A few hours before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I are due to speak, the result of the US election is finally called. The Nigerian novelist, who is based in Maryland but is currently in Lagos, where she spends part of the year, had been on her way back from taking her daughter to a birthday party when she heard the news. “The moment that we’ve been waiting for,” she says. “Everyone was calling: my best friend, my mum, my sister called, we were all sort of screaming down the phone.” Her husband, a hospital doctor, had returned to the US the previous week. “He and I were going crazy,” she says. “I was almost close to tears because I thought this is really about people who just want decency back. I feel it is really not ideological, it is more about wanting something human and humane. I find it so moving.”
As it is for so many, her relief is tempered by disappointment at Donald Trump’s unexpectedly strong performance. “I’ve always felt that Trump is as much America as Obama,” she says. “People on the left like to say ‘This is not America’, but actually it is. If you look at the history of America, it is not that surprising that Trump is so popular.” People feel “very threatened” both by the idea of a more inclusive, multiracial politics and women having more overt power, she says. So the victory for Kamala Harris as the first black female vice-president-elect is all the more thrilling. “It is impossible to talk about her, about what’s happened today, without thinking about what might happen in four or eight years – that she might in fact become president,” Adichie says. “Even if just for the symbolism of it, because the symbolic nature of leadership is important.”
The reason for our call is the announcement that Adichie has won the public vote in the Winner of Winner’s award, celebrating 25 years of the Women’s prize for fiction. She won the award, when it was sponsored by Orange, in 2007, for her epic war novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, beating many of the biggest names in contemporary fiction.
We are talking on Zoom, London to Lagos, a conversation repeatedly interrupted by a poor internet connection and children in the manner that has become all too familiar in 2020. It has been an especially difficult year for Adichie, who has lost two aunts and her beloved father, a retired statistics professor (Nigeria’s first), who died unexpectedly from complications of kidney failure in June. The pandemic meant she couldn’t return to Nigeria, and the funeral, a traditional Igbo ceremony, had to be delayed until October. In a heartbreaking piece entitled “Notes on Grief” in the New Yorker she describes a “surreal” Zoom call with her family after his death. “All of us weeping and weeping and weeping, in different parts of the world, looking in disbelief at the father we adore now lying still on a hospital bed.”
Today she is wearing a bright purple T-shirt with “My father’s daughter” emblazoned in Igbo on the front, one of several she had made. “I really found this so therapeutic. It is ridiculous how many T-shirts I designed. I wear them and I feel comforted.” Rather incongruous with her shorts and top, her hair has been elaborately styled for a photoshoot for the Women’s prize, a combination that sums up her overwhelming sense of “pretending through tears”. Earlier she was overcome by an impulse to call her father and talk to him about Joe Biden. He would have been the first person she told about this new award. But she was pleased to be able to call her mother “and have her look delighted, even if only briefly. But yeah I’m really happy,” she says, tearfully.
Over its 25 years, the Women’s prize has set out to “reflect women’s voices from all over the world”, its watchwords are “excellence, originality and accessibility”. Adichie credits the prize with helping her find a mainstream readership: her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, about a young girl growing up with both a tyrannical father and a military coup to contend with, was shortlisted in 2004, “which really made people know that I existed”. When she won three years later for Half of a Yellow Sun, the book was received not as “an African novel”, or a novel “by a woman”, but simply as a novel, she says. “I’m just so damn grateful.”
Since then she has gone on to share a stage with Hillary Clinton and have tea with Oprah Winfrey; her books are a staple of school reading lists and she inadvertently found herself a poster girl for modern feminism after her 2012 TED talk We Should All Be Feminists, went stratospheric and was distributed in book form to every 16-year-old in Sweden. It is hard to think of another writer whose words might be borrowed by Beyoncé for a song and by Dior for T-shirts. And now, aged 43, she has been chosen as the “best of the best” of a quarter of a century of women’s fiction.
She can’t account for the enduring popularity of Half of a Yellow Sun – a novel that, 13 years after its publication, readers voted for over hits such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Andrea Levy’s Small Island or this year’s winner, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet – but it is a book she loves. “It is the one that made me believe in this kind of mystical thing, that I was meant to write the story and that my grandfather’s spirit wanted me to,” she says.
It is especially pleasing that the honour has been given to a novel, “my most personal by far”, that couldn’t have been written without her father. Set during the Biafran war of 1967-70, in which both her grandfathers died, Half of a Yellow Sun grew out of the stories Adichie heard as a child growing up in the aftermath of the conflict, many of which were told by her father. “He was a very good storyteller”, she corrects herself after using the present tense. “I read a lot about that period, but I like to say that what I got from the books were the facts, but from the stories people told me I got the truth.” All of the horrors that happen in the book are based on real incidents, including the burning of her father’s books in their front yard. “It was just a very petty, ugly thing to do, to say ‘Fuck you’ to academics and intellectuals,” she says. “ I can’t imagine losing my books, the books I love.”
It wasn’t until she was at graduate school at Johns Hopkins University that Adichie finally started writing Half of a Yellow Sun, which then came in a rush of furious concentration. She would write all day, stopping only for occasional bouts on her skipping rope, barely leaving her tiny apartment in Baltimore except to stock up on snacks. One day she ventured out to the shop and was terrified to discover the city was in the grip of a cicada invasion, which had been in the news for days. Halfway through writing, she “needed to walk the paths that my grandfather had walked”, and so she returned to write at her parents’ home in Nsukka, the town in Igboland where she had grown up. Throughout, she was weighed down by responsibility, the awareness that for many “this book will not just be literature, it will be history. I think I’ve done with feeling the dutiful daughter of history,” she says.
In what has become part of Adichie legend, her hero Chinua Achebe set the novel on its way when he christened her “a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers” before it was even published. Her editor read his words to her over the phone. “Honestly, I remember thinking, if nothing else happens with this book, this is enough.”
Her next novel, Americanah, released in 2013, is a warm, witty but angry look at what it means to be black in the States. “I went to the US and had to learn about race,” she says. The novel builds euphorically to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “Oh my God, Pennsylvania!” one of the characters exclaims in a prophetic echo of the last few hours we have just witnessed. The scene ends with heroine Ifemelu mesmerised by the “resplendent crowd of the hopeful” welcoming the new president-elect. “There was at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.”
Adichie shares Ifemelu’s respect for “the idea of America”, despite a “clear-eyed” awareness of its problems, and the way in which her admiration has been eroded by the last four years under Trump, as she has “watched America become ordinary. It felt almost like a personal loss. Suddenly the thing that I thought was shiny no longer was. Suddenly America was a place that we could laugh about and mock.”
She hopes that the election of Biden will usher in a return to public civility. “I’m really excited at the idea that the discourse across the country will not sound like childish name calling. There’s a sadness there that this is how low the bar has sunk,” she says. “When you are Nigerian there are things that are familiar to you. You don’t expect them to happen in America. Trump showed me how fragile democracy is, how fragile what we consider the norms are.”
Does she feel hopeful for America in general? “I can’t answer that now. If I answer that today because I have a bit of a high I would lie to you.” But one undoubted cause for optimism is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. “At least the American left is willing now to really engage with racism,” she says. The protests have “forced the conversation and forced the shift to something more tangible, forced actions. It felt like a real, raw movement. I felt like young black people were letting the pain out.”
She is cautious to avoid what she regards as “a quickness to self-righteousness” on the left. She could write a character who would find Trump appealing, she says: “It makes a kind of emotional logic to me as a novelist.” She’s already “had fun” with Melania Trump (in a short story for the New York Times), for whom she felt a “kind of sympathy”, although she now thinks she was probably “too kind”.
When I last spoke to Adichie following the paperback publication of Dear Ijeawele in 2018, her manifesto for bringing up a feminist daughter, she had recently been on the wrong end of what she calls “the American liberal orthodoxy” for comments she made arguing that the experiences of trans women are distinct from those of women born female. She has no truck with “cancel culture” (her quote marks). “There’s a sense in which you aren’t allowed to learn and grow. Also forgiveness is out of the question. I find it so lacking in compassion. How much of our wonderfully complex human selves are we losing?” she asks. “I think in America the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship, and it is something America is exporting to every part of the world. We have to be so careful: you said the wrong word you must be crucified immediately.” She was interested by “all the noise” sparked by JK Rowling’s article on sex and gender, “a perfectly reasonable piece” in her view, earlier this year. “Again JK Rowling is a woman who is progressive, who clearly stands for and believes in diversity.” She blames social media for this rush to censure, which she finds both “cruel and sad. And in terms of ideas, it is fundamentally uninteresting. The orthodoxy, the idea that you are supposed to mouth the words, it is so boring. In general, human beings are emotionally intelligent enough to know when something is coming from a bad place.”
Despite the political darkness in which she grew up, Adichie’s writing about her childhood shines with love and laughter; the clever young Chimamanda was always supported intellectually and emotionally. This helped to make her fearless. “Because I’ve had my family behind me I’ve never really felt that I cannot say what I think because I’m going to upset somebody.” Her brothers still laugh at the fuss that is made of her in Nigeria, rolling their eyes when people want to take pictures with her. In writerly circles in the US, she has found herself feeling “almost guilty”, and wonders how much the idea of the writer as the product of a joyless childhood is a western thing. “I feel like I have many many issues as I am, right,” she laughs. “I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I had not had a happy childhood.”
But now her world has changed. “My father really was the loveliest man.” She looks back to a housewarming party her sister held in January. “Everybody felt really hopeful about 2020. My dad was there and my aunt was there. It is so strange to think that in only three months she would be dead and in five my dad would be gone,” she says. “I really do feel that I’ve been remade. I feel that I’ve been remade by grief.” Even though it is late in Lagos, she is off to read her daughter a bedtime story and then she is going to start Half of a Yellow Sun, which she hasn’t reread for a longtime: “I want to go back and find the person I was then.”
• The Women’s prize for fiction will host an exclusive online live event with Adichie on 6 December at 7pm. Tickets are available at womensprizeforfiction.co.uk.