By Molara Wood
Two Olympic style flames burned on either side of the expansive orange carpet that led from the sidewalk into the venue, up the wide stairways and all the way to the Ballroom in the belly of the Royal Festival Hall, where it was all going to happen. It was already teeming with people, with more arriving by the minute. Made up mostly of writers and book lovers, it was at least a more representative crowd than the Shortlist Readings, which took place the night before in the Purcell Room, part of the same South Bank Complex that includes the Royal Festival Hall.
Flying the flag for the whole of Africa, Chimamanda watched as the preliminary awards were announced. A trio of shortlisted authors, Guo, Rachel Cusk (Arlington Park) and Joanne Harris (The Observations) kept each other company nearby. Desai, wearing a stunning Indian sari, was further away in the gathering. Completing the shortlist of six was Anne Tyler (for Digging to America) who was not present. According to the chair of the judging panel Muriel Gray, Tyler is "notoriously reclusive and never leaves Baltimore." Representatives stood in for Tyler at the reading and at the award ceremony.
Then Chimamanda's name was called out, to sensational reactions in the Royal Festival Hall Ballroom. The author went on the stage to accept the limited edition winner's bronze statuette known as the "Bessie" drawing laughs when she declared herself happy to take home "this little thing with its cute breasts." She mentioned that, "Writing is the only thing I really care about," and added that she had to go and make a call to her family in Nigeria. Chimamanda's editor, Mitzi Angel, later described the author's onstage performance as "poised" and "controlled" - adding that, "She does the same in her writing. She is always thinking, and she cares deeply about her country. She will become one of the most important writers in the world."
Adebanwi, who interviewed Adichie on the publications of both her books, said, "I am very excited because I knew it was only a matter of time for Chimamanda to win a big prize." He observed that, "She's got the capacity to tell the traditional African story by the moonlight with a refreshing modernity that is extremely powerful. We should be proud of her." Adebanwi felt that the theft of Chimamanda's handbag was strangely prescient. "Maybe losing her bag was an indication of a new story. What was taken away yesterday has been returned in a wonderful way today."
Chimamanda herself had seen the bag's loss as a bad omen. "I was thinking: this is not good." Winning the prize however, made her "very happy." She had come off the stage before realising that she didn't thank some people publicly, especially her editor Mitzi Angel. "Writing is something you do alone," Chimamanda said, "and it takes other people to help make things happen. I've been very fortunate to have Mitzi who understands my work."
We the Nigerians present had unrestricted access as Chimamanda gave radio and television interviews. She answered questions and posed for photographs while we sent frantic text messages to writers and artists in Nigeria to communicate the news. Kate Mosse came in with the winner's £30,000 cheque, a part of the ceremony that had been accidentally missed out on the stage. And so we were among the few witnesses to the belated presentation of the cheque, which made it all the more special.
Prize-winning Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah phoned through on my mobile and became the first to congratulate the new Orange winner by telephone. And there was still that phone call to the Adichie family to be made. But first, it was back to the ceremony in the Ballroom. Among those waiting to congratulate Chimamanda and talk with her, were: Zadie Smith (2006 Orange winner), Andrea Levy (2004 winner), Jackie Kay, Margaret Busby and John Agard. There was a wonderful evening ahead and - as many predicted on the night - a great future. In the end, it seemed clear that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Orange Prize triumph had never really been in doubt.
- Words & images © MW