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Irritation And Space: A Nigerian Writer In America

Jun 21, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers feeling "profoundly irritated" when she moved to America in 1997. A writer who is wedded to nuance, Adichie says most of the Americans she encountered viewed Africa as a monolithic place, and their mix of ignorance and arrogance shocked her.

Adichie delves into the details of Nigeria, America and the immigrant experience in her new collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. She tells host Guy Raz that she wanted the collection to peel apart the "layers of losses and gains" that immigrants face.

Gender figures largely in Adichie's tales. "I find that women ... deal with immigration differently. And I'm interested in that," Adichie explains to Raz. She says much of her fiction explores and observes those differences.

In the title story, a Nigerian woman named Akunna escapes the sexual advances of the family friend who helped her obtain a green card.

Akunna flees to Connecticut and becomes a waitress. She barely earns enough for rent, yet manages to send half her income home to Nigeria. She is alone and frustrated by the customers — who tend to make ignorant assumptions about her background.

Many people at the restaurant asked when you had come from Jamaica, because they thought that every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican. Or some who guessed that you were African told you that they loved elephants and wanted to go on safari.

All of the stories in Adichie's collection originate from tales she heard from friends and family. "A Private Experience" is based loosely on an experience of Adichie's aunt. The story takes readers to Kano, Nigeria. As an ethnic riot unfolds on the streets, two women — one Christian, the other Muslim — seek refuge together in an abandoned store. Against a backdrop of violence, the women share a tender and fleeting moment of communion.

Adichie is also the author of two award-winning novels about Nigeria, including Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), which unfolds during the country's civil war. Though the epic novel differs greatly from the focused stories in her new collection, the characters in both works defy labeling or classification. Instead, they reveal the shortcomings of the categories we attach to one another.

More than a decade has passed since Adichie moved to America, and the author says she doesn't consider herself an immigrant. "I sort of consider myself a Nigerian who spends a lot of time in the U.S.," she says.

Adichie admits that her own attitudes about America have evolved. Irritation may still lurk, but she says she also has found a liberating "sense of space and possibility."

With that room, she'll continue to unravel stories, near and far.

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Recommended Reading

From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's summer reading list:
  • Cockroach, Rawi Hage
  • The Believers, Zoe Heller
  • Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann

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