Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: women don't want simpering heroines

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Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieChimamanda Ngozi Adichie became a household name after writing her acclaimed novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Now back with her new book, Americanah, she tells Claire Cohen of her determination to bust the 'Cinderella myth' and change traditional expectations of her fellow Nigerian women.

 "He pulled her to him. She moaned and collapsed," says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a stage whisper, throwing back her head and clutching her cheek in a mock display of passion.

The Nigerian novelist is not – fans of her 2007 Orange Prize Winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun will be relieved to hear – reading from her new book, Americanah. Instead, we are discussing her guilty pleasure: Mills & Boon.

"Between the ages of 13 and 16, I must have read a thousand," she admits. "Some had risqué covers, where the woman was showing more breast. I thought they were fun. But when I look back now, I realise there was a lot of misogyny."

It's part of the reason that Adichie, 35, has made love the central theme of Americanah – albeit with a feisty female central character, rather than a simpering, gasping heroine.

"We live in an age where, if you write a love story, it has to be ironic or have a twist," she explains. "But I just wanted to write an old-fashioned romance."

 The novel follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who leaves her country and childhood sweetheart Obinze, to study in America. Over the ensuing decade, before she returns to Lagos, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Issues of race and immigration become central to her story, as Ifemelu discovers what it's like to be a non American Black in America. She's a wry, vivid character – albeit flawed – of who Adichie says, "she's a more interesting version of me."

In person, Adichie is definitely not flawed. She's very good company. Despite protestations of fatigue when we meet in a London hotel, (she was up late the previous night, at a dinner held in her honour), she's warm, witty, inquisitive and has an endearing tendency to collapse back onto the sofa, reeling with laughter.

She's also, for all her talk of writing a romance, not about to spin the world another fairytale.

"That whole Cinderella thing is such crap!" she exclaims. "Those stories mess you up. The most offensive thing is that you're expected to show gratitude. I have a problem with the mainstream idea of a marriage proposal. The woman isn't sure – she's hoping – and then one day he whips out the ring and she goes 'oh!' I mean what the f**k is that?

"The idea that you're waiting for him to decide. Or – worse yet – that you have to find a way into manipulating him into marriage. Jesus. It makes me so angry."

There can be little doubting Adichie has something to say about gender. A self-proclaimed 'fierce and happy feminist', she wants to spread the message of equality – especially in her homeland, Nigeria, where traditional gender roles are widely adhered to.

"For many women, success is still linked to what a man can add to your life," she explains. "I often tell my female friends that it's important for women to find themselves. You need to explore."

This streak of fiery determination is something that runs through Adichie's veins. She tells me about her great-grandmother, who was known as a troublemaker.

"Her husband died young, leaving her with a son to raise. But her husband's family decided to claim all his property. She refused to give in and behaved in a very 'unwomanly' fashion. When you think about it she was a feminist.

"It's important, because when women in Nigeria say, 'feminism is something in the West and not relevant to me,' I can show them that Africa is full of women who challenge the norm."

Nigeria is a larger-than-life, colourful character in Adichie's novels – Purple Hibiscus (which she wrote aged 24, at college), Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories. Growing-up in Nsukka – a university town, where both her mother and father worked in education – she was bookish ("actually, I was a little strange.") Adichie, the fifth of six children and academically gifted, was expected to become a doctor. But, desperate to try her hand as a writer, she dropped out of medical school and moved to America to study.

"When I left Nigeria, I was just Nigerian," she says. "I didn't know any different. Suddenly, in America I had two new identities: black and African. Now I feel African in a way that my friends who didn't leave Nigeria are not."

Today, Adichie spends around half the year in the US, where her husband is based ("I feel real gratitude to America, as it gave me money to go to school. And the online shopping is amazing – all those free returns"). But most of her time is spent in Lagos, a city of 16 million people in West Africa. She's at her happiest there and eventually plans to live in the city for all but a few weeks a year.

"Nigeria has my heart," she smiles. "It has the most fashionable people in the world. The young girls look amazing. But they don't understand vintage clothes. So when I come back from America, they're like 'what are those Mary Janes she's wearing? Couldn't she find some proper high heeled shoes?' They want you to know you've changed."

"I wouldn't dress like this in Nigeria," Adichie continues [she's wearing black jeans, boots and a white lace top]. I make an effort there. I think we can safely say that, in general, Americans are not interested in sartorial matters. But I don't want to wear sneakers all the time. For me, sneakers belong to the gym.

I pull her up on the use of the word 'sneakers' and her head hits her hands.

"I even write the American way. My father is horrified. The other day I was trying to spell gynaecologist and couldn't remember how. And I was thinking, 'wait the British have an 'a' in there somewhere. But where does it go?' I just thought 'oh my god'."

But while Adichie may speak of her homeland in glowing terms, she is also acutely aware of its social problems.

"In Nigeria, domestic abuse it still present in a very significant way," she explains. "People say to women, 'he beats you, but did you do anything? Did you not cook dinner on time?' We need to educate them.

"Without marriage you're not complete there. I know a middle-class woman who owned her own house, but was single and worried that men were intimidated. So she sold her house to find a husband. We can't blame poverty. It's a way of thinking that a lot of us have internalised."

So how to go about changing such attitudes?

"I have so many revolutions I want to launch!" she laughs. "We need to raise girls to understand that marriage is a partnership. The idea that women are the ones who always compromise – I find that really horrible. If we do things differently, in 100 years it will have changed. I think women should be at least 30 before they get married. All the dreams girls give up, all the things they could do and be – I think that a lot. In a visceral way, it bothers me."

Adichie has teenage nieces and nephews, who she confesses are often on the end of such lectures from their 'crazy aunt.'

"My nephew is 13, my niece 11 and they're growing up in England. Once I was at their house and my nephew was hungry. So his mother said to my niece ' go and make him some noodles'. I said, 'wait, why can't he make his own noodles?' I suddenly realised, that although both of these children are doing well at school and are equally smart, the girl is still expected to cook for him.

"I was really upset. Sometimes you go to Nigerian homes and the men are starving. There's food in the kitchen, but they're waiting for the woman. So, for me, that was very striking. I'm happy to report that my sister-in-law said 'OK we'll teach him how to make noodles now.' I was like good. We're making progress."

Throughout the interview, Adichie has been playing with her hair, which is neatly braided and tucked on top of her head. She's waiting for me to ask about it. Because hair is everywhere in Americanah. It has taken root as a central theme. Adichie herself is a leading voice in the natural hair movement – which decries the use of relaxers and anything that chemically alters it. And none of her characters escapes having their locks categorised. Indeed, much of the storytelling takes place in an American hair salon, where Ifemelu has gone to have her hair braided.

There are descriptions of cornrows, braids, shiny straight weaves, box braids, comb-overs, natural afros, corkscrews, coils, russet waves and TWAs (Teeny Weeny Afros). And to style them? Pomades, irons, relaxers, oils, butters, moisturisers and creamy conditioners.

So what of her own hair? As a 'hair fundamentalist' surely it's all natural?

Adichie hesitates. "Actually the tips are Afro Kinky extensions, to add volume. Most black women add extensions to their hair. But I argue that they should be like our own hair. We should embrace our natural style."

Her approach, she admits, leaves her Nigerian friends bemused. She has even been scolded by strangers for not having a straight weave.

"My hairdresser in Lagos says; 'Why do you want to use this rough hair? Try this one, it's silky and soft'" says Adichie. "And I say to her; “because it's like what grows on my head. That's why”.

When I confess that my poker straight locks often bore me to tears, Adichie sits-up straight.

"You should go public," she urges. "In Nigeria straight weaves are very desirable and very expensive. I remember once, when I was in a salon in Lagos, a woman came in and paid $800 for a straight weave. And I sat there thinking 'what? Get the rough hair. It's about $9!"

"But the idea of provoking people for the sake of it doesn't interest me," she adds. "I just want to start conversations. I hope the book leads to people making better connections and having better understanding."

For all her talk of social engineering and starting revolutions, Chimamanda Adichie has a vulnerable side, too. She is reeling from her best friend telling her, the previous day, that she had intimidated someone: "I thought: really? But we had a nice conversation! I feel disappointed, as I consider myself very perceptive. I guess I'm not always aware of how I come across."

She also admits to not reading her reviews, particularly for Half of a Yellow Sun – which centred around the Biafran war. "It was my family history and so personal. It took a lot from me. I hope my grandfather would think I'd honoured his memory."

But, to her devotees around the world – who discuss her work in book clubs, are glued to her online lectures and queue-up to attend her annual 10-day creative writing workshop in Nigeria (last year 2,000 people applied for 20 places) – she is untouchable.

"What I really want is a perfect world" Adichie shrugs. "Deep down I'm just a person who wants everyone to be happy and get along."

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