Words and images by Tunji Ajibade
The Abuja Writers’ Forum (AWF) in collaboration with the US Embassy hosted Nigeria’s award winning author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in Abuja on May 15, 2010.
The attendance was something unprecedented. Nigerians and members of the diplomatic community had begun to arrive the venue long before the time for commencement. That says something. People like writers; Nigerians love their own. They came in droves, some to meet her for the first time, others to identify with her, and yet many more to hear her voice of hope, of her vision for the nation’s literature.
And it was good, the organisers foresaw it. The large capacity Cyprian Ekwensi Centre for Art and Culture was the venue. The 4pm time for the reading was slow in coming, as many had arrived about one hour earlier. Then she walked into the hall of the event, smiling in her usual calm way. Heads had turned, and necks craned as seated guests tried to get a glimpse of her. In a simple red dress, but surprisingly, without the trademark scarf on her head, she certainly had an image that no kid on the street of Abuja would miss. That, considering the good work the (Nigeria) Re-branding Team has done, having displayed her picture for months on green cabs plying roads in the nation’s capital city. Not to mention her images flashed regularly on TV, also by the same Team, where she is listed among Nigerians who are the nations’ positive faces on the international stage. An attendee at the reading spelt this out for the diplomatic community in attendance: “People like Chimamanda should be considered as the image of the country,” instead of the negative treatment Nigerian get abroad.
The Master of Ceremony, Mohammed Sani, set things rolling. He called for opening remarks from different personalities, and introduction was made of literary bodies such as the Open Mic Forum whose members were present at the event. Then the guest author sat down to business. Adichie read not from her latest book, The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of stories; rather she read an excerpt from a new, unpublished work.
Those who listened would later point out variously: “There was this shocking effect from her description of some things at various points in the story”; “Her story had this graphic touch to it”. This is not surprising. The author is of the school of ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’. She had told her students about this at the creative writing workshop which she handled earlier in the day.
The 25 participants at the workshop had been selected from the responses to a call for submissions. “The entries created much problem, and it was difficult making the selection because of the quality of what was submitted,” Dr Emman Usman Shehu, president of Abuja Writers Forum (AWF) had said at the event. “I write what I like to read”; Watch out for clichés, both of language and of ideas - they are convenient but a lazy way of writing,” Adichie had told her students while she took them through the whole circle of how to generate ideas on what to write, putting them on paper, vetting the work, and how to get a publisher. “I enjoyed the workshop”, she said later, but wondered if a one-day workshop was enough to do all that was necessary to equip a writer. Her yearly workshop in Lagos under her foundation, Farafina Trust, lasts 10 days. She made the best of the brief encounter she had with participants at the Abuja writing workshop though, having pointed out earlier on: “Maybe I can use this to see how well a one-day workshop works out.”
The question and answer time at the reading was a drama on its own – and it usually is, wherever this author who holds MA from Yale University is on the ‘hot seat.’ “I read your book Purple Hibiscus, and you appeared to me like you are fighting a battle,” actor, theatre director and consultant, Jide Zubeiru Attah, said when he had the opportunity to take the first shot. “But in Half of Yellow Sun,” he continued, “you appeared subdued.” Adichie denied much of this. “I am not fighting a battle, what I write is the way I feel,” she said with reference to Attah’s perception that she had taken up the cause of women as against the main (male) character in Purple Hibiscus. And she had no apology for the way she felt about the things she wrote, as her usual candour came to the fore: “If people find my book offensive, they should put it aside and read something else.”
“What propelled you to this level in such a short time?” was the question Dr Onuh, a director in the capital city administration, asked. The response from the author was as informative as it was educative. She identified the fact of growing up on a university campus as important. She commended Nsukka campus, the environment, for the major impetus it gave her to take interest in scholarly pursuits. There, everything was around books, reading and all that was academic. There was the fact of having parents who worked in the same setting too. She has a professor of statistics and former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University for a father, as well as the first female registrar of the same University as mother. “I have the most amazing, lovely parents,” Adichie said. Her parents gave room for questions. “We ask questions, seeking to answers to them.” And of course, “I made my choice.” The choice to write rather than continue the one and half year of studying medicine and pharmacy that she had put in at the University of Nsukka, before she went to live with a relative in the United States of America. She went on to study Communication at Drexel University, at which time she had begun to pen Purple Hibiscus which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005. When the question as to the importance of vision for her where writing was concerned was raised, she said, “the vision for writing is important, and, yes, I am somewhat obsessive about it,” recounting in some detail how she didn’t want to let go of the manuscript of Half of A Yellow Sun, as she had kept calling it back for “one more revision.”
As the Question and Answer session continued, issues of publishing and marketing of books got the author drawing out her daggers. To the complaints that being outside Nigeria may be an advantage in getting a publisher, she said, “I know a woman who is published recently in the US, she wrote the book in Nigeria .” That rhymes with the position she usually took, “If you have done your work well, it will find a home (publisher).” She went on to state that there was something for everyone to do in the effort to overcome the challenges that confront writers. It was clear from her argument that she is one author who does not believe that writers should sit in a corner and complain about how the government or organisations that sponsor literature did not do it well. She believes every writer must sit up and do something to correct whatever is wrong in the system. “What are we doing ourselves? These are important questions we need to attend to,” she had said at the Abuja reading.
And she had set out her own target. “I will like to go to primary schools all over the country.” That, as part of her effort to continue to promote literature by improving quality of writing as well as get people to read, even the younger ones. Tall dream, it may seem. But someone once remarked that a ‘vision is not big enough, until it shocks those that hear it.” Adichie’s is not only daring, it dares, sending out messages that she wants writers to sit up and take back the system from anyone who may be sending it in the wrong direction. From her explanations about going to primary schools, it was obvious she envisioned younger generations raised as consumers of literature materials and who will be potential market for literature when they grow up
Editors of big publishing houses have not been left out of her vision for literature. Earlier this year, she organised a workshop for editors in an effort to improve the quality of reading materials that children in the nation are exposed to. “A newspaper may be all that a young child in a remote place is exposed to,” she argued, “and he may think that all the wrong styles of writing he finds in a newspaper is the best.” She was concerned that this, not only newspaper but any badly edited work, has actually influenced a whole generation. And there is the generation of Nigerians who don’t read beyond what they need to pass examinations. “We must begin to brainwash Nigerians,” Adichie announced. Her audience had made noises, indicating they didn’t get what she actually meant. Not many quickly got wise to her idea of setting in motion a revolution that will change the whole face of literature in the country. So she added, “in a good way,” to clarify her comment, which meant reorienting Nigerians with regard to reading and writing. Yet she had more to say in order to arrive home with her listeners. “If my dream of brainwashing comes true, we will change things.” That was a challenge, and more than that, a voice of encouragement, hope, a dream. “We can do it in spite of our setbacks,” she had added, before she left the ‘hot seat.’
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