From Pages of Fiction, A Volume of Sad Truth
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
When she was writing the massacre scenes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, she would sometimes stop and think: This really happened to people.
The 29-year-old author of "Half of a Yellow Sun" hadn't been born in 1967, when Nigeria's Eastern Region broke away to form the doomed Republic of Biafra. She wasn't around for the civil war that followed, during which both her grandfathers died as refugees. She wasn't there to watch her parents, who lost everything, struggle to survive.
When the writing wasn't going well, she'd tell herself it didn't make any difference, she was only writing a novel. But she knew better. She was trying to recapture "this time that belongs to so many people" -- and she needed to get it right.
Adichie is in Washington this week for a number of book-related events. Monday morning, as part of the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program, she dropped in on a 10th-grade English class at the District of Columbia's M.M. Washington Career High School; that evening, she read at the organization's annual benefit gala. Today at 4:30, she'll help kick off the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University ( http:/
Over breakfast at the Hotel Monaco, simultaneously animated and sleep-deprived, she talks about the book she calls "my special baby." She wears a red sweater, a black skirt, and six beads carefully strung in her twisted hair.
Adichie grew up "knowing that Biafra had happened," she says, but with little knowledge of the specifics. Eventually she started reading and asking questions.
She learned about her father's hasty flight as the Nigerian army approached the university town of Nsukka. Like an otherwise dissimilar character in the book, he was a professor of mathematics there. He grabbed three shirts but left all his books behind.
She learned of people in her family's home town, Abba, shot down by soldiers. She learned of her maternal grandfather's death, in a refugee camp, and what happened a month later when her parents got the news. "Your mother threw herself on the ground," her father told her, "with so much force that I was frightened."
She wrote a play about Biafra while she was in high school. ("Awful. Let's not even talk about it.") She wrote bad poetry and good short stories, including one that functioned as a kind of warm-up exercise for "Half of a Yellow Sun." ("It was me thinking, 'I need to take small steps.' ")
Adichie's first novel was, in a way, another warm-up effort.
"I love 'Purple Hibiscus,' " she says, and she's not alone: The Washington Post called it a "breathtaking debut" and it won a 2004 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, among other honors. Yet because it was a story that "belonged to me" and wasn't shared with so many of her countrymen, it was far easier to write.
It also didn't require the kind of research Adichie did for "Half of a Yellow Sun."