Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Does Not Care About Your Book Club, and 10 Other Things I Learned at her City Arts & Lectures Event
1. She is running the show. Who run the world? Chimamanda.
The person interviewing her last night, Dave Eggers, is also an author, albeit not one of the same international renown as Adichie. They are friends, and she had some questions about The Circle and What is the What, so she turned the tables and started interviewing him! To his credit, he demurred, and tried valiantly to get her back on track with questions about her own work. Still she persisted – she took over the interview. While it was a bit maddening as I really wanted to hear about Adichie’s work rather than Eggers’s, I was in awe of her disregard for the conventional way this evening was supposed to go. She wanted answers!
2. She is irrepressibly stylish and glittering.
She glided out onstage at the Nourse in a white sequined top, and tight boot-cut patterned pants with stiletto heels. So beautiful it hurt the eyes. It may be shallow to comment on appearance, but to be fair we clapped for so long that the first few minutes were just looking at her.
3. She thought “maybe 7 people would read Americanah.”
Throughout the evening, her modesty stood out. She cried when she told us what Chinua Achebe had said about her work. She lifted up the work of other rising African authors, saying, “It takes off the burden of representing everybody. It’s a relief to have more African voices.”
4. Half of a Yellow Sun was the book she felt she had to write.
“I felt that I had lost something,” she said, after it was published. It was a weight off of her, but a personal one. After that she felt free to write “the book I wanted to write,” which was Americanah.
5. She’s a born writer. “I don’t remember when I didn’t write.”
Though she was tracked to be a doctor, she has always written, and always wanted to be a writer.
6. She loves Philadelphia.
God, who doesn’t?! What up Philly.
7. “The writing of Americanah was a political act.”
She said, “I became black in America. I didn’t get the memo that black was bad. There is some defiance of that in the writing of Americanah. I can write about race in America because I do not have the terror of talking about it.” She went on to talk about how American culture is obsessed with comfort, and part of the reason the conversation about race that we always say we are going to have on a national level has never happened is because it would be very uncomfortable.
8. She has a crush on Michelle Obama.
“She is the coolest woman in the world! I had to write about her.” She also spoke about how everyone’s inflated expectations of Barack Obama as “Jesus Christ” have led him to be unpopular now because “he has not turned water into wine.”
9. Her next book will be a science fiction children’s book.
Psych! She joked that she’d have to kill us if she told us what her next project is, but her “vision is too dark” for children’s lit.
10. She is not too high-brow-literary to dish about celebs.
She is excited about Lupita Nyong’o playing Ifemelu, and she is grateful that Beyoncé upped her “cool factor with the nieces and nephews!”
And finally… She does not care about your book club’s hypothesis.
Question and Answer sections always give me a case of squeemy-stomach, because people often use them to listen to themselves talk more than ask questions of the guest of honor. Last night was no exception – though there were some great questions about identity and internet writing, we also heard from a man who wanted to tell her what her next book should be about, and another man who talked about himself as an “ideological reader” and asked her “how she would want her books to be used politically.”
The absolute worst, however, was a woman who stood up and didn’t even ask a question, but rather blessed us all with the conclusion that she and her book club had come to about Americanah. This woman was white, and the gall of her need to enforce her cultural norms on Adichie just floored me. She said, “We realized that Americanah follows the structure of the Odyssey exactly!” and despite the fact that everyone burst into nervous laughter, she continued to lay out how she felt the story of the book matched this old dead white guy’s epic tale. She meant it as a “compliment,” but why on earth did she think she needed to take this Western literature standard and apply it to a piece of contemporary literature that has been hailed as groundbreaking in both style and content? It was like she needed to remind Adichie that the standard was and will always be the “classics” of white Western culture.
Adichie laughed, looked incredulously at Dave Eggers, and then provided a very gracious joke about how of course that had been her intention from the start! She was generous. It was a kindness. The book club lady sat the hell down.
It was thrilling to be in the presence of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and her beautiful brain.