When Chimamanda started out as a writer at Nsukka, she began as a poet and playwright, but she soon found she wasn’t cut out for the stage and the bardic universe. She tried her hands on prose fiction, and hit a goldmine.
“I was trying to find my voice, and I found it in the novel, and am enjoying it,” she responded to my enquiry on what happened to her first love at a media interaction, which held at Angels and Muse, Ikoyi, early this week.
Soon the atmosphere became charged as she responded to questions on feminism. She didn’t like the immediate reaction of hostility in Nigeria by mostly men and also women. She lamented, “It is not just men. So, everybody wants to punch a hole in it. Everybody wants to knock it down.”
The easiest parallelto draw was with white racists. “There are many white people all over the west who say to black people, ‘You are too angry.’ And black people are saying to them, ‘We have reason to be; listen to us.’I know there is a time when Nigerian women are writing on social media what it takes to be a woman in Nigeria, and they were using real and specific examples. Those where things we should be talking about.”
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Her face lit up with excitement as a white lady among the crowd, who came to Nigeria in 2011 wither Nigerian husband, and,subsequently, became a Nigerian citizen last year, spoke up. She had three children growing up in the country that had been confronting difficult issues they weren’t equipped to deal with. Her fifteen and thirteen year old daughters were being harassed by sexual predators everyday in school.
She didn’t want to send them out of the country, because they love Nigeria, loved their father and wanted to be here. She was afraid of what was happening to them, and she lacked the solution to deal with them all the time. Perhaps a feminist perspective from Chimamanda would go a long way to assisting her.
Before answering her question, Chimamanda demanded a round of applause for her decision to become a Nigeria, and the audience obliged; the gallery resonated with applause. But the, it was a tricky question for Chimamnda to offer a definite solution.
“I wish I really could help,” she said. “But it is not just a Nigerian thing. This is a problem that exists everywhere in the world. But I think Nigeria is particularly difficult, because, in some ways, people don’t even want to engage.
“The reason I said feminism has to be about men as well is that we can’t keep telling girls that ‘you are responsible for keeping away predators’. We have to find a way to stop it and the society to say ‘this is wrong; you can’t prey on the woman. What’sin a woman’s body belongs to her. It is not something many people get here.
“You go to the market, they are dragging and pulling you; they hit your bum; they make comments about your breasts, and it is supposed to be normal. And for many women, you just go along with, because, what is the point?”
The way to try and bridge it, she said, is to have conversations with one another. But it isn’t going to be like a dog’s breakfast. “It is very difficult, because it is a society where, when you begin to talk about women’s right, so many people become hostile. It is still puzzles me that feminism is as controversial in this country as it is, because it is about justice.
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“I don’t entirely understand this. People will use religion and culture to justify things that are unjust. But we have to keep trying. I really wish I had a perfect answer for you,”her voice trailed off.
She also responded to the a question by a journalist on the censorship of the movie of Half of a Yellow Sun when it was initially billed for release in Nigeria some years ago by security agencies fearing a break down in law and order because of some of its contents.
She conceded, “Yes, there were scenes that were cut when it was showing in the theatres in Nigeria, because they said it was a security situation. I get the view that people in power in this country underestimate Nigerians. They felt it would give rise to really what I don’t know, and that delayed the release; but it ended up fine.”
Unlike Half of a Yellow Sun,her third novel,Americanah would be turned into television series with eight episodesby a third party. “It is still in the works. I am not very involved with it,” she declared, “and so I don’t have specific details.” But the much she gathered that the shooting would start in 2019.
She reiterated, “But the thing important for me to say that the book is always different from the film, and I don’t consider the film my own. The film, I hope, will be good, but it is not mine. It is somebody doing something with something that I made. So that thing that person is doing is not mine.
“The person who really owns the project is Lupita Nyongo, and I am happy about that. She is going to play the lead role in Americanah, and I also hope she would get the Nigerian accent right,” she returned.
The writer was accused by a journalist for not lending her voice to Nigerian politics, compared to other world and African issues –an accusation she didn’t take lightly with a faint grimace, “You are sure you researched about that?” Anyway, she didn’t always want to be in the news for the wrong reasons.
“I have a problem with being told what I should talk about. I talk about the things that I care about. In the past, when I was passionate about things in this country, I talked about them. I wrote a piece about the former president, Goodluck Jonathan. I wrote about the law that criminalises homosexuality, which I felt strongly about.
“The way that Nigerian politics was and the way it is set up is exhausting. It is not a question of ideals and ideas; it is like a mad market, and to get involved with it,” she paused.
Making a difference is the most important thing to her. “I wrote about Cameroon, because I was deeply saddened about what was happening in Anglophone Cameroon. I have written a piece –I know I have a platform, and I know that it is going to be read by the people in power.
“I know for long that what has been happening in Anglophone Cameroon has been suppressed, not given much press at all. And I know I was in the position to help get the world to hear that. That’s why I wrote that. I did write about Buhari for the New York Times.”However, she doesn’t want to get into unnecessarypolitical squabbles. “The thing is that I don’t get into crazy, unnecessary fights about Nigerian politics,” she added.
Chimamandahasn’t hidden her admiration for Chinua Achebe, but she found a snide remark laughable that she might have been wasspoon-fedby the late legend when she set out as a novelist. She saidafter a laugh, “We also live in a culture where people find it hard to simply accept that somebody has worked hard and has gotten somewhere. I remember when my first novel was published, some people said I must have known somebody in the publishing house in America. But I didn’t know somebody there. I kept sending the manuscript until somebody liked it and published it.”
Her connection with Achebe started decades ago when her parents moved into a house where Achebe was living at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, before moving to the US to teach. “That was my first connection with Chinua Achebe,” she recalled.
You can’t believe it: Chimamanda only met Achebe twice in her entire life, and their conversations never lasted more than seven minutes cumulatively. She admitted, “And it is because I have adored Achebe and his works my entire life, and his novels have meant so much to me, especially Arrow of God, which, I think,is a beautiful work of art.”
For all her bold front, Chimamanda was overwhelmed the first time she got the chance to meet the legendary writer. “The point of meeting him was not something I wanted, because I was in too much of awe about him. When my first novel was published, Achebe probably read it, and told his son to meet me. He gave me his father’s phone number, and said Achebe wanted me to call him,” she revealed.
But she didn’t know what to tell Achebe, and didn’t call as directed. Later, she met him at a public event in the US. “I went up to him; I was shaking a little. I greeted, ‘Good evening, sir.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I thought you were running away from me.’I was looking away; I couldn’t look at his face. I was happy that other people came there and started talking to him; I just slipped away.”
The second time she met Achebe was at a luncheon in New York, and the organisers had seated him opposite her. “And I didn’t have that lunch. My eyes were down on my feet,” she laughed. “I didn’t look up to see Achebe’s face, because I was too shy.”
At the end of the lunch, she summoned courage and curtsied before him with greetings, which the sage returned. What Achebe said next was music to her ears: “You make us proud”. She went lachrymal in an instant. “I started crying, and I left. For people who said he wrote my book, maybe he did in the spirit world,” she laughed.
Again, when her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, was about to go to press, Chimamanda’s editor in the US sent the manuscript to Achebe for his comment on the blurb. “She didn’t tell me, because she knew how much I adored him,” she said. Again, her editor wasn’t sure of the response she was going to get from Achebe, and didn’t want her to be disappointed if he failed to endorse the work. But it turned out to be a positive response from Achebe. “I can never forget that day,” she submitted.
Did being outside Nigeria help her find her voice, and where does she get the strength to keep fighting? She replied to the enquiry “Yes. But, for me, because I don’t live entirely in the US –I have a home in Lagos; I always tell people my best shoes are here in Lagos; my books are here; I spend a lot of time here, even though I don’t come out.
“But being outside of Nigeria can help you in many ways. And it is not that America is perfect –there are many issues. We can talk about Hilary Clinton. But, at least, there are people who are willing to engage with the issues. Nigeria is so much in your face, telling you the most dehumanising things. So, in some ways, it helps.”
Chimamanda is always delighted each time she gets compliments from women who attest that she has touched their lives. That is where her strength comes from. She is desirous of change. “My hope, in the end, is that, if something I have said leads to some kind of change.” Above all, “I really want justice. I want to live in a world that is fair.”
She isn’t happy “there is so much hostility to feminism in Nigeria” and the propensity to sensationalise anything said about feminism, which is why she thinks that the media has a big responsibility to shape the feminist conversation. “We are a country that looks up to the West. If a new phone comes out, we will like to have it. Let us also try and borrow some conventions, not just cell phones,” she added.
What’s more, courtesy demands that we should hold door for everybody, not just for women. “It is a nice thing to do. Somebody is coming behind, hold the door for him, whether he is a man or a woman,” she said.
When are we expecting a new work from her? I asked her. Her response was evasive, “Success doesn’t change it. When you are writing, you are worrying. When you finish writing, you think it is food; you look at it again and say, ‘This is rubbish’. Two days later, you feel like, ‘Let me just delete everything.’She admitted afterwards, “I don’t know when the next work will come. Also, I am a very superstitious Igbo woman. If I tell you anything, I will just jinx it. All I can say is: just watch out.”For sure, not only two eyes will be keen.