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Adichie says bestseller helped recall painful past

11 October 2013, 06:36

Lagos - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the bestseller "Half of a Yellow Sun", said writing a novel about the civil war which devastated her home region helped people connect with a past that most no longer discussed.

A month after the film based on "Half of a Yellow Sun" premiered, Adichie, 36, reflected on the impact of the book about the 1967-1970 Biafra War, which left more than one million people dead after the writer's home southeastern region tried to secede.

"I have heard from many people who have read 'Half of a Yellow Sun' and said that the novel for them was an entry point into their history," Adichie told AFP at the Lagos office of her Nigerian publisher.

She said her generation of Igbos, the majority ethnic group in the southeast, "grew up knowing that this terrible thing had happened and deeply affected our families," but those who lived through the war did not talk about it.

"My mother would say 'I used to have this before the war' or my father talked a lot about his father, my grandfather, whom I never met because he died in 1969 in a refugee camp."

"The war was always there. I knew agha. Agha is war (in Igbo). There was always 'agha.' But I didn't know the details," she said.

"I think this is what happens for a generation that experiences trauma, that usually, it's the next generation who can start to talk about it," she continued.

"I don't think I could have written this book if I had lived in Biafra."

The novel has sold 800,000 copies in English and has been translated into 35 other languages.

As for the film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, Adichie said she needed to stay away from the production "to preserve (her) sanity."

"It's a book I am very proud of but it's also a book that has a lot of emotional meaning for me...Every page of that book matters to me," she said.

"The thought that I would have to somehow oversee the chopping up and taking-out large chunks of something that I had spent six years of my life slaving on, I thought it would be very difficult."

'Different ways of being black in the US'

Adichie's latest novel, "Americanah," published in May, partly explores the nuances of African American culture from the perspective of an African woman who is new to America.

It focuses on the character Ifemelu, a Nigerian university student in the US.

The title is a word Nigerians use to chide people who go "to the US and come back Americanised," Adichie said.

"They affect an American accent or they affect American manners...So it's a very playful way of saying "oh look how you've changed just because you went to America."

Her hair covered in an embroidered gold ankara and wearing a sleeveless blue suit, Adichie, who studied in the US and still lives there part-time, said the novel explores the dynamic of a black person in America who does not "have the history of black Americans."

"The expectation on you (is) that you are supposed to get it... And you don't, you really don't!" she said.

"I was expected to understand that a joke about watermelon was racist, and a joke about fried chicken was racist," she said, referring to stereotypes about African American cuisine which have been used in US popular culture to denigrate black people.

"And I was just confused, I thought: 'I don't see what's wrong with watermelon and chicken!'"

"When I started to read and ask questions, I started to understand these things intellectually, but there's still things that you can't reach emotionally because it's not your history," she said.

This, she added, is her "way to say that there are different ways of being black in the US."

'This is mine! I am home!'

Her parents were lecturers at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the southeast, the first indigenous university founded shortly after independence from Britain in 1960.

Adichie went to the US for university and described her first visit home after four years abroad, surveying the "jumble" of rusty roofs visible from the window as the plane descended, a jarring contrast from the orderly planning of many American cities.

"There was just an unplannedness about it all that made me so happy," she said. "I just thought: this is mine! I am home!"

Soon the romance of arriving in Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's largest city, started to fade and the young post-graduate grew increasingly irritated by the city's less appealing traits, including terrible sanitation and far, far too many cars on the road.

"The traffic was crazy. I was so scared...And then I had my family members laughing at me."


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