MacArthur-winning author and Columbia resident writes novel about race in America

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of "Americanah."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of "Americanah." (Ivara Esege / Handout, Baltimore Sun)

It's fair to say that very few novels that devote 496 pages to such weighty themes as race in America ever crack The New York Times best-seller list.

But sure enough, there on the June 2 list for hardcover fiction was Columbia resident Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah," alongside the perennially popular Dan Brown, Nora Roberts and George R.R. Martin.


True, "Americanah" technically ranked in the less-prestigious "also selling" category. And true, it occupied that spot for just one week. And true, the upsurge in sales coincided with a large spread in The Times' Sunday Book Review section.

But that's just being picky.


"Yes, I was very pleasantly surprised," Adichie says over the phone. "I quite like that 'Americanah' is in the company of more commercial authors. There's sometimes a very narrow idea about what a popular book should be."

As the 35-year-old writer has reason to know, context is everything. In the U.S. and in Great Britain, Adichie, who has picked up both a MacArthur Fellowship and the Orange Prize (given annually in London to the best fiction written that year by a woman) is known as a respected novelist who writes serious books about important social issues.

But in Adichie's native Nigeria, she's a rock star who sets fashion trends and is followed by fans on the street. Strangers name babies after her.

Her celebrity status can only increase this fall, with the release of the movie based on her novel "Half of a Yellow Sun," starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton.


"I've seen the film, and it's very good," says the author, who will discuss her work Tuesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. "Halfway through, I found myself thinking, 'I wonder what will happen next.'

"I had to remind myself, 'Wait, I wrote the novel.' "

I'm glad you followed up your novel about the civil war in Nigeria with another project that's also strikingly unambitious and totally lightweight.

[Giggling] You've figured me out. I'm a major masochist.

I wanted to do many things with this novel. I wanted to take a look at America through Nigerian eyes. I wanted to write a love story, I wanted to write an ambitious novel of ideas. I've always loved "Middlemarch." It's about human beings, but it doesn't shy away from issues.

But I also wanted the book to be fun. I didn't want it to be like medicine that you have to take because it's good for you.

"Americanah" also is about hair. I read an opinion somewhere that in the U.S., black women obsess about their hair in the same way that white women obsess about their weight.

When I came to the U.S., I didn't understand why people always knew what they weighed. And I didn't understand why women who looked perfectly fine to me were convinced they were fat.

The difference is that when black women obsess about hair, it's not about getting it to look the best they can. It's about how to get it some way that it's not, which is as close to white hair as possible. That's true not just for African-Americans but for women throughout Africa.

I just wish we lived in a world where every type of hair in its natural state was considered beautiful.

The title of the novel means …

"Americanah" is a playful word in Nigeria. It refers to someone who has returned to Africa but who has American pretensions, like a fake American accent or who orders salads in restaurants. In Nigeria, we cook our vegetables.

You divide your time between Nigeria and the United States. What role does each country play in your life?

Nigeria is where my heart is. And I like America. In Nigeria, I have a very social life and I don't get much writing done. America is where I write because I have quiet and I don't have friends calling and asking me to go shopping. Also, my husband spends most of his time in this country. Unlike me, he has a real job.

Your heroine first dates the ideal white American man and then the ideal African-American man. But Ifemelu only finds happiness after she returns home to Nigeria. "Americanah" struck me as being partly about the immigrant's feeling of being a fish out of water.

I like that reading a lot. When I write fiction, I'm not always conscious of everything I'm doing.

I knew I wanted Ifemelu to grow. Both Curt and Blaine were very good boyfriends, but she destroys both those relationships.

It's easier to have a relationship when there's a shared culture and you don't have to explain yourself. It allows you to be the full version of yourself. But, a shared culture is no guarantee that things will work out. There are a lot of men in Nigeria that Ifemelu wouldn't have been happy with.

Ifemelu writes blog posts that are provocative and strongly felt. Are Ifemelu's opinions your opinions?

I'd say that I share about 80 percent of Ifemelu's opinions. Most of the representations about race are mine. We're both sort of blunt, and I've been told that my sense of humor, like hers, tends to be sarcastic.

But her voice isn't my voice. It's hard for me to read the book aloud because Ifemelu uses American expressions that aren't mine and that feel awkward when I try to say them.

What response have the blog posts been receiving from readers?

The best compliment I've gotten came from an African-American woman who said: "I can't believe that you said everything that we say when the door's closed. Thank you for speaking up for us, but I hope you know you aren't going to win any more prizes."

Some white Americans have been offended, particularly men. They say, "Not everything has to be about race. Can't we all just be human?"

There seems to be an assumption in white America that it's the responsibility of black people to prove that race matters. That's odd, given American history. It should be the other way around.

If George Zimmerman had been acquitted while you were writing "Americanah," would you have included it in the novel?

I kind of feel like I want to write about it.

I was in Nigeria, and I tracked the trial obsessively. I went online and read everything about it I could. When the verdict came down, I wept. My friends didn't understand why I was affected so strongly, because in Nigeria, race isn't an issue.

There were a lot of things that people seemed to accept that I think would have been questioned a lot more closely if Trayvon Martin had been white.

And there was a glee about the acquittal that seemed almost inhumane. It's one thing to say that the law has worked, whether you think it's a good law or not. But, it's still a tragedy.


If you go


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will talk about her new book at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

About the book

"Americanah" was released by Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95, 496 pages.