Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie is a story in herself

Turbulent homeland provides tapestry for ex-Hopkins student

October 04, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thinks of Baltimore as "an old woman who's resigned and not very happy, who used to be very beautiful and is aware she no longer is very beautiful and is not very happy about it."

Adichie lived here on University Parkway for about a year while she worked on getting her master's degree in creative writing from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

She'll be back in the area tonight, reading from her much-acclaimed debut novel Purple Hibiscus at Barnes & Noble, at the Avenue at White Marsh. Baltimore is her first stop on a six-city tour promoting the Anchor Books paperback edition.

Adichie has been an O. Henry Prize winner, and Purple Hibiscus was on the long list for the Booker Prize, the most prestigious of British literary awards. She wrote most of the book during her senior year at Eastern Connecticut State University. The hardback edition was published the month she started at Hopkins last fall.

Adichie first came to America in 1997 with a scholarship at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She transferred to Eastern Connecticut in Willimantic so she could live with her sister. She's now at her sister's home talking on the phone two days after she arrived again from Nigeria.

Adichie, whose full name is pronounced Chi-mah-MAN-da n-GAWZ-ee a-DEECH-ee, concedes she didn't really see much of Baltimore. She taught writing classes, spent a lot of time in the Hopkins libraries and worked hard on her second novel.

"For me," she says, "Baltimore was a place where I lived in transition. I knew I was only going to be there a short time. So I didn't invest my feelings in the city. ... I guess what I wanted was peace and time to work on my second book. And I got that at Hopkins.

"I do have to write," she says. "I've been writing since I could read. So it's difficult for me to talk about why I write because it just seems to me self-evident that I have to write. I wrote plays when I was in grade school and I also wrote poetry when I was younger. I don't do that any more. I just write fiction. But I have been writing since I was 6 or 7. I began writing seriously when I was 18 or 19. I had sort of a prose-poem published in a Nigerian magazine when I was about 16. When I was 18, I had a little drama published in a sort of chapbook form."

She's 27 now. Purple Hibiscus, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., is a richly imagined coming-of-age novel told by 15-year-old Kambili Achiki, whose rigid Roman Catholic family is coming apart against the backdrop of one of Nigeria's numerous coups. The writing is lush with the smells of jollof rice and the colors of frangipani flowers and the heat of the harmattan wind.

The fanatical colonial Catholicism of Kambili's father, Eugene, clashes with the calm, tolerant, "heathenism" of her grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu, and even the easy-going, assimilated Catholicism of Aunty Ifeoma, a college professor, and Father Amadi, the virile, young priest Kambili falls in love with.

Adichie's father was a bit unnerved by Eugene, the father figure in Purple Hibiscus. Eugene is a prosperous businessman who is a generous, socially conscious, freedom-loving leader in the community, but a physically abusive tyrant at home.

"I guess," Adichie says, "it's because you write a novel and it's in the first person and people immediately assume that it's your story. My father read it, and I think he was a bit surprised and a bit shocked, and he wanted to know where the father came from. And I think - although he really didn't say this - I think he was slightly concerned that people might think it was him or based on him.

"But my father is really very different from Eugene," she says. "I think people who know my family are even more surprised that I could come up with a man who is so different from my dad. But I think fiction should really be about our ability to imagine."

Her father, a statistics professor, was deputy vice chancellor of the University of Nigeria, in the small city of Nsukka. Her mother was the university's first woman registrar. Adichie grew up in a house where the great, seminal Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once lived. Readers of Achebe will recognize a homage to his novel Things Fall Apart in the first sentence of Adichie's Purple Hibiscus.

"My father is very much a gentleman," she says. "He's also a gentle man. He's very quiet, very reserved. But he has incredible integrity. Which is a thing I've always admired about him. Particularly in a country like mine, where integrity is lacking."

Eugene in the novel is an extremely complicated character whose Catholicism is a kind of ruthlessly disciplined repression.

"I've been fascinated by religious faith for a long time, and by what people are willing to do in the name of faith," Adichie says. She's a moderate Catholic, she says, semi-practicing. But she didn't want to create a monster in Eugene.

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