Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie became a literary world's overnight sensation in 2007 when her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, took that year's Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. The British award is given each year to the best novel written by a woman in the English language, and Adichie was the first African honoree ever to win the award. Judges and reviewers alike praised the writer's talent in recounting the interconnected stories of several Nigerians during one of the most tragic periods of her country's history, the 1967-70 Biafra War. Adichie's parents suffered greatly during the conflict; both lost their fathers, to whom Adichie dedicated her book. "This is a book I had to write because it's my way of looking at this history that defines me and making sense of it," she said to Charles McGrath in a New York Times interview. "The writing took four years, but I've been thinking about this book my whole life." Adichie's fourth novel, Americanah, earned her further praise. The book was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013 and was named one of the ten best books of the 2013 by the New York Times.
Adichie's family name was pronounced "ah-DEE-chee-eh," and was carried by her and five other siblings. She was the fifth child, born in 1977 in Nigeria's state of Enugu. Her family eventually settled in Nsukka, a city that is home to the University of Nigeria, where both of her parents held positions. Her father was a statistics professor and deputy vice chancellor, and her mother a registrar at the school and the first woman in Nigeria to have that title at the university level. In Nsukka, the Adichies lived in a residence that once housed the man considered Nigeria's most internationally famous novelist, Chinua Achebe, author of the 1958 classic Things Fall Apart. Adichie was an avid reader as a child, devouring children's adventure books from England. When she was about ten years old, Adichie discovered Things Fall Apart and other books by Achebe. "It was Achebe's fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book," she explained to McGrath in the New York Times interview. Having never encountered Nigerians like herself in any of the foreign tales, "I didn't think it was possible for people like me to be in books," she noted.
Family Touched by Tragedy
Adichie became fluent in English and Igbo, the language of one of Nigeria's main ethnic groups. The other two that predominate are the Fulani/Hausa and Yoruba. Historic tensions between Nigeria's three ethnic groups during the country's post-colonial era reached a crisis point in 1966 when a group of Igbo military officers attempted to overthrow the government. The coup was thwarted, but reprisals began against Igbo from all walks of life, and in May of 1967 the local Igbo military leader in a section of southeastern Nigeria announced the formation of the breakaway Republic of Biafra, named for the Atlantic Ocean bay of the same name. A vicious civil war ensued, and the Nigerian government attempted to starve the secessionist state into submission by its own economic blockade and, more drastically, with a prohibition barring any international relief aid. The death toll in the three-year-long war was estimated at one to three million, and Adichie's later novel mentions that images of famine-stricken children in Biafra were some of the first to begin impacting international opinion of the continent. Both of Adichie's grandfathers were among the older casualties, and though the war began a full decade before she was born, its aftermath and lingering effects remained a strong presence for most Nigerians, especially those of Igbo background.
Adichie first traveled to the United States when she was eight years old, when her father accepted a visiting professorship in the San Diego, California, area. As a young woman, she entered the University of Nigeria with plans to become a doctor like her sister, but she decided to apply for a student visa and enroll at Drexel University in Philadelphia at the age of 19. Though she had written poetry and a play by that time, she found that pulling herself away from her homeland helped her find a voice and identity as a writer. "Leaving Nigeria made me much more aware of being Nigerian and what that meant," she remarked to Carl Wilkinson in an interview that appeared in the London Observer. "It also made me aware of race as a concept, because I didn't think of myself as black until I left Nigeria."
Adichie eventually graduated from Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic with a degree in communication and political science in 2001, and then went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to earn a graduate degree in creative writing. By then, she had already finished the bulk of what would become her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2003. The story of a quiet, bookish teenager from an affluent Nigerian family engaged in a battle of wills with her powerful, prominent father, it garnered a slew of critical praise and became a finalist for Britain's Orange Prize.
Novel Focused on War, Its Legacy
Adichie won the Orange Prize for her next work, Half of a Yellow Sun, beating out Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and Digging to America by Anne Tyler, among other notable entrants. Adichie's novel takes its title from the symbol on the former flag of Biafra, and begins in the early 1960s. Its story revolves around the intersecting lives of two characters, a math professor named Odenigbo, and the new servant he has hired, Ugwu, a teenager from a rural village. The story focuses on the strong cultural and economic barriers between Nigerians from the countryside versus educated, English-speaking elites, embodied in the professor and his paramour, a vivacious young woman named Olanna who both intimidates and fascinates Ugwu. Olanna also intrigues a British writer named Richard, and his own lovers--one white, one black--each play a role in the unfolding story. The next part of the novel flashes forward to 1966, when Nigeria is on the verge of civil war, and then to the war itself, as Olanna and Odenigbo are parents and Ugwu is now a soldier in the Biafran army.
Reviewing it for the New York Times, Janet Maslin calls Adichie's second book "a major leap forward from her impressive debut novel" and "instantly enthralling." Maslin gave particular praise to Adichie's deft skills in sketching out "the delicate balance among tribal groups," the disruption of which instigated the war. "As the book's mostly Igbo characters contend with Yoruba and Hausa hostility.... Adichie describes these tribal distinctions with a strong, graceful touch." Critics in Britain, home to a large population of African expatriates and formerly Nigeria's colonial master, also gave it effusive praise. A journalist with the London Independent, Christina Patterson, hailed the book as "a magnificent novel, packed with memorable characters and their different worlds," and further noted that though its author was a product of a somewhat sheltered university-campus upbringing, Adichie "captures village life, and the cocktail-drinking coteries of the super-rich, as if they too were part of the fabric of her daily life. She also captures the horrors of war: the constant upheaval, the hunger and the brutalising fear that causes ordinary people, even the gentle Ugwu, to take part in acts of casual brutality."
The most important praise for Adichie personally came from her parents--her normally taciturn father began singing and dancing when she told him her book had won the $60,000 Orange Broadband Prize--and from Chinua Achebe, who called her "a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers," according to Patterson's Independent profile. She was also honored by the coverage her novel received in the Nigerian media and the letters she received from her fellow compatriots. "We don't learn about this in school," she told Guardian writer Stephen Moss about the Biafran tragedy. "For a lot of Nigerians this is really a work of history, and it's very gratifying for me to hear from Nigerians in particular--because, in the end, it is the opinion of Nigerians that matters most--who say, 'My parents lived through the war and nobody ever talked about it until your book appeared.'"
Three years later, Adichie released a book of short stories entitled The Thing Around Your Neck. Adichie once again earned the respect of critics, who praised her for her unique ability to draw readers in and make them understand her characters' plights. "One comes away from The Thing Around Your Neck heartened by her self-awareness and unpredictability," wrote New York Times critics Jess Row.
A Novel on Race
Adichie released her fourth novel Americanah in 2013. It dealt with the differences in self-perception regarding race in America, Britain, and Nigeria, such as the difference between an African-American, a black person who lives in the United States with a long genealogical line that eventually stretches back to Africa, and an American-African, which is an African who has newly become an American immigrant. It drew from her own exceptional experiences, along with her harshly accurate observations about the modern world. The writer won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Americanah in 2013 and later earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Americanah was listed among the top ten books of 2013 by the New York Times and the BBC. The New African also named her one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2013.
Born 1977, in Abba, Anambra state, Nigeria; father a statistics professor and university deputy vice chancellor, mother a university registrar. Education: Attended University of Nigeria and Drexel University; Eastern Connecticut State University, communication and political science (summa cum laude); Johns Hopkins University, MFA, creative writing; Princeton University, Hodder Fellow, 2005-06; Yale University, graduate study, 2006-2008. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book Prize, Commonwealth Foundation, 2005, for Purple Hibiscus; Orange Broadband Prize for fiction, 2007, for Half of a Yellow Sun; Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, 2013, for Americanah; National Book Critics Circle Award, 2013, for Americanah.
- (As Amanda N. Adichie) Decisions (poems), Minerva Press, 1998.
- (As Amanda N. Adichie) For Love of Biafra (play), Spectrum Books, 1998.
- Purple Hibiscus (novel), Algonquin Books, 2003.
- Half of a Yellow Sun (novel), Knopf, 2006.
- Americanah (novel), Knopf, 2013.
- Essence, September 2006, p. 112.
- Guardian (London, England), June 8, 2007, p. 14.
- Independent (London, England), August 18, 2006, p. 20.
- New Statesman, July 4, 2005, p. 10.
- New York Times, September 21, 2006; September 23, 2006.
- Observer (London, England), March 6, 2005, p. 24.
- Sunday Times (London, England), June 10, 2007, p. 5.
- "African/American,"New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/books/review/Row-t.html (August 11, 2014).
- "Awards & Nominations," Official Chimamanda Adichie Web Site, http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnaawards.html (August 11, 2014).
- "Biography," Official Chimamanda Adichie Web Site, http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnabio.html (August 11, 2014).
- "Half of a Yellow Sun--A Novel," Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, http://www.halfofayellowsun.com (November 26, 2007).
- "In Her Novel, Student Tells Human Story of Biafran War," Yale Bulletin and Calendar, www.yale.edu/opa/v35.n23/story4.html (November 26, 2007).
- "Realities of Race," New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/books/review/americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie.html (August 9, 2013).