Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be Africa's best-known young writer, but she's now making a big mark this side of the Atlantic.
A former MacArthur genius, her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists" was sampled by Beyonce. A film based on her novel Half of a Yellow Sun will be out this summer. And she's just won a prestigious National Book Critics Circle award for her latest novel Americanah.
But she says she didn't expect the critical recognition for the love story centered on race, identity, immigration and hair that spans three continents. "I've just been so pleasantly surprised by how well Americanah has done, because I didn't think it would do particularly well," she tells NPR's Michel Martin.
The awards and book sales have proven her wrong. And now there are rumors tying Americanah to Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o. "I can't confirm," Adichie says, "but I admire Lupita very much and she is probably going to option Americanah. ... I don't know what's going to happen, whether it's going to be a film or a TV series or whether it's even going to happen, because you know, these things take forever," she says. That is as much as Adichie will say for now.
Adichie says she wrote the book as her "you know what, this is the book I want to write," she explains. She says royalty checks from her previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, allowed her to take a risk. "I deal with race in a way that's not the way that one is supposed to in serious literary fiction in this country. And I just imagined that maybe many readers would not connect to it."
On denouncing Nigeria's new anti-gay laws
I wrote it because I was angry. I was upset. It was very personal, my reaction to it. And you know, it's easy to say, "I have people I love who are gay," which is true, but if I didn't, I would still have been outraged by it, because I felt it was deeply unjust. And I recognize that I have a voice now in Nigeria, and so I wanted to write it, and I wanted to write it specifically for a Nigerian audience, to say, "let's actually think about this, let's talk about this." And the responses I got, I wasn't surprised to get ... people who said I used to love you but now that I know you support gays, I no longer love you. And when somebody told me this, that this is what her cousin had said, I said, "tell your cousin I don't want her love, if that's the condition for her love."
On being smart and dressing fabulously
I grew up being told that I had to look in the mirror. You know, my mother made history. She was the first woman to be head of the administrative section of the University of Nigeria, and she was very concerned about her appearance, and she brought all her children up to care about how we looked. And so I came to the U.S. and I realized serious women were not supposed to, and that if you did look as though you cared, it was a reason to be dismissive of you ... I think I just really have come to understand that life is way too short to pretend to be what I'm not, and it sounds very New Agey and cliched but I just really want to be my true self, and this is my true self. I think, for so long, when I would find black shapeless shifts for every event, I was just being false, that was not myself, but I was thinking, "I have to look serious."
On Beyonce sampling her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists"
I think that anything that gets young people talking about feminism is a very good thing. I also think that I have a problem with the idea of feminism as being some sort of exclusive party that someone gets to decide whether you can come, and also the idea that somehow a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, that there's something wrong with that. I have a problem with that ... Why have we decided that somehow a woman celebrating her sexuality somehow is something bad? Maybe it's that slightly puritan idea, it's also the idea that sex is something a woman gives a man, and she loses something when she does that, which again for me is nonsense. I want us to raise girls differently where boys and girls start to see sexuality as something that they own, rather than something that a boy takes from a girl.