Chimamanda’s Day @ the Orange Prize
Caribbean-British Writer Andrea Levy was declared the winner of this year's Orange Prize for fiction on June 8 for her novel Small Island. Nigeria's Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had been shortlisted for her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus.
As the day drew near, my search for a copy of Purple Hibiscus became more and more frantic, as I would enter every bookstore only to be told they'd just sold their last copy. In a last ditch effort, I headed for the Index Bookshop in Brixton, which specialises in black writing - and got lucky. And so it was that on the day of the Award ceremony, I had only read 20 or so pages of one of the most talked about books of this year.
Newspaper columnist Wale Adebanwi and I took the London Underground to Waterloo and from there made our way on foot to the South Bank. We came across writer Ike Anya and his brother by the National Theatre; and our band of four went looking for the venue - a gigantic white tent called The Room By The River. The inside was decked out to resemble a Victorian landscaped garden for the ceremony. Hosts and hostesses dressed like Victorians wafted around, tempting guests with cocktails and canapes.
The place was filled with the literati and the arty, with all manners of people in-between. Pottery artist Grayson Perry, winner of the 2003 Turner Prize, had turned up as his female alter-ego, Claire. He wore a baby-doll dress, a wig with a pink bow in it, full make-up and high-heeled shoes. Holding an oriental-style ladies' fan, he looked serenely about him as I plotted ways of getting close enough to take his picture. Exasperated by my timidity, Wale snatched the camera from me, went close to the gender-bending artist, and clicked.
Huge banners bearing images of the shortlisted books signposted corners of the garden dedicated to each of the six authors. We familiarised ourselves with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's corner, where four copies of Purple Hibiscus - once so elusive to me - now lay invitingly open on two garden benches.
Chimamanda soon arrived, looking like a Hollywood starlet in a glamorous gold dress. Wale and I were meeting her for the first time, though he had recently done an extensive interview with her for a Nigerian newspaper. She and Ike come a long way. She was relieved to see us, saying: "I'm very happy that my people are here." Ike and I wielded our cameras like weapons, clicking away as a dizzying array of people came up to greet Chimamanda, who bore it all with good grace.
Purple Hibiscus is already out in the Dutch language; other translations are in the pipeline, including French and German. The writer is working closely with those in charge of the translations to ensure that no meaning is lost, especially on the Igbo words used in the book. Of this year's shortlisted authors, Chimamanda is the youngest and the only first time novelist. She also received the most notice in the British press but told us she didn't think she'd win. The shortlist was a formidable field including Booker Prize winner and author of 11 books, Margaret Attwood.
A female writer in a tight, short dress made a beeline for Chimamanda. She needed no introduction since her name - Kathy Lette - had been emblazoned across the chest area of her dress. Lower down, the dress screamed the title of her new book, Dead Sexy, published that very day, or so she told us. Lette was a walking billboard for her book, which I quickly concluded had no chance of ever being shortlisted for any prize. She fussed all over Chimamanda, telling her that Purple Hibiscus would be the night's winner, and floated off. "See?" Wale said. "That lady just said you will win." Chimamanda replied in broken English: "You think say dat one sabi wetin e dey talk?"
Wale and I were struck by how 'grounded' Chimamanda was. Tolu Somolu of the online magazine Gisters had attended the Orange Prize writers' Reading event at the British Library the night before. She said of Chimamanda's performance: "She really captured the imagination", adding that the writer is "confident, articulate and modest with it too."
Chimamanda's brother Chuks and his wife Tinuke were in our group, as well as Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, winner of the 2002 Caine Prize. Nigerian Chika Unigwe is on this year's Caine shortlist along with two Ugandans, a Kenyan and a Zimbabwean. Wainaina is rooting for either Uganda or Kenya: "My mother is Ugandan so either way, I'm happy." But he is not complacent about Nigeria's literary muscle, saying: "Nigerians are juggernauts. They can wipe us out just like that."
After winning the Caine Prize, Wainaina set up a website (Kwani?) for short story writing. This has been "wonderful", according to Ike who informed me that the website produced not just last year's winner, but two of this year's shortlisted writers. Ike went on to talk about forthcoming novels by Unigwe and Sefi Atta, declaring that: "Nigerian women are coming."
"I am Kate Mosse", a glamorous lady on the stage was saying as the ceremony began proper. "What is Kate Moss the supermodel doing presenting a literary prize?" I asked no one in particular. We moved closer to the stage and saw that this was indeed a different Kate Mosse. She went on to talk about the Orange Prize, and its recently announced prize for New Fiction to be given out from next year.
Shortlisted author Gillian Slovo - daughter of anti- apartheid hero Joe - was nearby. She and other competing writers were to mount the stage in turns following an audio-visual response on each book by artist Martin Farrell. This was to be in alphabetical order, in which case Chimamanda should have gone first. But someone must have mistaken her middle name, Ngozi, for part of her surname - and so it was that found she herself fourth in line.
Ike became uneasy as the audio-visual responses commenced, saying: "If they put some useless jungle drumming in Chimamanda's own, I will vex." When it was finally relayed on two giant screens, we were not quite sure what it was but since there was no drumming, Ike seemed satisfied. "It is the dream of every judging panel that they find an astonishing new voice and I think we have found one", head of the panel of judges Sandy Toksvig said of Chimamanda, who went up to be presented with a bouquet of flowers.
Ike was telling me: "That Chimamanda even made it onto the shortlist... this tiny girl among experienced middle-aged writers... It is such a major achievement."
Noise erupted as Andrea Levy was declared the winner. As she gave her speech, Wale nudged me to take a picture, asking mischievously: "Won't you take her? Or are we angry?" 'We' were not, so my camera clicked once more.
Chimamanda had taken it very well and told me: "Being on the shortlist was an honour. I just felt so lucky. I'm looking forward to doing more things and climbing higher." Ike was also upbeat, telling her: "Next stop the Nobel!"
A 30-piece band began to play as the congratulations, commiserations and partying began in earnest. Nigerian actor Cyril Nri, a star on long-running British television drama The Bill, had reviewed Purple Hibiscus for the Orange Prize website. He now shared with us the book's effect on him. Having left Nri village in 1968, the actor found that "there were lots of bits in the book that brought back memories... lots of things that touched" him. Not least is the theme of Catholicism in Chimamanda's book. Referring to the family in novel, Cyril said: "I felt the silences in the house."
Martin R Kenyon of The Council For Education In The Commonwealth is another admirer of Chimamanda's talent. He first met the writer when she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2002, and helped change all the American spelling in Purple Hibiscus into the English style.
He expressed the belief that she would have won the new prize starting next year, and suggested that Purple Hibiscus has the "feeling" of Turgenev, a 19th century Russian writer.
The ambition of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's writing declares itself from the first line of Purple Hibiscus, with its allusion to Chinua Achebe. "He is the most important writer for me", declared Chimamanda, who sees herself as "writing in the tradition he started." Arguing that Achebe has "done his bit", she now wants to do "something different but in a sense similar." She believes the author of Things Fall Apart "wrote on his own terms, not apologising for what he was doing. I want to do the same." In her view, "African writers sometimes are apologetic, working in a way they think is expected of them." Clearly not an option for Chimamanda.
She is looking forward to Readings being organised for her in Nigeria by the online magazine Farafina, as an opportunity "to make my people know me." She also wants Purple Hibiscus published in Nigeria, and West Africa as a whole in a "cheap enough" version by local publishers who will "do the book well."
Chimamanda's UK publishers, Fourth Estate, invited her 'friends' to a trendy Pizza eatery nearby. As we made our way across from The Room On The River, Jason Cowley of The Observer, a UK newspaper, was asking if I thought Chimamanda would grow in the same regard as Buchi Emecheta. My answer was an emphatic "No".
Chimamanda's hero, Achebe, pillories in Home And Exile "a much advertised author living in London" who had described her fellow Nigerian and African writers as "stilted". She, however, was different because the African in her had been "diluted" - even her publishers no longer put her books in the African section. Achebe is damning: "The psychology of the dispossessed can be truly frightening." He does not name her, but all clues point to only one person. As I understand it, this is the kind of "apologetic" writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has vowed never to become.
Over pizza and lasagne in the restaurant, her editor, Mitzi, reflected on the Orange Prize result, saying: We were disappointed that she didn't win but we don't mind because we know she's a star." Fourth Estate will also publish the writer's next book, which is to be about the Nigerian civil war. Chimamanda bared her mind on the war: "It lives with me... all of us who have family members who are divided by the war." She feels it is necessary to write about it, "to bear witness."
Jason Cowley and Binyavanga Wainaina were discussing the US elections and the latter was arguing for Bush's re-election. I said loudly across the table to him: "I am rabidly Anti-Bush!" I had spoken too soon, as Wainaina turned out to be even more Anti-Bush than I. He was telling Cowley: "Remember we (Kenyans) got bombed twice." He continued: "I want the American public to know that their lack of interest in politics has repercussions. Their support for Bush has repercussions, and the only way they will learn is to vote him back in."
Formerly the Literary Editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley was a Caine Prize judge in 2001, and again in 2002 "when we awarded the prize to this Anti-American here", he said jokingly of Wainaina.
Chimamanda and I talked some more, about her recent photo-shoot for Vogue magazine for which she wore a Chanel top and Jimmy Choo shoes; and the beads in her hair that are fast becoming a signature look. She explained: "I like beads, I like that it makes people think African... my hair is natural. Being a devotee of natural tresses myself, I was elated. But Ike Anya and Wale Adebanwi were clearly mystified by the way the conversation was going. "The advantages of being a woman interviewer", I taunted them.
I finally hugged Chimamanda goodnight at 11pm, so Wale could hop on an 11.30 coach back to Cambridge. He was to catch a flight to Lagos at seven the next morning yet squeezed in the Orange Prize ceremony. I had been away from home, and children, for over 12 hours. Ike - still with Chimamanda's party in the restaurant - was in the thick of medical exams. But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was worth it. As the Americans would say: "She is good people."
Cyril Nri, Tolu Somolu, Adichie & Ronnie Ajoku
Jason Cowley & others heading to dinner after the Orange Prize, 8 June 2004.
- “Chimamanda's Day @ the Orange Prize” - by Molara Wood - published 13 June 2004 in The Guardian, Lagos.
- Words & Images © MW