The Writing Life

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By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sunday, June 17, 2007

In 1982, my father was appointed deputy vice chancellor of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka and assigned a new two- story house, number 305 on Marguerite Cartwright Avenue: graveled, landscaped, bright with red hibiscuses and green whistling pines. It had a shed at the entrance for the security guards; I would come to know one of them well, the gentle, ashy-skinned Vincent who slept through hot afternoons and told Igbo folk stories that involved a call and response. Our first day at the house, we looked at the parlor and kitchen and when it was time to go upstairs, I began to cry because the stairs were endless, insurmountably high and gleaming a deep burgundy. I refused to climb. I was 5 years old. Finally, my sister Uche held my hand, and we took it one step at a time until we got to the top. Weeks later, I was dashing up those stairs, whooping and sliding on a pillow down the banister with my brothers Okey and Kenechukwu.

I shared with them the biggest room upstairs; it had three beds, dressers, a wardrobe. It did not have a desk. It led out to a veranda where we played paper dolls, where I read Enid Blyton, where I skulked and watched the boy next door. The veranda had a second door that led to the study, my father's dusty lair, lined with shelves of statistics journals, and dominated by the large desk with a green place-name that said "Professor J N Adichie" placed at the center amid files, books, paper clips, pens and, at the farthest corner, the black rotary phone. I wonder now why the phone was kept in the study instead of, say, the passage downstairs, but it was, and throughout secondary school I had uncomfortable conversations with friends while my father sat there marking student assignments. Parts of the desk were so dusty I wrote down phone numbers with my finger. Or I just doodled. I wrote my first "book" at 10, on that desk, in an exercise notebook, titled "The Hopscoths."

Chinua Achebe and his family lived in Number 305 before we moved in. I realize now what an interesting coincidence it is that I grew up in a house previously occupied by the writer whose work is most important to me. There must have been literary spirits in the bathroom upstairs, which was larger and airier than the one downstairs, with a stately white tub that my mother complained was never cleaned well enough; I often got story ideas after taking bucket baths in it. But the only manifest Achebe legacy was on a window ledge in the dining room, scratch-written in the childish hand of his daughter: "Nwando Achebe." That window looked out to the backyard, to the avocado tree that had watery fruit and the guava tree on which chickens were tied before they were killed for lunch and the mango tree that fed the bats that lived in our roof.

I wrote at the dining table when I could not use my father's desk because he was working or because a sibling was on the phone. The table, light green and long, was the family dumping ground -- of newspapers, university circulars, wedding invitations, bananas or groundnuts bought on the way home -- and the tiny ants that lived underneath it appeared after breakfast to crowd around bits of sugar or bread. I always cleared a space for myself at one end, opposite the grand old wood-paneled air conditioner, used so rarely that a puff of dust always burst out before cool air followed. It was noisy and, during birthdays when the parlor was filled with friends and food, graduations, baby showers for my sisters, the celebratory party when my mother was appointed registrar, there was always a loud vacuum-like sound of the air conditioner in the background.

My brothers and I had separate rooms after our older siblings left home. Mine had a girlish table where I displayed my lotions and brown powder. It still did not have a desk.

In 1997, I left home to attend college in America. When I returned four years later with the final page proofs of my first novel, my parents had put a desk in my room. It was square and sturdy, and I spread out my page proofs and edited and marked them there. Two years later, when I returned to work on my second novel, my parents had installed an air conditioner; the lights blinked when I turned it on. I transcribed interviews and edited old writing at the dining table or at my father's desk in the study, where new television satellite wires trailed under the door. But I wrote only in my room and, from time to time, I would look out at the veranda, where years of rain had stained the floor a dull gray.

Last week, my parents moved out of the house. They are now retired from the university, and the house has been assigned to another family. As I spoke to them on the phone from my apartment in New Haven, I asked ridiculous questions -- Did you keep my secondary school books? Did you find that doll I lost in primary school? -- and fought tears. They talked about the hiring of lorries, the buying of cartons. They sounded practical and calm. How could they not see how momentous this was, that we were leaving behind 25 years of our lives. But of course they did; they simply are not as much given to drama as I am. While they talked about the old furniture they had given out, I entertained wild thoughts: I will find a way to become fantastically rich and will bribe the university into giving me the house back.

I hung up thinking about the last time I was in the house, this past summer. There was a power failure, and in the pitch blackness, I walked from my room, down the stairs, into the dining room to find a candle in the cabinet. I did not stumble once. ยท


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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