerian fiction author tell her story.
Adichie, the author of award-winning novels “Purple Hibiscus,” “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “The Thing Around Your Neck,” spoke in front of an largecrowd in Kemper Auditorium and visited several English classrooms during her day at Andover.
Elizabeth Oppong ’12, Head of African Student Union (ASU), and the English Department sponsored Adichie’s visit thanks to a grant from the Abbot Academy Association.
In her presentation, titled “The Magic and Craft of Fiction,” Adichie said, “For me, writing is magical in the sense that there’s a part of it I can’t explain, which I like to think of as the talent I was born with. And then there’s the craft part where talent is not enough, the part that’s really gritty and hard and involves sitting down at a desk for hour after hour until the muscles of my neck have knotted.”
Though Adichie’s works are all fictional, her stories contain aspects of her life in Nigeria. However, Adichie did not intend for her novels to be dissections of Nigerian political and social systems, which is the way that her novels are often interpreted.
“When I sat down to write ‘Purple Hibiscus,’ I was not thinking, ‘I am not going to write a political allegory of my country.’ Instead, I was just going through the magic of the craft process. I was just telling the story of a man, of a family, of a particular place at a particular time. I was telling a human story,” she said.
Elly Nyamwaya, Instructor in English and Advisor to ASU, said, “I think that [Adichie’s] presence here [at Andover] gives an opportunity to have people get a different perspective on the African story. Most of the stories students hear about Africa are through the media, and the media usually presents a very distorted picture of what’s going on in Africa. Oftentimes, we only see the tragedies, the civil wars, the farming, the extreme poverty.”
While Adichie did not identify a single source of inspiration, she said that she draws ideas from her surroundings and keenly observes the people around her.
“I notice such things as the slump of a man’s shoulders in the departure lounge of an airport. I notice the way that strangers talk to each other in a café,” she said. “Often I eavesdrop, because you never know what might give rise to fiction.”
Adichie told aspiring writers in the audience to read. “In some ways, I like to think of reading while I’m working, or trying to, as somehow watering my mind so my words can start to grow,” she said.
Adichie described her protagonist Kambili from “Purple Hibiscus,” a story of a crumbling Nigerian family living during a period of political instability, as a character that “spoke” to her as she was writing the novel.
“A character had come to me, a young girl with a hushed voice and an almost broken spirit. It was a girl who was nothing like me, who I wanted to explore. I think that the fact that the character was nothing like me made her more interesting. She was an unknown quantity, and I was very curious about her,” Adichie said.
She continued, “Whenever I tell my family that sometimes my characters speak to me, they look at me as though I’m slightly mad. [They ask], ‘The characters speak to you?’ Sometimes a friend or family member will say, ‘Why did this happen in the book?’ And I will say, ‘Actually the character wanted it to happen.’ And they will look at me like, ‘She needs help.’”
Adichie’s ability to communicate genuine human emotion through a distinctly Nigerian lens has won her a broad international audience, though Adichie said she avoids thinking of her readers’ judgment while writing.
“I write for whomever enjoys the kind of fiction that I enjoy. Part of the reason I don’t think about audience is that I think that being consciously aware of an audience when I write leads very easily to self-censorship,” she said.
Adichie said that if she had written “Half of a Yellow Sun” while minding what her father would think about the novel, she couldn’t have written certain parts of the book.
“I think she’s remarkably inspiring and [her visit allowed] students to experience… that these books don’t come out of thin air, that there’s a human hand behind the books that we study in class,” said Kevin O’Connor, Instructor in English, who introduced Adichie.
Fatima Liaquat ’12, whose English class Adichie visited, said, “She writes about Nigeria, and I want to write about Pakistan. She gave me advice: don’t worry about the audience, write the story. I think that is going to help me when I write in the future.”
Rosalyn Chen ’14 said, “[Adichie] said that being a writer for her was being able to write about the really commonplace things that people don’t really notice–like pedicures and portraits on walls. We read ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ in class, and I definitely noticed that aspect of her writing before. Her writing has a lot of detail that makes it more realistic.”