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A Q&A with Chimamanda Adichie
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Chimamanda Adichie (Courtesy of Algonquin Books)

St. Paul, Minn. —
Eve Daniels: What led to your decision to pursue a writing career?

Chimamanda Adichie: I didn't ever consciously decide to pursue writing. I've been writing since I was old enough to spell, and just sitting down and writing made me feel incredibly fulfilled. I may have considered other careers to make a living, since I wasn't sure I could do it from writing, but I have never thought actively about my choice to write. I just write. I have to write. I like to say that I didn't choose writing, writing chose me.

ED: What or who inspires you as a writer?

CA: This may sound slightly mythical, but I sometimes feel as if my writing is something bigger than I am. There are days when I sit at my laptop and will myself to write and nothing happens. There are other days when I have things to do but feel compelled to write. And the writing just flows out. I am never sure what triggers these "inspirations," if that is what they are. More mundanely, the rituals and geography of specific places inspire me—the chaotic energy of Lagos, the sereneness of Nsukka, the insular calm of Mansfield, Connecticut. And I love observing people and tiny details about them. I often get the urge to write from imagining or inventing lives for people I don't know.

ED: What's the significance of your book's title?

CA: Purple Hibiscuses feature in a symbolic way in the novel. Also, we had different species of red and white hibiscuses back home in Nigeria, but I had never seen a purple one. In fact, I thought I had invented the purple hibiscus until my editor told me they are quite common in the U.S.!

ED: How much of your novel was drawn from real people and experiences in your life?

CA: I grew up in a university town, in a close-knit, moderately Catholic family, and I observed many of Nigeria's political upheavals. So the themes in the novel—family, religion, politics—are drawn from real life. But the characters are mine and are not based on anybody I know, at least not consciously. The exception is the character Mama Joe, the eccentric, interesting, and sweet woman who braided my hair for many years. I wanted to pay tribute to her!

ED: Since much of your writing is set in Nigeria, what are the challenges in writing for an American audience?

CA: There are things I have to make a little more of an effort to make clear, things I have to find subtle ways to explain, since they would be unfamiliar to an American audience. That said, I do think that Purple Hibiscus tells a universal story, one that we can all identify with because of that basic human quality that we have.

ED: Do you think that your writing has potential to broaden American perspectives of Africa and its cultures?

CA: Absolutely. There is very little knowledge of contemporary Africa in the U.S. In addition, the "war and hunger" kind of coverage Africa gets in the news distorts reality. Of course there are wars and there is hunger in many African countries, but there are also millions of normal people who are going about their lives, with gains and losses, love and pain, just like everyone else. I hope my fiction will enable Americans to see that human, and in many ways ordinary, lives of Nigerians. I hope also that more contemporary African fiction will be published in the U.S., because fiction, I think, is one of the best ways to open our eyes to cultures different from ours.

ED: Was it challenging to write about politics and religion from the perspective of a 15-year-old?

CA: It is always challenging to write about politics and religion while telling an interesting story that will hold your reader. I think a younger narrator made me more careful not to over-burden my fiction with polemics, or with my own politics. It is also more believable to see the complexities and absurdities of religion through the eyes of a younger person who is not cynical or jaded.

ED: Past Talking Volumes authors have included Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Amy Tan. What's it like to be among such literary heavyweights?

CA: Flattering. But really I am more excited simply to have an opportunity to open my world to people who would never have read about Nigeria otherwise. I am thrilled that there are people who will get to "see" the lovely, declining town where most of the novel is set, who will laugh and cry with an Igbo family, and who will, hopefully, look out for my next book!

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