Ebuka to Chimamanda: Can you write in Igbo?

Celebrated writer, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, unveils her new novel, Americana, amidst applause and queries by her Nigerian  fans, AKEEM LASISI writes

SOJOURNING out of Nigeria has been a blessing to Chimamanda Nbozi-Adichie’s creativity but she is seems to have refused to be carried away by the wind of exile. While she continues to write acclaimed novels from her US base, culturally she appears to have learnt to keep her head – where some of her compatriots are losing theirs.

Unlike many ladies that, even when they are based in Nigeria, fall too cheaply for foreign tastes, she still calmly keeps a good measure of her Nigerianess.  While Brazilian hair is, for instance, not on her fashion menu, she is also not one of those folks who too easily fake Oyinbo accent, while her  spoken English is still the type an enlightened ear will love to listen to.

She demonstrated these and some other similar traits in Lagos on Saturday when her latest novel, Americana, was unveiled at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island.  Published by Farafina, the book is coming after her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, which is like a bridge between Americana and award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun.

In the presence of her father and mum – she described them as the best father and mother on earth – the crowd showed her love and kindness, as evident in the way they celebrated her works and in the number of people that purchased the new novel.

She too assured them that she loves the home spirit and gave the indication that ‘Ours is ours and mine is mine’ – as a character would note in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. She said, “I have been published outside the country. But it is good to be home. The readership that matters most to me is the Nigerian readership.”

A short review on BookPage shows that Americana depicts the Tokunbo/been-to syndrome that several writers and even film makers have, at different times, explored in various works.  Adichie’s perspective and treatment are what the reader has to find out, especially when she is still an ‘Americana’ herself.

BookPage notes, “The title comes from the word Nigerians use for those who have left the country for the US and become “Americanised”—a borderline insult. Adichie’s heroine Ifemelu is surprised to find the term applied to her when she returns home after 15 years in the US. Especially since she’s always felt ambivalent about America: the country not only separated her from her teenaged love, Obinze, who had his visa denied, it also made her truly conscious of race for the first time. But upon her return, she and Obinze are reunited and must see how their very different expatriate pasts affect both their relationship and their lives in a newly independent Nigeria.”

Adichie also said on Saturday  that Americana is about many things that define the life (and, maybe, also after-life) of many young Nigerians who have sojourned abroad and are now back in their fatherland. In the case of Ifemelu, she added, the character is filled with the thought of the “beautiful sadness of things he has missed and things she will never know.”

Spicing her analyses with satirical cracks and humour, Adichie radiated a good mood that earned her applause from the audience that filled the compact hall of the Terra Kulture, which has hosted many related events. But she had her match in the anchor, Tolu Ogunlesi, who asked her several penetrating questions that  border on her ideology, vision and personality.

A question recurrent in the course of the conversation is whether or not Adichie is not exploiting Ifemelu to write her own ‘exile’ story. Exile? She was tempted to protest each time she heard that word.  While she did not  outright disown Ifemelu and her other earlier major characters, saying her characters usually have a semblance of her, she stressed that there was a meaningful and professional distance between her and the protagonist.

“I am interested in ideas. I borrow a lot from my life. But to be a novelist and write good fiction, you have to stand one step away. You are not participating fully,” she explained.

One thing that played out during the unveiling of Americana is that Chimamanda – as she is popularly called – seems to have also honed the kind of skills that a celebrated writer needs at public appearances. When she needed to be emphatic, she was; and when she needed to spring mischief, she did very swiftly.

When one of the microphones was ‘misbehaving’, she remarked at a point, “This is a very Nigerian mic.”  When someone asked her a question on the character of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, she blamed the President’s associates and hangers-around for its non-performance. According to him, he is surrounded by people who tell her only blatant lies. As a result, she noted,  “He has no clue.”

In some other questions that caused uproar, someone wanted to know about Adichie’s personal love story. She more or less dodged this. And this is quite interesting as some other people are eager to know who her husband really is.

Winner of Big Brother Africa, Ebuka, could also not hide his passion for Adichie’s works. But, first, he observed that whenever he reads Adichie’s books, it is her face she puts to a lot of her characters. He provoked another line of argument when he asked if she could write in her mother tongue, Igbo.

Apart from firing back with style, asking if Ebuka too can write in Igbo, she lamented that the number of people who speak indigenuous languages have so badly dwindled that books written in them would find few or no readers. She is worried that the education system is also embattled by the don’t-speak-vernacular syndrome.

Overall, Adichie said she hardly worries about what people say about her works.  Noting that each of her books is different from others, she explained, “My primary concern is not what somebody says about my works. It is writing a story that feels true.”


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