Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Her sister calls her agadi nwanyi, which is Igbo for old woman. She is hardly old at 29, but Chimamanda Adichie has a deep wisdom about her -- a centeredness -- that few possess. "I've always felt old in my head," she says. She has worried that her youth was a liability, "especially in Nigeria where it is easy to dismiss the young. More so if that 'young' is female." No one dismisses her now. Shortlisted for Britain's coveted Orange Prize for Purple Hibiscus (2003), she has just taken the prize for Half of a Yellow Sun.

She grew up reading books about English children frolicking in the countryside. "I absolutely identified with those white boys and girls." But when she turned 10 and read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, about the clash between Igbo tradition and the British colonial way of life, everything changed: "I realized that people who looked like me could live in books." She has been writing about Africa ever since.

As the bright, studious child of academics, she was expected to work toward a "useful" career, and at the University of Nigeria, where both of her parents worked, she followed their advice and became a medical student. But she quickly tired of it. When her sister, then a practicing physician in Connecticut, urged her to come to America, she leapt at the chance. At Drexel and Eastern Connecticut State universities, she studied communications, political science, history -- anything but literature. "I wanted to keep my mind open. I didn't want to stifle myself, think like a critic." But she was reading contemporary fiction voraciously -- from Anne Tyler to Philip Roth.

By the time she graduated, she had written most of Purple Hibiscus, a profoundly moving novel about a Nigerian family struggling under the cruelty of a raging, evangelist father. This year's Half of a Yellow Sun is a gripping tale about the bloody civil war that followed the creation of the short-lived Republic of Biafra -- a war that took place a decade before she was born.

"Every family has a child who is interested in the story of who they are," she says. The wars. The suffering. The sudden events that forever alter their lives. "I am that child."

Asked what her father said to her when she won the Orange Prize, she answers, "He's a very reserved and quiet man, very calm and stoic, and when I called him from London to tell him I'd won, I thought he'd say, 'Oh, well done.' But no. He started singing an Igbo thank you song."

And Chimamanda Adichie -- the wise agadi nwanyi-- cried like a little girl.

-- Marie Arana


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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