Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be giving the inaugural Folio Society Lecture at the British Library on March 20th. Adichie’s springtime visits to London and her fascinating talks have become something of a tradition in recent years. In appreciation of Adichie’s contribution to the literary world and far beyond, I present an open letter, recalling some memorable occasions.
March 2012, Guildhall
The first time I heard you speak was at the Guildhall in the City of London in 2012, a momentous year for London and the rest of the world. You were there to give the Commonwealth address, and you delivered it brilliantly. The venue was prestigious and quite befitting of the occasion, with magnificent wooden panels, marble pillars and stained glass.
In the lecture, you talked about realist fiction, emotive significance and turning facts into truth. About the magic and the craft of writing, imaginative leaps and connectivity. Of how the role of literature is to instruct and to delight. You referred to the works of Chinua Achebe, and Camara Laye. You also mentioned bagels, Enid Blyton, ginger beer and cucumber sandwiches. You ended with a wondrous quote from the writings of Bessie Head : “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind with me. That is why I write”. You have this authority indeed. That evening, your words lifted me to a higher plane, and I have never quite come down since.
After the speech there was a champagne reception. There were no copies of your books on sale, so it was fortunate I had brought along my copy of Half of A Yellow Sun. You borrowed my pen and wrote your name, making me the proud owner of a pen that has been used by an Orange prize winner ! Later, after you had gone, with several hundred people still inside sipping bubbly and munching on canapés, the Guildhall chamber felt empty.
July 2012, SOAS
A few months later, I heard you speak again, at The School of Oriental and African Studies, for the Africa Writes Festival, on writers who have inspired you. You gave Ama Ata Aidoo a special mention. You punched the air in a show of strength and triumph. You celebrated African women’s writing. And you laughed, enjoying yourself tremendously on stage. In the question and answer session to follow, a member of the audience described you as the ‘mother of African literature’. I don’t think you were impressed. And then a very foolish man asked why you didn’t write in your own language. Big mistake. You put him straight, telling him that English was the language taught when you were at school, so English was your own language. At the book signing that followed you somehow remembered me from the Guildhall. And you kindly inscribed your name in my copy of The Thing Around Your Neck.
May 2013, The Southbank Centre
On stage in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. An imposing, concrete building and my favourite cultural venue, beating even the Guildhall. You opened up with a reading from the newly published Americanah, telling of Princeton and ice cream and unwanted comments from strangers. Then the interview. We learnt that the novel was essentially a love story that took place across three continents. Not just about love, but race and hair, too. Hair as a political metaphor. Let’s skip to the book signing. I must say that I was slightly disappointed…with the brown paper cover, no pictures and just the title splashed across the front of your long-awaited novel. But I have since grown to like this cover and hey, it’s the story inside that counts. I told you that you had encouraged me to read Things Fall Apart, Harvest of Thorns, and other African classics. You liked the fact that you had encouraged wider reading and a greater appreciation of African literature.
May 2014, The Waldorf Hotel
The first meeting of the Stylist Book Club. More on Americanah. More on love, race, and hair. Especially hair. This was one event where I felt a little out of place. I’m not big on fashion but I was set at ease when I struck up a conversation with a fellow event goer. I discovered she was a big admirer of Oscar Wilde, as I am. We queued together and I was reminded “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Thank you, Lavinia. So true. At the signing table, you remembered me as an academic. You signed my copy of Purple Hibiscus and a paperback of Americanah, completing my collection of autographed works. I made my way out into the night and towards Waterloo station.
A few days later, you somehow missed out on the Baileys prize. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch had been touted as the favourite, but Americanah was better. The judges awarded the prize to newcomer Eimear McBride with The Girl is a Half-formed Thing. They should have picked the book that had been celebrated at The Waldorf.
A few more reflections
You tell us that your characters, especially Ifemelu (Americanah), have far more interesting lives than you do. That your own life is quite boring. Well, there’s the hair, your love of fashion as profiled in Vogue this month, travelling (OK, that could be a bit tedious), meeting people, studying, writing, winning prizes. Some of that seems quite interesting. You also tell us that you laugh at your own jokes when writing. I think you’re entitled to do that.
You are willing to admit that you don’t know the answer to certain questions, but somehow you then manage to provide the answer, or even better, a more rewarding answer to a better question that really should have been asked instead.
I am in awe of your no-nonsense approach. Not tolerating stupid questions. A tad sarcastic, at times, you have admitted as much, but it’s invariably deserved.
I almost impressed you when I mentioned I had read Chinua Achebe’s African trilogy. But then I followed up with a reference to Thomas Hardy. You shrugged your shoulders in a way that suggested you were just not that into him. That’s fine. You both have a special place on my bookshelf. On balance, given the autographs and the memories that they convey, your books just have the edge.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015
Reflections on Storytelling – fiction as a possible social force
The festival weekend opens with the inaugural Folio Society Lecture
Title picture taken at London Guildhall : © Commonwealth Foundation/Colin Patterson