I’m excited and nervous to be meeting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Excited, because she is one of the world’s best writers. Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about Nigeria’s Biafran war, remains one of the most enthralling pieces of fiction of the past decade. Nervous, because Adichie — at least the one who jumps out of the pages of Americanah , her follow-up novel about the experiences of an African woman living in the US — has a controlled, but cutting, anger.
Ifemelu, the book’s heroine and, one suspects, an alter ego for the author herself, is a master of put-downs on matters of race and gender. Worryingly for me, bumbling white male liberals get particularly short shrift throughout Adichie’s work. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Richard, an Englishman, embraces Biafra, learns Igbo and stays throughout the escalating horrors of war. Adichie rewards him by making him unable to perform sexually.
I am thinking about all this in the Yellow Chilli Restaurant & Bar, an airy two-storey building painted in canary yellow, in Ikeja, a less chaotic part of frenetically high-pressured Lagos. Waiters are drifting around in snazzy yellow waistcoats, like backing singers in a Motown band. The air is sticky, despite the efforts of the fridge-sized air-conditioner. One of the staff is killing flies with a tennis-racket-shaped device, which crackles with electricity every time it zaps a buzzing insect.
The lunch, which has taken months to arrange — not least because of the difficulty of obtaining a Nigerian visa — has been set for the late hour of 2.30pm. I left early to allow for the Lagos traffic and arrived at 2pm, occupying a table on the second floor. For an hour, I’ve been studying the unfamiliar menu — ogbono soup, obe dindin, yam pottage. By 3.30pm, I wonder if Adichie will show. By 4pm, I’m convinced she’s not coming.
Finally, she appears, looking slightly sheepish, and slides into the opposite side of our booth table. “You may actually enjoy the interview,” I offer, and am treated to a sceptical look. Has she read “Lunch with the FT” before? Yes, she says, softening. She has even read one I’d done a few weeks earlier with Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa. It read like a short story, she says. “I also thought you were a bit unfair. A part of me wonders, were she male, whether you would be as . . . ” I would have been equally tough, I jump in. “I’m sure you would. You probably would have been. No, I don’t mean you,” she says, executing a charming retreat. “And it’s not just you.”
She turns to the waiter, flashing him a smile. There’s something mischievous and challenging about the way she interacts. “Yes, Mr Chima,” she says, reading his name from a lapel badge. “Do you have Chapman?” The waiter nods enthusiastically, and Adichie explains that Chapman is a non-alcoholic cocktail popular in Nigeria. I ask if they have white wine. “Yes. We have Drostdy-Hof,” beams the waiter, leaving me none the wiser.
While he’s fetching the drinks, I ask her whether it’s appropriate to write about what she’s wearing. Readers have objected that men’s clothes are rarely described. “A lot of these things are about the how, right? I was raised by my mother to care about my appearance, so I have no trouble with it.” She pauses. “Like, I’m wearing red shoes, and you need to notice,” she announces. I check under the table and am confronted by Wizard of Oz dazzle.
Our drinks appear. Drostdy-Hof turns out to be a mouth-puckering South African chardonnay. The colour of her Chapman matches her shoes. “This is just very sugary, very sweet. I would probably have a glass of wine, but I’m breastfeeding, I’m happy to announce.”
It takes me a moment to process. Adichie, 38, is famously protective of her private life. I had no idea she had a baby. Is this my world scoop? I ask. “This is the first time I’m saying it publicly. I have a lovely little girl so I feel like I haven’t slept . . . but it’s also just really lovely and strange.” Her voice has a wonderfully rich timbre. When she says “lovely” — soft and round as a peach — it feels like a gift.
“I have some friends who probably don’t know I was pregnant or that I had a baby. I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood. I went into hiding. I wanted it to be as personal as possible.
The Yellow Chilli Restaurant & Bar
35 Joel Ogunaike Street, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria
House white wine x 3 N2,550
Medium water x 2 N500
Edikang Ikong soup with chicken N2,300
Jollof rice and goat curry N3,000
Ugu greens No charge
Boiled yam No charge
Total (inc tax and service) N11,000 (£29.25)
“In this country of mine that I love,” she goes on, sliding to a halt on the word “love”, “people think that you’re incomplete unless you’re married.” Her husband, also a bit of a secret, is a Nigerian doctor who works in the US, where Adichie spends time when she’s not in Lagos. Can I ask the baby’s name? “No, I won’t say,” she says with a disarming smile.
. . .
We turn to the matter of food. I tell her I had been thinking of ordering jollof rice — although I’m not sure exactly what it is — because characters in her novels often crave it. She recalls a sentence in my most recent Lunch interview where I had talked about dark meat lurking underneath the greens. “So I was hoping that today you would have something with things lurking underneath things,” she says, dissolving into laughter at the thought of torturing a poor Englishman.
She scans the menu: egusi, oha, otong, afia efere. “To be fair, I don’t actually like any of these things,” she says finally. “Why don’t you do jollof rice and goat curry?” Then, with a twinkle, “Goat meat: that hopefully will be a strong taste that might not appeal.”
Then she confesses she has notified the restaurant in advance about her particular dietary requirements. “I called them to make sure I could have my steamed greens.”
Food features prominently in her writing. “It’s probably the best way to get into time, place, class, culture. It’s a breathing detail that lives on the page.” In Americanah, she describes Nigerian food, approvingly, as “sweaty and spicy”. Nigerian characters who have spent too long in the US, like Adichie, develop effete tastes. She admits to sneaking off to a “bougie” (bourgeois) Lagos establishment for her smoothie fix.
These days, though, she rarely ventures out. “I’m becoming a bit of a recluse. I like solitude. I like silence,” she says, stirring the Chapman with her straw. Is she working on something new, I ask, knowing that this is a taboo topic. “It’s a very bad question. It’s a question that puts you in a panic,” she says, making clear the subject is closed.
Her three plates arrive: white disks of boiled yam, a chicken stew and some kale-like “ugu vegetable”, not exactly what she had ordered, although she doesn’t object. I try some at her invitation. It’s crunchy, salty and delicious. My jollof rice is bright orange and peppery hot. It comes with a bowl of dark-yellow soupy curry in which three pieces of goat meat are partially submerged, like hippos in a river.
There is, I say, a hard edge to her heroines, particularly the formidable Ifemelu, who lets no foible go unrebuked. “I’ve had to spend a lot of time convincing people that she’s not me, but in some ways she is,” Adichie says, taking a bite of chicken. “She’s almost an act of defiance, because I really find myself questioning the idea of the likeable character, especially the likeable female character.”
Ifemelu is bright, outspoken and restless. “I liked her. I didn’t always like her. She can be soft or prickly. I wanted her to be all of those things, because I just think that we need more women to be all of those things — and for it to be OK.” Too often, strong female characters are judged, she says, referring to a theme she explored in a phenomenally successful Ted talk in 2013. “Before the book came out, some people in publishing said ‘maybe we could make her more likeable’. And I thought, ‘Lord no’.”
Like Ifemelu, Adichie says she “enjoys a good argument”. I decide to take her up on it. Why, for example, does Ifemelu appear to believe that only black people — not Asians or Latin Americans or even black people with lighter skin — understand real discrimination? “I don’t think she thinks that. I do think she thinks that other people don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against for being black,” she corrects me.
“There is no united league of the oppressed,” she adds. “Even within the African-American communities, there are differences, so that the lighter-skin African-Americans have a certain kind of privilege. It’s a tainted privilege because it’s a privilege within a racist system, but still. And obviously it has its history in slavery. The so-called house slave was lighter-skinned and the field slave was darker,” she says.
Americanah provoked strong reactions in the US, both positive and negative. Critics accused Adichie of everything from being overly obsessed with race to belittling the African-American experience. “I don’t want to sound self-righteous but in the American ‘left left’, there isn’t room for asking questions,” she says.
What about prejudice among Africans — say, of Nigerians towards Ghanaians? “You know about that,” she says, exploding into laughter. “We in Nigeria have an unearned and funny sense of superiority. Nigerians are the Americans of Africa.”
I’d rather you not engage [with Africa] than engage in a patronising way. It comes from a sense of superiority; an ignorance that refuses to acknowledge itself– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I order another wine and ask if I can share her water. “I like drinking from the bottle, so as long as you’re fine with my having sipped from it. Generally my hygiene is good,” she teases.
The inter-ethnic rivalries that have plagued post-independence Africa, she says, are different from racism, the origins of which she traces to transatlantic slavery. “How do we justify treating people like . . . like monkeys? We do that by claiming they are not quite like us. You read about these plantation owners in the south who had children with black women. A part of me thinks, surely just that thing in us that makes us human, surely it would overcome? But no. They just sold their kids.”
She only learnt about race in America, she says. “In Nigeria, growing up, I never thought about appearance. I knew I was Igbo and I grew up in an Igbo place.”
Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the Igbos’ struggle for an independent Biafra in the late 1960s. After two years of defiance, they were bombed and starved into submission by Nigeria’s military. “I just felt so moved by my father’s generation. I adore my father. I am such a daddy’s girl. He’s just such a lovely man,” she says, lingering again over the word “lovely”. In the war, he “lost something, a kind of innocence,” she says prodding at the ugu greens. “I think they really did believe in big and grand things and the war just sucked those things out of them.”
In one of the novel’s most difficult scenes, the hero, a servant called Ugwu, rapes a woman after being press-ganged into the army. “It was very difficult to write because I love him,” she says, staring at the bottom of her glass. “That’s what war does, dehumanises people. I read things that people did that I was horrified by, but I also remember asking myself: ‘What would I have done?’
“I knew that was the point where I was risking having my reader . . . suspend love for him. But it was a risk I felt was worth taking, because I hoped that, I don’t mean to say I hoped that they would forgive him, because that seems a bit simple, but that they would see it for what it was.”
She asks if I’m enjoying the rice. I am very much, I say. It’s like comfort food. The goat is also tasty, although, for all her pride in the fieriness of Nigerian food, I’d have liked it spicier.
We’ve been talking for more than two hours and I realise I’ll never make it to a dinner scheduled for 7.30pm. Besides, the conversation is flowing so well. I order a third glass of wine.
We touch briefly on American politics, including her continuing admiration for Barack Obama, whose presidency she says was sabotaged by Republicans. “I adore him.” Bernie Sanders is “your dishevelled, likeable uncle,” but not a realistic candidate. She’d vote for Hillary Clinton.
I wonder about Nigeria. With its huge population, entrepreneurial drive and ample oil reserves, it has been the perennial hope of Africa — and the perennial disappointment. Things are better than they were, she says, recalling the days when even getting through the notoriously corrupt international airport was a test of endurance. “Nigeria is way too young to expect the kind of thing that I would ideally want for Nigeria, but the idea of holding people accountable is slowly happening.”
Technology and a stronger middle class are helping. These days, if a policeman asks for a bribe, she says, you whip out your mobile phone and threaten to post his photo on the internet. “I don’t know if it’s a delusional kind of hope, I don’t know if it’s a hope that is hoping because there’s nothing left to do but hope. But I’m still hopeful that I will see a better Nigeria.”
There’s a sudden zap-zap-zap behind us. “My friend, what are you doing?” she quizzes the waiter, who is swiping his racket through the air again. “I’m playing with flies,” comes his straight-faced reply. “How many flies are there that you’re playing like that?” she retorts, brow furrowed in mock irritation.
We’ve finished lunch, but people are already drifting in for dinner. I want to broach a last subject: how should people engage with Africa? Some characters in Americanah are ridiculed because, although they show interest in Africa, they also display ignorance, viewing it through a prism of pity and horror.
“I think I’d rather you not engage than engage in a way that is patronising,” she says. “It comes from a sense of superiority; it comes from an ignorance that refuses to acknowledge itself. So Africa becomes this vague mass of wars”, even if the country under discussion — and Africa has 54 countries — has been peaceful for decades.
What about poor Richard? An Englishman who devotes his life to the Biafran cause comes across as a bit of a wet rag. Adichie smiles knowingly. “You know what’s interesting to me. I’ve been asked by many, many white British men about Richard. You see, this is the white male expectation of being at the centre,” she says, draining her mocktail.
“He’s kind of meek and he’s kind of uncertain, but in a way that I find quite sweet. He learns Igbo, his friends accept him, this interesting woman loves him. Isn’t that enough?” That’s an excellent point, I concede. But Adichie hasn’t finished with me yet. “The Englishman,” she says, scolding and laughing simultaneously, “doesn’t have to be the superhero all the time.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor
Illustration by James Ferguson