“Americanah,” the third novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States and finds a certain amount of fame as a blogger writing candidly about issues of race and nationality. In her review in The Times, Janet Maslin called the book’s first half “tough-minded and clear,” but expressed disappointment in the “simple romance” of what followed. In a recent e-mail interview, Ms. Adichie discussed the state of American fiction, the tropes she wanted to avoid in writing about race and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Your first two novels were set in Nigeria, and this book takes place there and in the United States. Did you feel you had to live here a certain amount of time before you wanted to approach it in fiction?
I don’t believe in writing what I don’t know. So I feel, having lived in the U.S. off and on for a number of years, that I can tell a story partly about America. That said, the setting of my fiction isn’t a primary consideration for me. Character and story come first.
Ifemelu, one of the two protagonists in “Americanah,” is a Nigerian-born writer who moves to the U.S. and eventually receives a fellowship at Princeton. Aside from these details, is there a deeper autobiographical connection you feel with her?
Ifemelu spends 13 years in the U.S. before moving back to Nigeria. I spent only four years in the U.S. before I went back, and have since lived in both countries. That is a significant difference, as much of Ifemelu’s character is shaped by being disconnected from home for so long. I quite like that she is a female character who is not safe and easily likable, who is both strong and weak, both prickly and vulnerable.
Obinze, the other main character in the book, thinks that in contemporary American novels, “nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.” Is this an opinion you share with him?
I’m reading new novels by Elizabeth Strout, Elliott Holt and Claire Messud, and they dispute Obinze’s opinion. I do think there is a tendency in American fiction to celebrate work that fundamentally keeps people comfortable. There is also an obsession with “original” for the mere sake of it, as though original is automatically good, and original often involves some level of irony and gimmick.
The U.S. has been at war for many years now, and there is also an ongoing intense ideological war in the U.S., but you would hardly know that from American literature. But of course this is also about my own biases. I love fiction that has something to say and doesn’t “hide behind art,” novels that feel true, that are not self-conscious experiments. I read a lot of contemporary American fiction and find the writing admirable, but often it is about individuals caged in their individuality, it says nothing about American life, is more about style than it is about substance (style matters but I struggle to finish a novel that is all style and has nothing to say). “The Great Gatsby,” for example, says something about American life in a way that many contemporary novels no longer do.
Another character says that when black American authors write about race, they have to “make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.” Would you say that your book is in some ways a response to this, since race is a very clear theme throughout?
The character was talking about African-American, rather than African or American-African writers, and this distinction is also partly what the novel is about. I think “Americanah” is a response of sorts but it is complicated by my not being African-American. I could have done “Americanah” differently, in a way that was safer. I know the tropes. I know how race is supposed to be dealt with in fiction (you can do a “novel of ideas” about baseball, but not about race, because it becomes “hectoring”), but I wanted to write the kind of novel about race that I wanted to read.
Still, there is a certain privilege in my position as somebody who is not an American, who is looking in from the outside. When I came to the U.S., I became fascinated by the many permutations of race, especially of blackness, the identity I was assigned in America. I still am fascinated.
You began your college career in Nigeria studying medicine. When and why did you decide to make writing your career?
Writing has always been what I loved and wanted to do. But I didn’t think I could earn a living from writing. So I planned to be a psychiatrist, have a regular salary and use my patients’ stories for my fiction. But then I left medical school because I was bored and thought I would then get a job in media to earn a living. Now I am doing what I love and earning a living from it, and I feel ridiculously lucky.
Do you see any differences in how your work is reviewed in the U.S. compared to in Nigeria?
I’m very pleased that more Americans than I thought are reading it in a way I hoped it would be read. Still, it seems it is mostly American readers who most miss the fact that “Americanah” is supposed to be funny. I laughed a lot when writing it (although it is a bit worrying to be so amused by one’s own humor). But I suppose race when bluntly dealt with does not blend well with that wonderful, famed American earnestness.
You teach writing in your home country. What are two or three principles you think it’s important to instill in young writers?
This is what I tell my students: read widely, read what you don’t like and read what you like, and try not to consciously write like either. And writing has to matter in a deep way. You have to make the time to actually write — seems obvious enough, but I often hear from people who say they want to write but have no time. And finally I tell them not to think of family and relatives and friends when they write, otherwise they will censor themselves without even knowing it.
Can you imagine writing a novel set entirely in the U.S.? Have you started another project, and can you share anything about it?
I never say never to anything. My next work will be a novel of ideas about baseball. More seriously, I have many ideas, I am reading and absorbing and watching. I am also, deep down, a superstitious Igbo woman, and so don’t like to talk about future work lest the spirits desert me.
Credit; The New York Times Review by John Williams