MICHAEL ONDAATJE: In Purple Hibiscus, on the acknowledgments page at the end, there’s a wonderful sense of community—I almost want you to read that because it feels like part of the book. Can you talk about the community that helped you with this book? Was it in Nigeria or in the United States or both?
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: It was both. My family, of course. I have a younger brother who read the drafts and who was there when I was very depressed after I got rejections. I have friends who are readers, who would read my work, and I have parents who think that everything I write is wonderful—a huge lie, of course. I think I’m very lucky to have people who are supportive and a large family network and friends and cousins and friends of cousins. They all see my success as something collective. After I was shortlisted for the Orange, for example, when I went back home, people said, “We will win next time.”
Actually, I read your acknowledgments as well in The English Patient, which I think I might copy for my next book.
ONDAATJE: They get longer and longer, my acknowledgments. I’ve started to put in books I’ve never even read. How long did the novel take to write?
ADICHIE: It took about a year and a half to do the draft.
ONDAATJE: That’s too short. No, no—it’s perfect.
ADICHIE: Well, to do the first draft, and then of course I had to do edits and rewrites and that sort of thing.
ONDAATJE: Were you in the United States when you were writing that book?
ADICHIE: I was. I was in my senior year of college and very homesick, very nostalgic. I really wanted to sort of reinvent Nigeria in this book, which I think I did. If I’d written the book in Nigeria, it would have been very different.
ONDAATJE: Do you feel you could have written it in Nigeria?
ADICHIE: Not this book, no. It would have been different. I drew a lot of the mood of the book from my sense of being homesick and nostalgic. When I’m homesick, I’m given to idealizing things and suddenly the rains smell like perfume and that sort of thing.
ONDAATJE: That part is idealized, but certainly none of the politics or the family life or the family drama.
ADICHIE: Before I wrote Purple Hibiscus, I’d written a book that just wasn’t working and wasn’t very good. It was about the United States, about Nigerians who were here and the immigrant experience—I’d wanted to write a Nigerian book. I wanted to deal with Nigerian issues. I think it’s impossible to write a contemporary novel about Nigeria without having to deal with politics. Everything’s political. And religion is huge in Nigeria. As the economy gets worse, people turn to religion and it becomes increasingly unreasonable, and I wanted to write about that as well.
ONDAATJE: You were telling me you’ve written some essays on religion in Nigeria today.
ADICHIE: We have a wave of very materialistic fundamentalist Christianity in Nigeria. It’s the sort of Christianity in which you have pastors who are sleek and rich who tell you that God wants you to have a Mercedes-Benz—that’s God’s plan for you. Of course this works because life is difficult and the economy is getting worse. This Christianity also gets conservative in strange ways: People talk about prohibiting women from wearing short skirts in public because God finds it offensive. In my opinion, this just deflects attention from the issues we really should be talking about.
I wrote an essay once about how I feel that this Christianity is anti-woman and anti-truth because we’re not dealing with what we should deal with. What’s interesting is that when you talk about things like that in Nigeria, you’re seen as devilish—“The devil is using you!” Very little debate is going on. People say, “God will save Nigeria!” Nobody’s really doing anything to save Nigeria because God is supposed to descend and save us. It’s getting worse, which I find worrying. I wrote another piece just before I left Nigeria, which hasn’t been published but will be in one of the newspapers, about how we need to stop talking God and start acting God. Very few people are happy about it, of course. People say, “She has been corrupted by the West!”
ONDAATJE: So when did you first come to North America? Some of your family are living here now?
ADICHIE: I have a sister who lives here. I used to visit when I was much younger because my father would teach one semester in universities here, mostly in California at San Diego State. I spent summers with him and then I’d go back to Nigeria. I actually came here to live and go to school when I was about nineteen and that was different. I was older and there was more culture shock.
ONDAATJE: Do you think this double vision has been helpful to you? Having a perspective from the United States as well as from Nigeria?
ADICHIE: Absolutely. I think I would be an entirely different person if I hadn’t come here. Things that I question now, I sometimes wonder if I would question if I hadn’t left home. Things I celebrate and enjoy, I wonder if I would do so with the same passion if I hadn’t left home. I came to the United States and suddenly I’m interested in things like identity that I never thought about when I was back in Nigeria.
ONDAATJE: Purple Hibiscus is about the process of the narrator, the young girl who tells the story, learning to ask questions. There’s almost a running line where she says, “I wish I had said that,” when her brother says something or accuses somebody of something. She says, “I wish I had said that” or “I wish I had done that,” and gradually, by the last part of the book, she’s actually doing it. That is a kind of question that evolves in the book.
ADICHIE: Yes, although the narrator is nothing like me, so I worry when I get questions of this sort.
ONDAATJE: Let me put it another way: It’s traditional to accuse the first novel of being autobiographical, and you have in this book an amazing patriarch, a father who is devastating and complex and a mother who is essentially controlled by him for most of the book. Your father was a teacher and your mother was in administration at the university. So there’s a distinction there. Anything else you would say about that?
ADICHIE: I’m very aware that when you’re relatively young and you write a novel, it’s immediately assumed to be your story, and I didn’t want that to happen. My life is fairly boring, so I couldn’t possibly write about it anyway. I wanted to write about a family that was different from mine, about a narrator who was so different from me that I would then be in a position to free her. I think having a narrator who is very much like you sometimes leads to censorship. I have tried to write about somebody like me and I can’t just let the character go. I think, No, I can’t let her do that because I have to protect myself. Kambili is unlike me in that she’s voiceless and shy and almost self-hating. There’s a self-hating element to the dynamics of the family also, which just doesn’t exist in my family. My family is, unfortunately, very normal. It’s not colorful and interesting like yours in Running in the Family.
ONDAATJE: That’s all invented too, actually.
ADICHIE: It’s invented?
ONDAATJE: You think this is autobiographical, the kind of stuff I write?
ADICHIE: No, no, no. I thought Running in the Family was based on your family. Wasn’t it?
ONDAATJE: It was my family exaggerated, I think.
ADICHIE: But at least the kernels existed. I couldn’t possibly do that with my family because we’re boring and normal and ordinary.
ONDAATJE: Well, I just don’t believe that.
ADICHIE: When I was told that I was going to do this conversation with you, of course I was terribly excited, and I was worried that I would pass out in a faint. In case I do, please understand it’s because I’m very much in awe of your work. I think particularly of the beauty of your language. When I read as a writer, I try to imagine how it’s done. How did he come up with this? It’s the effortlessness of your prose. It’s almost as if it just flows out. I wanted to know how you do it. I wanted to know if you work in drafts. Do you, for example, write the story first and then go back to turn it into art, so to speak?
ONDAATJE: First of all, there’s nothing effortless. I find that my first drafts are deadly. I write a first draft without any kind of plan at all. If I’m working on a novel, I don’t have a sense of what the novel is about. I’m not sure who all the characters will be. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I begin with the germ of an incident perhaps.
ADICHIE: What was the germ in Anil’s Ghost?
ONDAATJE: That was a tough one because I wanted to write about the situation in Sri Lanka and I knew that everyone I talked to had a different point of view. In the end, I decided I had to write it as a double-barreled narration, so I had to have Anil and Sarath joined at the hip and arguing as they went through the whole novel. It was the idea of two people in a car traveling and not fully agreeing with each other. It was like a road movie in some ways. Gradually, more and more people entered the book. I also thought that if Anil had been brought up in Sri Lanka and educated in the West and then gone back there on a political mission of sorts, she would discover that she didn’t really know the country she was from—that idea of the insider who had become an outsider because of living in the West. But that was less of a germ than a usual thing, which is an image of somebody talking to somebody else at night, as in The English Patient: a patient in a bed talking to a nurse.
ADICHIE: So that was the germ for The English Patient?
ONDAATJE: That was one of the germs—germs anyway, not gems. But what happens for me is I go back and rewrite many, many times. As I rewrite, everything gets honed down and seems casual as well as not being repetitive. It’s not a very easy thing for me to write at a leisurely pace.
ADICHIE: So the rewritings then are sort of general? You don’t have rewritings where you focus on the language?
ONDAATJE: No, I don’t think about the language at all. I worry more about what’s going to happen next. When I’m actually writing the scene, I let the language take care of itself. I’m more interested in discovering what’s occurring in the two or three characters I’m writing about. The main energy for me when I’m writing is to discover character as opposed to writing well. When I’m editing, I cut out all the repetitions and so forth.
When you were growing up, did you read a lot of books from the West?
ADICHIE: I grew up reading a lot of British children’s books.
ONDAATJE: Enid Blyton?
ADICHIE: She was my favorite for a long time. I think it has a lot to do with the British colonial exercise that we all had Enid Blyton. I just adored her work, and when I started to write as a child, I was writing the sorts of stories that I was reading. There were white people eating apples and playing in the snow, although I had never seen snow at the time. There weren’t many books by African writers at the time, and I didn’t read any until I was about ten.
ONDAATJE: That’s not bad—a lot of people don’t read books by people in their own country until they’re about thirty.
ADICHIE: I was lucky. I lived on a university campus so I had access to books. The writer who has ended up being most important to me, Chinua Achebe, happened to live on the university campus as well. Generally, I would have been a bit older before I got to read books that had people like me in them.
ONDAATJE: I’ve noticed when I go back to Sri Lanka that I’m really from an oral tradition as opposed to a written tradition. Do you find that?
ADICHIE: Absolutely. I’m often struck by a sense of loss, really, because our traditions are oral and because I think the advent of colonialism and Westernization was a break. The oral traditions are almost dying and we don’t have a bridge between the two. People are writing now, but the oral traditions aren’t being recorded. Sometimes I try to write stories that have that oral flavor to them and I don’t know if I get it right. There’s something sad about it for me.
ONDAATJE: I know you’re working on a novel right now. When you are researching or writing, are you talking to people, listening to people about a certain period of time?
ADICHIE: The novel in progress is relatively historical; it’s set in the ’60s during a very difficult time in Nigerian history—in Biafra just before and during the war. People who lived through it—my parents and their friends and my uncles and cousins particularly—have incredible stories about what they went through, about really tiny things that I find so moving. I can’t help but think about how these stories will be lost because I can’t use all of them. I’m overwhelmed by the things I’ve discovered. There’s something humbling about it. So yes, I am talking to lots of people and struck by how we have a tradition of passing stories down that’s dying because it’s not being used.
ONDAATJE: When I was researching Running in the Family, I tried to find books about the ’30s and ’40s, and there was nothing. I think I found one diary; one uncle had a diary—he was the only one who’d put pen to paper. The real tradition of storytelling came at dinner. That was when people talked and lied and lied more strongly.
A quote of yours: “Nigeria is truly crumbling and I don’t know if it will come back together.” Do you remember saying this?
ADICHIE: No, but I think it’s true. Nigeria is crumbling. I worry about the future of Nigeria because we haven’t quite decided on what basis we are a country. There’s talk about a national conference so that people from all sorts of ethnic groups and religions will sit down and talk. It’s not happening, and ethnic nationalism is on the rise. For example, I see myself first as an Igbo woman rather than a Nigerian. Many people who are Yoruba see themselves first as Yoruba. There are cracks, and I hope that the country won’t implode. I worry about Nigeria’s future.
ONDAATJE: Purple Hibiscus focuses mostly on a family and is narrated by the daughter, and yet the story is told in a very distinct political time and the family’s drama is mirrored by the political drama outside, even though in no way is the book heavily symbolic or metaphorical. Can you talk a little about the political situation of that specific time of the novel?
ADICHIE: What I did was merge two of the regimes. It’s set in the early ’90s, but I’ve also merged the regime that was there in the late ’80s. In the late ’80s, we had Babangida, then later we had Abacha. For many Nigerians, this was a time of silence, when you couldn’t speak out; you had to be very careful what you said. I used a number of things that actually did happen in Purple Hibiscus: the newspaper editor who is killed—that happened in ’85. Newspapers were shut down; people were afraid.
In the small university town where I grew up, lecturers would come together to talk and they were fiercely pro-freedom, anti-military, but it was all said in a hush-hush way: “Nothing should go past this room because we don’t want to be arrested.” It was an unpleasant time in our history. I wanted to write about it because there is fictional potential in that kind of setting, but also because I think it’s central to what Nigeria is. The fact that we have had a series of military regimes is central to the way we are today. Now we have, ostensibly, a democracy, but our president used to be head of state in the ’70s and we still have a military way of thinking. We haven’t quite understood that we are the ones who own Nigeria. We still think our president owns Nigeria and that he gets to decide for us. We’ve been brainwashed by having so many military regimes. I was very keen to give a sense of what it was like.
ONDAATJE: I think it would be great if you read a section from the book.
ADICHIE: I’ll just read from the beginning, though it doesn’t do much for the politics:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal and broke the figurines on the étagère. We had just returned from church. Mama placed the fresh palm fronds, which were wet with holy water, on the dining table and then went upstairs to change. Later, she would knot the palm fronds into sagging cross shapes and hang them on the wall beside our gold-framed family photo. They would stay there until next Ash Wednesday, when we would take the fronds to church, to have them burned for ash. Papa, wearing a long, gray robe like the rest of the oblates, helped distribute ash every year. His line moved the slowest because he pressed hard on each forehead to make a perfect cross with his ash-covered thumb and slowly, meaningfully enunciated every word of “dust and unto dust you shall return.”
Papa always sat in the front pew for Mass, at the end beside the middle aisle, with Mama, Jaja, and me sitting next to him. He was first to receive communion. Most people did not kneel to receive communion at the marble altar, with the blond life-size Virgin Mary mounted nearby, but Papa did. He would hold his eyes shut so hard that his face tightened into a grimace, and then he would stick his tongue out as far as it could go. Afterward, he sat back on his seat and watched the rest of the congregation troop to the altar, palms pressed together and extended, like a saucer held sideways, just as Father Benedict had taught them to do. Even though Father Benedict had been at St. Agnes for seven years, people still referred to him as “our new priest.” Perhaps they would not have if he had not been white. He still looked new. The colors of his face, the colors of condensed milk and a cut-open soursop, had not tanned at all in the fierce heat of seven Nigerian harmattans. And his British nose was still as pinched and as narrow as it always was, the same nose that had had me worried that he did not get enough air when he first came to Enugu. 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 was to 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. During his sermons, Father Benedict usually referred to the pope, Papa, and Jesus—in that order. He used Papa to illustrate the gospels. “When we let our light shine before men, we are reflecting Christ’s Triumphant Entry,” he said that Palm Sunday. “Look at Brother Eugene. He could have chosen to be like other Big Men in this country; he could have decided to sit at home and do nothing after the coup, to make sure the government did not threaten his businesses. But no, he used the Standard to speak the truth even though it meant the paper lost advertising. Brother Eugene spoke out for freedom. How many of us have stood up for the truth? How many of us have reflected the Triumphant Entry?”
The congregation said “Yes” or “God bless him” or “Amen,” but not too loudly so they would not sound like the mushroom Pentecostal churches; then they listened intently, quietly. Even the babies stopped crying, as if they, too, were listening. On some Sundays, the congregation listened closely even when Father Benedict talked about things everybody already knew, about Papa making the biggest donations to Peter’s pence and St. Vincent de Paul. Or about Papa paying for the cartons of communion wine, for the new ovens at the convent where the Reverend Sisters baked the host, for the new wing to St. Agnes Hospital where Father Benedict gave extreme unction. And I would sit with my knees pressed together, next to Jaja, trying hard to keep my face blank, to keep the pride from showing, because Papa said modesty was very important.
ONDAATJE: Thank you. There’s a wonderful portrait of that rich society, too. There’s a bit when they’re going away: “Papa stood by the hibiscuses, giving directions, one hand sunk in the pocket of his white tunic, while the others pointed from item to car. ‘The suitcases go in the Mercedes, and those vegetables also. The yams will go in the Peugeot 505, with the cases of Remy-Martin and cartons of juice. See if the stacks of okporoko will fit in, too. The bags of rice and garri and beans and plantains go in the Volvo.’ ” So this was a family trip.
ADICHIE: It’s really very much what it’s like when people go back to their ancestral villages to spend Christmas. It’s an incredible movement of food and people. When you’re on the highway and you’re driving, the cars are zipping past you and they’re so heavy that they’re low because they’re just stacked with yams.
I was reading something about you and one of the images in Anil’s Ghost—the Buddhist image of being unearthed, of being buried and being found. I read somewhere that you said this was a metaphor for human life.
ONDAATJE: I think I was talking about a book of poems I wrote called Handwriting. When I first started to write about what was happening in Sri Lanka, it came out in poems. I was with a close friend, an archaeologist, when there was the unearthing of Buddhist statues. Suddenly, that became metaphorical for the violence and burials of humans that had been happening.
ADICHIE: So are you aware of metaphor and intended metaphor as you write? Were you aware of this as a metaphor as you wrote or is it something that you realize as you look back?
ONDAATJE: I’m not very conscious of the metaphor. There are always accidental metaphors, and in fact, those are the best, I think—accidental similes and metaphors and parallels. When you are in the process of editing, you start going through your work and seeing where the metaphor is too heavy-handed or maybe insufficiently depicted. One of the editorial things you do is disguise a lot of things, if you can, and not say so much. You pull back so the book will be suggestive rather than blatant.
ADICHIE: I think your work is beautifully suggestive. One of the powerful things about Anil’s Ghost, and also The English Patient, is how much is left unsaid. I sometimes wished I could reach into the book and pull out more information. Will you read from Anil’s Ghost?
It was one a.m. when Sarath and Anil arrived in the center of Colombo, having driven through the city’s empty grey streets. As they got to the Emergency Services, she said, “Is it okay? Us moving him like this?”
“It’s okay. We’re taking him to my brother. With luck he’ll be somewhere there in Emergency.”
“You have a brother here?”
Sarath parked and was still for a moment. “God, I’m exhausted.”
“Do you want to stay here and sleep? I can take him in.”
“It’s okay. I’d better talk to my brother anyway. If he’s there.”
Gunesena was asleep and they woke him and walked him between them into the building. Sarath spoke to someone at the desk and the three of them sat down to wait, Gunesena’s hands on his lap like a boxer’s. There was a daylight sense of work going on around Admissions, though everyone moved in slow motion and quietly. A man in a striped shirt came towards them and chatted with Sarath.
“This is Anil.”
The man in the striped shirt nodded at her.
“My brother, Gamini.”
“Right,” she said, flatly.
“He’s my younger brother—he’s our doctor.”
There had been no touching between him and Sarath, not a handshake.
“Come—” Gamini helped Gunesena to his feet and they all followed him into a small room. Gamini unstoppered a bottle and began swabbing the man’s palms. She noticed he wasn’t wearing gloves, not even a lab coat. It looked as if he had just come from an interrupted card game. He injected the anesthetic into the man’s hands.
“I didn’t know he had a brother,” she said, breaking the silence.
“Oh we don’t see much of each other. I don’t speak of him either, you know. We go our own way.”
“He knew you were here, though, and what shift you were on.”
“I suppose so.”
They were both intentionally excluding Sarath from their conversation.
“How long have you been working with him?” Gamini now asked.
She said, “Three weeks.”
“Your hands—they are steady,” Sarath said. “Have you recovered?”
“Yes.” Gamini turned to Anil. “I’m the family secret.”
He pulled the bridge nails from Gunesena’s anesthetized hands. Then he washed them with Betalima, a crimson sudsing fluid that he squirted out of a plastic bottle. He dressed the wounds and talked quietly to his patient. He was very gentle, which for some reason surprised her. He pulled open a drawer, got another disposable needle and gave him a tetanus shot. “You owe the hospital two needles,” he murmured to Sarath. “There’s a shop on the corner. You should get them while I sign out.” He led Sarath and Anil out of the room, leaving the patient behind.
‘There are no beds left here tonight. Not for this level of injury. See, even crucifixion isn’t a major assault nowadays. . . . If you can’t take him home I’ll find someone to watch him while he sleeps out in Admissions—I’ll okay it, I mean.”
“He can come with us,” Sarath said. “If he wants I’ll get him a job as a driver.”
“You better replace those needles. I’m going off duty soon. Do you want to eat? Along the Galle Face?” He was talking again to Anil.
“It’s two in the morning!” Sarath said.
She spoke up. “Yes. Sure.”
He nodded at her.
Gamini pulled open the passenger-side door and got in beside his brother, which left Anil in the back seat with Gunesena. Well, she’d have a better view of both of them.
ADICHIE: What ends up happening to Sarath—did you know it would happen, or did it surprise you?
ONDAATJE: I didn’t know it was going to happen. About two-thirds of the way through, I knew something was going to happen to one of them, but I still wasn’t quite sure. The book was interesting in structure. I knew it was going to begin with Anil re-entering Sri Lanka and it was going to end with her leaving Sri Lanka. That was the only thing I knew about the structure. Then about three-quarters of the way through, I realized the book couldn’t stay with her; it had to stay with the two brothers. When she flies off and leaves the country, she does leave behind a tragedy. It wasn’t a story about being someone from Sri Lanka, born in Sri Lanka, but from the West; it was going to be about the place she had come back to.
ADICHIE: For me, it was a lot more about Sarath and Gamini than it was about Anil. I was very moved by the sense of the unknown. Of course I couldn’t help thinking about the larger political context behind it and wanted to know what the research process was like for you. Real horrible things were happening and I think you’ve created art from it. What was it like?
ONDAATJE: First of all, I was not in Sri Lanka at this worst time. I had to ask myself, “Do I have the right to go back and write about it?” This is an issue for a writer morally, even if it’s not an issue for other people. When I went back, it was trying to find out about that time. It wasn’t about looking at books or newspaper articles, though I did read a lot of Amnesty texts. It was about talking to people. It was that oral tradition—listening to people before stories were lost and then being with doctors and traveling with them to re-witness what they did.
ADICHIE: At this time, what was happening in Sri Lanka? Were the killings still going on?
ONDAATJE: It had pretty well stopped by then. There was some evidence of it, certainly, and the war between the Tigers and the government was still going on. But at the time of this story, we had three elements: the Tigers in the north, the government forces—some legal, some illegal—and the JVP. It was a triangular war.
A lot of political violence in your book is offstage—it’s heard by rumor or telephone calls. Even the violence within the family, which is terrible, is intentionally muted by you. The subtlety of the way you depict those scenes between the mother and the father and the violence that occurs there is amazing. I’m also interested in how you write about horrific violence—what was happening in Sri Lanka at this time—and whether a writer has a right to relive and re-explore it fully. Almost unintentionally, writing about a forensic anthropologist, I was able to write without having the actual scene occur. You have someone finding a corpse and then discovering what happened in the past—the week before or a day before or three years before—but there is protection for the reader against reenacting a violence. There is a kind of pornography in violence, I find.
ADICHIE: So do I. You risk losing the reader’s faith in you; it becomes, as you said, pornographic, particularly when it’s based on what’s actually happened. I find that I am dealing with that more now that I’m working on a novel set in Biafra, where horrible things happened. I worry, first, that I am desecrating the memory of people who died by writing about what it was like for them. On the other hand, I feel the story has to be told, but how best to tell it? In Purple Hibiscus, I intentionally wanted all of the political violence to be offstage. I felt it was more believable that way, particularly for the narrator. It’s how she would experience it—she wasn’t likely to be caught in the crossfire during a coup.
ONDAATJE: Even the way she describes the scene on the street: What she notices is somebody’s underwear showing, as opposed to what is behind that crowded semi-riot scene. In that last section, they suddenly enter the real world outside the family structure.
ADICHIE: I spent a lot of time reworking that final section, and I changed the tense from past to present continuously. It’s actually my favorite section. I ask often about language because I am very interested in language. I find that my writing process is usually that I do the story and then I go back to turn it into what I want it to be, which is art. That’s when I think about language and read the sentences and think about rhythm and structure. That’s also when I read Michael Ondaatje: to see and get the cadence of sentences.
ONDAATJE: Would you read a bit from the last part? You don’t have to give away too much of the plot, but just to show the difference in the voice.
ADICHIE: I’ll read a little excerpt.
We are at the prison compound. The bleak walls have unsightly patches of blue-green mold. Jaja is back in his old cell, so crowded that some people have to stand so that others can lie down. Their toilet is one black plastic bag, and they struggle over who will take it out each afternoon, because that person gets to see sunlight for a brief time. Jaja told me once that the men do not always bother to use the bag, especially the angry men. He does not mind sleeping with mice and cockroaches, but he does mind having another man’s feces in his face. He was in a better cell until last month, with books and a mattress all to himself, because our lawyers knew the right people to bribe. But the wardens moved him here after he spat in a guard’s face for no reason at all, after they stripped him and flogged him with koboko. Although I do not believe Jaja would do something like that unprovoked, I have no other version of the story because Jaja will not talk to me about it. He did not even show me the welts on his back, the ones the doctor we bribed in told me were puffy and swollen like long sausages. But I see other parts of Jaja, the parts I do not need to be shown, like his shoulders.
Those shoulders that bloomed in Nsukka, that grew wide and capable, have sagged in the thirty-one months that he has been here. Almost three years. If somebody gave birth when Jaja first came here, the child would be talking now, would be in nursery school. Sometimes, I look at him and cry, and he shrugs and tells me that Oladipupo, the chief of his cell—they have a system of hierarchy in the cells—has been awaiting trial for eight years. Jaja’s official status, all this time, has been Awaiting Trial.
Amaka used to write the office of the Head of State, even the Nigerian Ambassador in America, to complain about the poor state of Nigeria’s justice system. She said nobody acknowledged the letters but still it was important to her that she do something. She does not tell Jaja any of this in her letters to him. I read them—they are chatty and matter-of-fact. They do not mention Papa and they hardly mention prison. In her last letter, she told him how Aokpe had been covered in a secular American magazine; the writer had sounded pessimistic that the Blessed Virgin Mary could be appearing at all, especially in Nigeria: all that corruption and all that heat. Amaka said she had written the magazine to tell them what she thought. I expected no less, of course.
ONDAATJE: The portrait of the father is amazing. He is such a complex character. Did you have that in mind when you began this book? A man who is extremely violent within his family and also heroic in his politics? It’s a really tough portrait.
ADICHIE: I set out wanting to write about a man who was both violent and religious. I wanted the link to be obvious—not so much causative as linked. I also didn’t want to have him be easily dismissible. I thought that if he were just violent, we could all simply say, “Oh, he’s crazy.”
I was keen to write about the kind of people I know in Nigeria. I’m interested in the question of how much literary fiction really does represent reality, because you are often told about the need for characters to be complex. I’m amazed because there are many people in the world who aren’t very complex. Sometimes you write about people who exist and what they have done and people say, “Oh, it’s not believable in fiction.” But on the other hand, we impose reality on fiction. There are many people in Nigeria who are very religious, outwardly so, and who are monsters. I think religion can create monsters.
ONDAATJE: It’s interesting how you can have a real person in the real world who is simply too unbelievable for fiction. When I was writing Anil’s Ghost, a woman working in human rights told me she was driving in Colombo and she looked over to the right and the American ambassador’s car came by with the flag, and in the backseat was a clown. She thought she was having a breakdown, but then discovered that the ambassador’s wife was a professional clown. In fact, this wonderful woman went around to the villages performing clown shows. If you put that in the book, it will not survive. It will seem like extreme meta-fiction.
ADICHIE: Your work has been described as “literature of dislocation and displacement,” which I find very grand. Usually, the literature of dislocation and displacement is a result of having a complex cultural background—being Dutch and English and Sri Lankan, for instance. Does the question of identity come in when you’re writing or editing? Anil and many of the characters in The English Patient are in that grey area, nationless. Do you see yourself in them?
ONDAATJE: I’m a mongrel in that sense—I think a lot of us are. I don’t think of the word “identity” at all when I’m writing, though I’m sure that I’m preoccupied with it in what I decide to write about. But I don’t see the novel as a thesis or an argument for the discussion of identity and nationhood or post-colonialism. We all are governed by what we were as children. Therefore, we tend to refocus again and again on similar things.
ADICHIE: Can I read one of my favorite lines from The English Patient? I just savor the sentences. This is Kip: “He moved at a speed that allowed him to replace loss.”