Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be Africa's best-known young writer, but she's now making a big mark this side of the Atlantic.
A former MacArthur genius, her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists" was sampled by Beyonce. A film based on her novel Half of a Yellow Sun will be out this summer. And she's just won a prestigious National Book Critics Circle award for her latest novel Americanah.
But she says she didn't expect the critical recognition for the love story centered on race, identity, immigration and hair that spans three continents. "I've just been so pleasantly surprised by how well Americanah has done, because I didn't think it would do particularly well," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.
The awards and book sales have proven her wrong. And now there are rumors tying Americanah to Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o. "I can't confirm," Adichie says, "but I admire Lupita very much and she is probably going to option Americanah. ... I don't know what's going to happen, whether it's going to be a film or a TV series or whether it's even going to happen, because you know, these things take forever," she says. That is as much as Adichie will say for now.
Adichie says she wrote the book as her "you know what, this is the book I want to write," she explains. She says royalty checks from her previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, allowed her to take a risk. "I deal with race in a way that's not the way that one is supposed to in serious literary fiction in this country. And I just imagined that maybe many readers would not connect to it."
On denouncing Nigeria's new anti-gay laws
I wrote it because I was angry. I was upset. It was very personal, my reaction to it. And you know, it's easy to say, "I have people I love who are gay," which is true, but if I didn't, I would still have been outraged by it, because I felt it was deeply unjust. And I recognize that I have a voice now in Nigeria, and so I wanted to write it, and I wanted to write it specifically for a Nigerian audience, to say, "let's actually think about this, let's talk about this." And the responses I got, I wasn't surprised to get ... people who said I used to love you but now that I know you support gays, I no longer love you. And when somebody told me this, that this is what her cousin had said, I said, "tell your cousin I don't want her love, if that's the condition for her love."
On being smart and dressing fabulously
I grew up being told that I had to look in the mirror. You know, my mother made history. She was the first woman to be head of the administrative section of the University of Nigeria, and she was very concerned about her appearance, and she brought all her children up to care about how we looked. And so I came to the U.S. and I realized serious women were not supposed to, and that if you did look as though you cared, it was a reason to be dismissive of you ... I think I just really have come to understand that life is way too short to pretend to be what I'm not, and it sounds very New Agey and clichéed but I just really want to be my true self, and this is my true self. I think, for so long, when I would find black shapeless shifts for every event, I was just being false, that was not myself, but I was thinking, "I have to look serious."
On Beyonce sampling her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists"
I think that anything that gets young people talking about feminism is a very good thing. I also think that I have a problem with the idea of feminism as being some sort of exclusive party that someone gets to decide whether you can come, and also the idea that somehow a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, that there's something wrong with that. I have a problem with that ... Why have we decided that somehow a woman celebrating her sexuality somehow is something bad? Maybe it's that slightly puritan idea, it's also the idea that sex is something a woman gives a man, and she loses something when she does that, which again for me is nonsense. I want us to raise girls differently where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own, rather than something that a boy takes from a girl.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now if you are part of a book club or keep an eye on the latest movie releases or even listen to top-40 radio, then you've heard the name Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the last year. The Nigerian writer has just won a prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel "Americanah". It is a love story centered on race, identity, immigration and hair that spans three continents. Meanwhile, a film based on her previous award-winning book "Half of a Yellow Sun," starring Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor, will be out this summer. And her 2014 TED Talk, We Should All be Feminists, resonated around the world. It was even sampled on Beyonce's hit song "Flawless."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAWLESS")
MARTIN: Even after such a remarkable year, though, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's rise in pop-culture consciousness is long overdue for many. She's been described as one of the best writers of her generation since publishing her first novel the critically acclaimed "Purple Hibiscus" at the age of 26. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on everything.
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, you've had such a remarkable year. Is there something that stands out to you?
ADICHIE: Interesting. It's very lovely to be here, can I just say. I'm such a fan of TELL ME MORE, it's ridiculous. And I have to tell you a story about - I'm mostly in Nigeria now and I download the podcast. And I didn't realize that my phone service in Nigeria had this thing where if you download podcasts your money just goes really quick. So I'm holding you responsible for having to pay extra for my data and...
MARTIN: I'm sorry - I think. Thank you and I'm sorry.
ADICHIE: I don't know that there is. I think in general I've just been so pleasantly surprised by how well "Americanah" is doing because I didn't think it would do particularly well.
MARTIN: Really? Why?
ADICHIE: Because I wrote it as my - you know what, this is the book I want to write - kind of thing. And I'm still getting royalty checks from "Half of a Yellow Sun" so I thought I was doing OK and I didn't have to worry about "Americanah" not doing well. It's a book that I deal with race in a way that's not the way one is supposed to in serious literary fiction in this country. And I just imagined that maybe many readers would not connect to it.
MARTIN: Why? Because it wasn't so, so serious in the way that, say, "Half of a Yellow Sun" and other previous books are set against a backdrop of political and economic instability and kind of weighty issues? Is that because you think that that's what people expect?
ADICHIE: Well, no, I do think "Americanah" is serious. I think that race is a very serious subject, but I also wanted to poke fun at it. I wanted to poke fun at so many things, so many ideas, one of which is the idea of self-censorship in this country and the way you're supposed to talk about certain things and the things you're not supposed to say. And so I think there's a bluntness about the way that the character writes about race that I felt might make people uncomfortable. And one of the things about the U.S., I think, is that in general, people want to be comfortable.
MARTIN: It's interesting because I think many Americans see themselves very differently, which is one of the things that you actually write about in the book - is that how differently - just for those who do not know, the central characters are a young woman who comes to the U.S. and becomes a very well-known blogger and writes about some of these things. And her boyfriend is not able to come, even though he loves the United States, but for various reasons in the post-9/11 environment, isn't able to come. And he goes to England and then eventually goes back to Nigeria. And then she goes back and they're reunited. And it's really a commentary on all these three places. And, well, do you mind talking about that a little bit - about the difference between the way you think they see themselves and what you actually see?
ADICHIE: I think - I mean, I want to start by saying I like America very much. But it's - there's the general story America tells itself of being very free and having freedoms, which is true to an extent, but I think people learn in this country not to say certain things or they learn to talk about certain things in particular ways. And I was struck by that when I first came here because it took a while for me to understand why you had to pretend that certain things were not as they were, if that makes sense.
And there's a part in the novel that's loosely based on an experience I had where I went into a shop very early in my time in America, and there were two people there who were helpers in the store. One was black, one was white. And apart from that, everything else was the same. They both had very long hair, they both were black. And when the cashier asked me who helped you, and I couldn't remember her name. And then the cashier said was it the one with the long hair? And I said, well, both had long hair. And she said was it the one in black? And I said, well, they both wore black. And then she kind of had this sort of horrified expression on her face because she just didn't want to say what seemed to be the most obvious thing, which is was it...
MARTIN: Was it the black girl or the white girl?
ADICHIE: And I remember just finding this very odd and thinking why. I mean, now I understand. Now I get America's nuances, but at the time I didn't. So I just thought life would be so much easier.
MARTIN: The thing about "Americanah" is that there are so many observations like that, these telling details. And one of the ones that struck me is where you comment that a lot of Americans have so many bathing products, but no washcloth. I have to ask why you noticed something like that?
MARTIN: Where's their washcloth? But they have all these bubbles and soaps and liquid soaps and - how on earth did you notice that?
ADICHIE: Well, I did because, you know, I come from a culture where you scrub - where, you know, to bath means you sort of - you scrub. And I came to the U.S. and I had roommates for a few years, and I was just truly baffled by this because there were 50 different things in the bathroom none of which was something one could scrub one's body with.
MARTIN: Scrub very well. I remember that line for some reason - scrub very well, very well. Then you come here and apparently it's not necessary to scrub.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She just won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award - a very prestigious award - for her novel "Americanah," her latest. You know, you mentioned that your celebrity or is it your just comfortableness with yourself has given you the opportunity to speak out about other things. I mean, you've been writing some essays now that have also gotten attention, making people on both sides of the Atlantic uncomfortable I would imagine. You wrote an online opinion piece in February denouncing Nigeria's new anti-gay laws to further criminalize homosexuality or to increase the penalties for same-sex conduct. And I wondered - what made you want to write this piece and what reaction did you get?
ADICHIE: I wrote it because I was angry. I was upset. I just - it was very personal, my reaction to it. And, you know, I mean, it's easy to say I have people I love who are gay, which is true. But if I didn't, I would still have been outraged by it because I just felt it was deeply unjust. And I recognize that I have a voice now in Nigeria. And so I wanted to write it and I wanted to write it specifically for a Nigerian audience, to say let's actually think about this, let's talk about this.
And the responses I got - I wasn't surprised to get, you know. People telling me that I was possessed by the devil and that kind of thing. But also for every 10 people who said, you know, why did you write this - there were people who actually sent text messages to my family members saying ask her to shut up, this is very sensitive and she's going to lose her status as a Nigerian role model blah, blah, blah. And people who said I used to love you but now that I know you support gays, I no longer love you. And when somebody told me this, that this is what her cousin had said, I said tell your cousin I don't want her love if that's the condition for her love.
But, you know, for every 10 people who were very negative in their response, there's been one person who has said now I'm really thinking about this. And often because Nigeria's a country where, you know, the word gay is just simply deeply layered with all kinds of nonsense, they will say I don't support gays, but I don't want this to be a crime, which for me is progress. And so, yes, I've had those responses, and they just give me hope because, you know, I really do think this law has to be repealed. It's just deeply, deeply wrong.
MARTIN: May I ask you, though, you join a tradition of Nigerian artists who have spoken up about issues of public concern, and some of them have paid a high price and have had to go into exile or who have been threatened, and I wondered - do you feel any - that you may be paying a price for your willingness to speak out on this issue?
ADICHIE: No. I don't expect that - I mean, I realize that writing the piece in itself I run afoul of the law because I think it means that I'm supporting homosexuality.
MARTIN: Exactly, well, that is part of the law. Part of the law says that one - you're supposed to turn in people...
ADICHIE: Who are known homosexuals and you're not supposed to counsel or give support or aide.
ADICHIE: It's absurd. But I'm not worried. I think that if there is a price to pay, it's other people who will no longer consider themselves my fans, which I know is happening. But it doesn't matter that much to me.
MARTIN: On the other side of the equation - some might see this as trivial, but I would like to talk about it. You recently wrote a piece called "Why Can't a Smart Woman Love Fashion?" And you said that when you first came to the U.S. you learned a lesson in what you call Western culture and felt pressure to seem indifferent to style in order to be taken seriously. And after a certain point you just decided that you were not going to be bound by that anymore.
And I hope you don't mind mentioning that in addition to your elegance of language, you are also known for your extremely fly style. If I may say. And I don't even want to try to capture what you're wearing now, it is just sublime. It's got color, it's got some flair. You've got a scarf kind of thrown on in the way that, you know, French women all seem to know how to do and few Americans without the help of a website. And so I wanted to ask what moved you to write this piece?
ADICHIE: That's hilarious - without the help of a website - I need to steal that for the next novel. You know, I think it was just - I suppose I'm more comfortable with myself so I have the good fortune that now I am read seriously. When I started off, I just realized, you know, if you're female and your serious, you're supposed to pretend that you don't look in the mirror in the mornings. And I grew up being told that I had to look in the mirror. You know, my mother made history. She was the first woman to be head of the administrative section of the University of Nigeria. And she was very concerned about her appearance.
And she brought all her children up to care about how we looked. And so I came to the U.S. and I realized serious women were not supposed to, and that if you did look as though you cared it was a reason to be dismissive of you. And so I joined a circle of people who would often say, oh, you can't take that woman seriously, she wears high heels and eye shadow, oh, my God - that sort of thing. And I would join them...
MARTIN: They would really say that?
ADICHIE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I think there is something true about a certain kind of expectation. It's that idea that in a large sense, femaleness means either you're the serious person who tries to approximate the look of a man or you're the unserious person who looks nice and wears makeup and high heels kind of thing.
MARTIN: Have you had a reaction to that piece?
ADICHIE: Actually I've had some people come to events of mine and say the only reason I'm here is to see what you're wearing, which I don't mind at all. I'm like, OK, and maybe at some point you'll read the book.
MARTIN: One of the things you wrote about in your piece is that you feel more comfortable asserting your own style and presence. Is it because something's changed where people are less quick to put people into categories?
ADICHIE: You're right, I think I just really have come to understand that life is way too short to pretend to be what I'm not. And, you know, it sounds a very new agey and cliched, but I just really want to be my true self. And this is my true self. I think for so long when I would find black shapeless shifts for every event, I was just being false. That was not myself. But I was thinking, OK, I have to, you know, I have to look serious. And...
MARTIN: I missed that whole era, I can't even picture you in a black shapeless shift. I don't know how I missed that.
ADICHIE: I have a number of photographs. These things hopefully will be burned. But, you know, I've met women who, since I wrote that piece, have said the same thing to be, which is I actually like dressing up but I feel uncomfortable because I don't know what people will think and say. And then I it's a shame.
You know, I think if women want to dress up, they should bloody dress up and not imagine that one is going to ascribe all kinds of meanings to the fact that you like to wear a dress that's fitted and high heels. And I think also that there's something disturbing about the idea that somehow you do it for men, which I think is one of the reasons that certain feminists don't like the idea of a woman caring about her appearance. And for me there's something very un-feminist about that because I don't do it for men, I do it for myself. And actually most men don't even get it.
MARTIN: Is there something that you feel that Western feminists can learn from African feminists such as yourself?
ADICHIE: I think - well, I think we can learn from one another. I think in Nigeria what I find is that while women actively run away from that label, many women in Nigeria are earning their living, but in public they pretend that they're not because they play along with the so-called cultural ideas of what it means to be female. So a woman who has a job who buys herself a car in public will say, oh, my husband bought me this car.
I do find that women in the West have really bought into the idea that somehow they're incomplete without a man. And I don't think that women in Nigeria necessarily think that. Women in Nigeria may think they're incomplete without children, but not necessarily without a man. And I think in the West, men are not raised to think of themselves as incomplete without a woman in the way that women are raised in the West to think of themselves as...
MARTIN: Interesting. You know, I have to ask you about the whole Beyonce thing. That your Ted Talk, We Should All Be Feminists, really spoke to people around the world. It was sampled for her song "Flawless." There was this debate over whether she really is a feminist or not and, you know, because of her attire and, you know, her kind of sexuality and the celebration of her sexuality and so forth. So do you like it or not?
ADICHIE: You know, I think...
MARTIN: Your face just did something really interesting when I brought it up and I'm trying to figure out what that is.
ADICHIE: No, I think that anything that gets young people talking about feminism is a very good thing. I also think that I have a problem with the idea of feminism as being some sort of exclusive party that someone gets to decide whether you can come. And also the idea that somehow a woman who's comfortable with her sexuality, that there's something wrong with that. I have a problem with that. I think that, you know, a woman who, as long as it's her choice, you know - so that we're taking away sex work that's coerced out of this - but a woman who has the choice, why have we decided that somehow a woman celebrating her sexuality somehow is something bad?
Maybe it's that slightly Puritan idea. It's also the idea that sex is something a woman gives a man and she loses something when she does that, which again, for me, is nonsense. I mean, I want us to raise girls differently, where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own rather than something that a boy takes from a girl.
MARTIN: So what's next for you? I mean, the film version of "Half of a Yellow Sun" will be on general release this summer. There are rumors that "Americanah" will be headed for the big screen - can you confirm? We'll buy a ticket now if you tell us.
ADICHIE: I can't confirm.
MARTIN: You can't confirm? Well, you know, there's a certain Kenyan Oscar-winner - Mexican-Kenyan Oscar-winner who I think many people might like to see in another film. I just thought I'd mention.
ADICHIE: I don't - does she consider herself Mexican-Kenyan?
MARTIN: I think so, I'm not quite sure. She was born in Mexico right?
MARTIN: We don't care.
MARTIN: Would you - you'll claim her as Kenyan, that's fine. I would too. I'm not from Kenya, but I'll claim her as Kenyan-Brooklyn.
ADICHIE: Yeah, that makes a bit more...
MARTIN: I'll claim her as Kenyan-Brooklyn. So you can't confirm either? Your face is also doing something really interesting. So...
ADICHIE: No, I can't confirm, but, you know, I admire Lupita very much. And she is probably going to option "Americanah." I don't know what's going to happen, whether it's going to be a film or a TV series or whether it's even going to happen because you know these things...
ADICHIE: ...Take forever.
MARTIN: Do come back and tell us.
ADICHIE: I will, absolutely.
MARTIN: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel "Americanah." And she was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations on everything.
ADICHIE: Thank you, thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.