'I am a pessimistic optimist': Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie answers authors' questions

Named the ‘winner of winners’ of the Women’s prize, Bernardine Evaristo, Maggie O’Farrell and others ask the author about the #EndSars protests in Nigeria, writing about Trump, and the culture that got her through 2020

In your Ted Talk in 2009, you warned of the danger of cultural misunderstandings arising from readers hearing only a single story. Do you feel that in the intervening years there has been an improvement in this regard, or are we still clinging to single narratives? Maggie O’Farrell
I think there is definitely some improvement. Among those who read and those who gatekeep what is read, there seems to be an awareness that multiple and different stories matter. But I worry that there is sometimes a bit too much moralising around the idea of multiple stories. We shouldn’t read or publish a diverse range of stories and writers in order to be “good”, we should do so because it is sensible and should really have been the norm a long time ago.

Do you read your reviews, and if not why not? If you do, do they in any way influence your writing and future books? Bernardine Evaristo
I don’t. And I look away (not successfully) from the nice bits that go on the back of books. I think it’s from self-preservation and from an anxiety of influence. The bad ones will infuriate me and the good might mislead me.

Half of a Yellow Sun is my favourite and I think the most elevated of your novels, but I also love the gutzy contemporaneity of Americanah. Which realm, past or present, feeds your muse most, and how do you reach it with an intact purity, amid our wild times and the demands of a public profile? What sustains the existential imperative of fiction? Diana Evans
This innate hunger, this need to write and to create. I am happiest when I’m writing fiction. The hunger is always there but yes, noise sometimes gets in the way. I find that I am a much slower writer today (frustratingly so) than I was when I wrote Half of a Yellow Sun and I attribute this to my getting older (!) rather than to the wild times and the demands of a public persona.

Both your countries, Nigeria and the US, are experiencing political turmoil. It occurs to me that Nigerian, and African writers in general, have long been politically engaged. There is no conflict between art and politics. Whereas in the US, novelists have often eschewed the idea of political engagement in their work. How do you see American literature being shaped into the future by what has occurred over recent years? Aminatta Forna
America has always had political and social problems worth engaging with, but writers have generally been made to feel that to engage with politics is to reduce the artistic worth of your fiction. Which is simply not true, as most writers in other parts of the world know.

So will Trumpism force the head of American literature out of its cocoon of sand? I doubt it. And it’s because there is a new liberal political orthodoxy that I believe will stifle art, particularly literature, in America. Will Trumpism be the subject of literature? I’m sure it will be. But will it succeed as art? I doubt it. Because it would require, for example, the acknowedgment of a Trump-supporting character as fully human, and I can already imagine a fiction writer getting panicky at the thought of a social media backlash for the crime of “enabling the evils of Trump” or something of the sort. Ideological purity is dangerous and is becoming the lens through which many approach storytelling in America. The idea that Trumpism is “not us”, which is a mainstream idea among those who produce and consume literature in America, will also probably make it difficult to engage honestly with Trumpism.

Are there any other moments or periods in Nigeria’s turbulent history you think should be dramatised? What would Americanah’s heroine Ifemelu’s response be to the #EndSars [anti-police brutality] protests in Nigeria? Inua Elams
Yes. I would love to see urban and rural colonial Nigeria – a dramatisation of Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, for example. I’d also like to see evidence and research-based depictions of pre-colonial west Africa.

Do you see yourself as an optimist or a pessimist and why? Elizabeth Day
A pessimistic optimist. Because I still want to believe everything will be OK, even if I know it won’t.

You make both the novel form and the short story form shine. One of my favourite descriptions of the difference between these forms is by Cynthia Ozick, who sees the short story as a kind of powerful but mysterious talisman we pick up and keep in our pockets for the length of a dark journey, a find that lights the dark, and the novel as a journey in itself, at the end of which we may well find ourselves altered. I’d like to ask what you think about the forms, their gifts and their particular strengths. Ali Smith
I love this description, which I haven’t read before. Short stories sometimes take longer for me to write than novels – I have stories I started in 2004 still sitting unfinished. But they take less from me emotionally and mentally, and ask less of me as well, and have the potential to better satisfy me.

Do you ever feel guilty when you’re not writing? Candice Carty-Williams
Yes, but mostly just frustrated and depressed.

Which elements of Nigeria’s history – as depicted in Half of a Yellow Sun – do you see replaying in the unrest the country is experiencing right now? As a Nigerian in the diaspora, how does it make you feel? What can we do? Vick Hope
We haven’t emerged from our long history of dictatorships – starting with British colonialism, which was a dictatorship. I live in Lagos part of the year, so feel more directly affected than I would have if I didn’t.

Sometimes it seems as though people think writers only ever read books, but I’m interested to know what else you draw from. Is there, in this strange and terrible year, a tune that has made you dance, a film you’ve put on repeat, a TV show you’ve binged or some kind of online experience that has made sense because it was online – a podcast, a radio show, or something that has in some way got you through the day or changed the way you experience the world? (Mainly, I want to know about the dancing; I’m putting together the mother of all playlists for when the house can be full again.) Jon McGregor
Love this question! Being a terrible dancer I will now elegantly sidestep the dancing part. I am in love with Scandinavian TV series, as long as they don’t have a supernatural element. I have never been able to get into podcasts. I love to look at paintings; it might be a bit fey, but paintings I love make me feel calm. When I am working, music is noise. When I’m trying to get into a creative space, and I’m failing, I’ll turn to poetry or to film and TV. I have a dark obsession with films and documentaries about the Holocaust but only European productions as I can’t abide the American saccharine-rich approach to tragedy. I don’t like comedy but I love films that make me laugh without humour being their raison d’etre.

I’m very frustrated when I’m in Lagos, as I am now, and can’t watch some content on Amazon Prime and Britbox because they restrict their content when you sign in from scary, deep, dark Africa.

What aspect of the creative process gives you the most joy and/or satisfaction? Michael Donkor
When the writing is going well and the sentences emerge fully made and characters are alive and I suddenly feel that all is absurdly well with the world.

Has there been a book that has stayed with you long after you read it? Sarah-Jane Mee
So many. One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it at 10 and large chunks of it are still very vivid in my mind.

I first had the pleasure of enjoying your writing in 2002 when I was judging the Caine prize for African Writing and you were runner-up to Binyavanga Wainaina. What significance do you attach to prizes? Margaret Busby
It’s always validating to be recognised by prizes but I made the conscious decision years ago that what truly matters to me is to be read, actually read. And Aunty Margaret – thank you for your grace and for everything you have done for British writing.

  • The Women’s prize for fiction is hosting an online evening with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, chaired by Kate Mosse, on Sunday 6 December at 7pm. Tickets can be bought via Eventbrite at £10, or £25 plus P&P for a ticket and hardback edition of Half of a Yellow Sun.

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