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Purple Hibiscusby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Author Q & A
Q: PURPLE HIBISCUS is your first novel. What inspired you to write this book?
A: It came about organically and slowly; it was sparked by a mélange of things: my homesickness after first arriving in America to attend college (and the way I stubbornly romanticized my memories so that everything became fragrant—rain, sand, insects, grass!), my interest in religion, the way history lives with us, my fascination with the kind of sweet-sour melancholy in some of my favorite books, Nigerian politics and how it trickles down to the personal. By the way, it isn’t the first novel I wrote. There are manuscripts languishing in dusty drawers which were poorly conceived, to put it kindly.
Q: Although PURPLE HIBISCUS is not autobiographical, how much of your protagonist, Kambili, do you see in yourself?
A: Very little. Creating her as she is was very conscious. I was aware that I was dealing with huge, complex issues—religion, politics, history—that are easy to lapse into polemics about, and so I wanted a narrator who would be able to tell the story as unobtrusively as possible. Kambili fitted well. She is not only young and sensitive, but she is also traumatized and that lends a kind of detachment to her telling. She is voiceless in a way that I, thank Heavens, am not, but I think that hushed quality of hers serves this particular story well. I do sometimes see the careful way she observes her world in myself. But I generally never model a major character after myself. I think that would stifle the creative spark; I need to be able to see my characters as being apart from me, creations that I can observe, because only then can I let them grow and free them to take risks and free myself to let them take those risks.
Q: Was there an Aunty Ifeoma figure in your own adolescence, someone who similarly opened your mind to the world of books and written expression?
A: There wasn’t one single figure, no. My parents, the university town where I grew up, my friends, my school, all opened my world to books.
Q: Because of your Igbo heritage, your work is said to have roots in the writings of Chinua Achebe. Beyond your shared Nigerian homeland, what similarities do you find in your writing?
A: I feel terribly honored to be linked to Achebe! His work has inspired me more than any other writer’s, but at the same time I don’t think my writing has its ‘roots’ in his. However, we seem to care about similar things, as do must thinking Igbo people I know. (Of course I am comparing a single novel to his incredible body of work.) We are both aware of how the legacy of colonialism has insidiously trickled down into ordinary Nigerian lives. We both celebrate Igbo culture in its magnificent ordinariness. We both portray the complexities of Christianity in Nigeria. We are both impatient with the inept leadership in Nigeria and with the way we Nigerians excuse corruption and never demand the best of ourselves and our leaders.
Q: PURPLE HIBISCUS offers not only a fascinating picture of Nigeria under the Abacha junta years, but also a buffet of traditional Nigerian dishes. What inspired you to make food such a prominent aspect of the story and is there a specific Nigerian dish you miss most when you are away from home? Is there a recipe you might want to share?
A: A meld of both the Abacha and Babangida juntas, really. Well, first because I love good food—I’m very keen on Nigerian and Indian! But more practically because I think food is a good way of introducing fiction readers to a different world, that it is the kind of detail that authenticates ‘place’ in fiction. I eat quite a bit of Nigerian food when I am in the U. S. thanks to African markets. But because I have been ‘americanized’ a little, I try to make them ‘healthier,’ and so, for example, I use very little palm oil when I make moi-moi, a delicious steam-cooked ‘cake’ of black-eyed peas.
Q: If you were to send a message to young African writers just starting out, what would it be?
A: Don’t apologize in your writing. And don’t think about your parents or uncles or aunts as you write. I find that a lot of African writing has an apologetic worldview, as if it were saying to the West—I am sorry I come from the impenetrable Dark Continent, as if the writers have internalized the idea that they are somehow unworthy. I think that makes for not only bad writing but it also comes across as inauthentic. And I also think that because we have such a strong sense of family, the thought of family members reading our work can make us censor ourselves.
Q: What’s next for you as a writer? Are you working on another novel?
A: Yes. It’s set in the sixties, before and during the Nigeria-Biafra war, but it is a story of ordinary people and what happens to them before and during the war.
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