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Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Explores Role of Religion in Nigeria - 2003-12-13

Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leads a double life. She grew up in Nigeria, came to the United States as a college student, and now divides her time between America and her native country. She's published several short stories, and now a novel, a coming-of-age tale set in Nigeria, called Purple Hibiscus. Authors often say they need solitude, quiet, and long periods of concentration to write. But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has yet another requirement. She needs to stay on the move. She's currently teaching writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But she also spends extended periods of time in Nigeria. She's found that traveling between the two countries is good for her writing.

"I know that Nigeria will always be my home, but I do want to have the opportunity to leave Nigeria, because I find that sometimes I need to have distance," she says. "I find I write better about home when I'm here, and sometimes when I'm back in Nigeria I write about Nigerians who are in America."

Chimamanda Adichie sets Purple Hibiscus in the Nigeria of her youth. She lived in a small university town that kept her at a distance from the political upheavals of recent decades. But she always knew they'd taken place.

"Usually my family would crowd around the radio when there was a coup," she recalls. "And then you would hear a voice telling you that you had a new head of state and everyone had to remain calm. I think what you internalize is the choicelessness of it, that you didn't really have a choice in who's in charge of your country, because if somebody decides to have a coup, all you have to do is listen to the radio, and they tell you, there's a new head of state. And then I would hear about things happening. People were shot and killed, people who would speak out against all the injustices of the government. But I think I was lucky. I wasn't immersed in them (the injustices). Sometimes I wonder if I'd be able to write about them if I had been. There are so many people who went through terrible, terrible things, and their stories have to be told."

Chimamanda Adichie says she wrote Purple Hibiscus wanting to explore the role of religion in contemporary Nigeria. She believes it's a complicated subject for fiction, so she tried to lighten her story by telling it through the eyes of a young girl named Kambili. Like the author herself, Kambili is Roman Catholic, part of Nigeria's Igbo Christian population.

The story opens with Kambili and her family attending a Roman Catholic mass, administered by a British priest. Chimamanda Adichie reads this excerpt from her novel: "Father Benedict had changed things in the parish, such as insisting that the Credo and Kyrie be recited only in Latin. Igbo was not acceptable. Also hand clapping must be kept at a minimum, lest the solemnity of Mass be compromised. But he allowed offertory songs in Igbo; he called them native songs, and when he said 'native' his straight line lips turned down at the corners to form an inverted 'U.'"

While the author grew up in a Roman Catholic church administered by Nigerians, she wanted to write about what happens when native values aren't honored when outsiders try to impose their own religious traditions on another country. She also wanted to examine the impact of religious extremism on both public and private life. She says Nigeria in recent decades has been devastated by conflicts between Christians and Muslims. In her novel, that same kind of fanaticism devastates Kambili's family. "The father on the one hand is a good man who helps the community. He's very religious. He's very socially conscious," she says. "He owns a newspaper that speaks the truth at a time when nobody dares speak out, because you could be killed. You could be thrown in jail. But he does [speak out] because he believes very much in human rights and freedom. But at the same time at home he's very abusive to his family in a way that's even more heartbreaking because he sincerely thinks he's doing the right thing. He has internalized this idea that you beat goodness into people, that sort of religious fervor that is unflinching."

The novel's heroine finds her life transformed when she goes to live with an aunt in the town where Chimamanda Adichie herself was raised. There she finds the kind of freedom and peace she didn't enjoy living in the city with her family. The author says she wanted to celebrate the idyllic town she remembers from her childhood. She grew up the daughter of a college professor, always writing stories and reading widely. She also absorbed the oral tales she heard as a child.

"There's a scene in the book where the grandfather tells a story," she says. "I guess it was my way of paying tribute to that. I think many young Igbo people have good memories of a grandfather or grandmother telling us stories. My grandmother would tell us incredible stories about the tortoises or the elephants and things of that sort."

Chimamanda Adichie was attending medical school in Nigeria when she decided to start all over again, move to the United States and pursue a career in the arts. While her distance from Nigeria offers her a new perspective on the social and political issues that concern her, she says coming to America has also given her a new appreciation for what she loves about her native country. "It's confronting that very individualistic streak that's very American," she says. "You look out for yourself. You feel you don't have that safety net. In Nigeria, there are cousins and people from my home town and my father's friends and my father's father's friends. They're there for you. It's something I admire. And also Nigerian people have incredible patience. And after living here I'm losing that I'm starting to become impatient. In Nigeria, you go to the airport and ask when the flight is coming, and they say, 'Any time.' And any time can be six hours and people sit there and wait. And I start losing it, but it's the sort of thing I appreciate, because this is the life they have."

Chimamanda Adichie says she plans to continue dividing her time between Nigeria and the United States, juggling values and shifting literary settings. She's now working on another novel set in Nigeria during the civil war of the late 1960s.