The fifth of six children, Adichie was born on 15 September 1977, in Enugu, a city in southeastern Nigeria. The family eventually settled in nearby Nsukka, where Adichie’s parents held positions at the University of Nigeria. Her father, James Nwoye Adichie, was a statistics professor and deputy vice-chancellor, and her mother, Grace Ifeoma Adichie, was the school’s first female registrar. In a 2007 interview with Michael Ondaatje, Adichie said that she grew up reading books about English schoolchildren. It was not until she discovered Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when she was about ten years old, Adichie remarked, that she realized black Africans could be the subject of books.
Adichie received a bilingual education in English and Igbo. She entered the University of Nigeria with plans to be a psychiatrist but dropped out of the medical program at age nineteen to accept a scholarship to Drexel University in Philadelphia. She later transferred to Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, where she lived with her physician sister, Ifeoma. In 2001, Adichie earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Connecticut with a major in political science and a minor in communications. During her senior year, she composed the bulk of Purple Hibiscus. She revised the manuscript while pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Purple Hibiscus earned Adichie a fellowship at Princeton University for the 2005-06 academic year. More success followed with Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel Adichie had been researching since she was a teenager, when she began interviewing family members about the Nigerian Civil War as material for a volume of poems, Decisions (1997), and a play, For Love of Biafra (1998). In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and completed a master’s program in African Studies at Yale University. The following year, she published The Thing around Your Neck, a collection of twelve stories previously printed in literary magazines such as the New Yorker, Granta, and Zoetrope. Adichie wrote her third novel, Americanah, during her 2011-12 fellowship at Harvard.
Adichie conducts writing workshops in both Nigeria and the United States, and she maintains separate residences in Lagos and Baltimore, where her husband practices medicine. She is currently at work on a novel of ideas about baseball. The film version of Half of a Yellow Sun, directed by Biyi Bandele and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013.
She won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book for her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), a coming-of-age story about a teenage Nigerian girl torn between her Igbo heritage and the fanatical Catholicism of her Westernized father. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), about the devastating effects of the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War (or Biafran War) on the lives of ordinary people, earned the prestigious Orange Broadband Prize, awarded to the best English-language novel written by a woman. Adichie was the first African to receive that award. Her third novel, Americanah (2013), is a partially autobiographical account of a young Nigerian woman who develops a new awareness of race while studying on scholarship in the United States. Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2013. Adichie’s other publications include The Thing around Your Neck (2009), a collection of short stories that, like Americanah, explores the complexities of identity, race, and belonging in transnational settings.
Purple Hibiscus is narrated by its fifteen-year-old protagonist, Kambili Achike. She and her older brother and mother live a regimented existence brutally enforced by her father, wealthy juice manufacturer Eugene Achike. Eugene’s fundamentalist Catholicism amounts to an obsessive devotion to his British missionary schooling and the Western colonial order. He is a study in contradictions. A successful entrepreneur, he runs a pro-democracy newspaper and is highly respected in the community for his many charitable contributions. At home, however, he subjects his wife and children to cruel beatings and other forms of torture when they do not live up to his impossibly high standards. The family drama mirrors the political strife in Nigeria in the early 1990s, when a repressive and corrupt military regime terrorized the people, using violence to silence its opponents. Adichie’s focus is Kambili’s development from a shy, acquiescent child into a self-assured woman, the result of her exposure to alternative models of behavior, reflection, and spirituality provided by her forward-thinking Aunty Ifeoma; her Igbo traditionalist paternal grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu; and the humanitarian Catholic priest Father Amadi. The Achike family eventually rebels against Eugene, and Kambili adopts an Africanized form of Catholicism symbolized by her aunt’s hybrid purple hibiscus: “rare, fragrant with undertones of freedom.”
The Nigerian Civil War, the subject of Adichie’s second novel, arose out of long-standing ethnic rivalries that continued after Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960 and was divided into a federation dominated by three tribes—the Hausa in the North, the Yoruba in the West, and the Igbo in the East. Civil war broke out in 1967 when the Igbos attempted to secede as the independent Republic of Biafra. Though the war erupted a decade before Adichie was born, her family—Igbos from the southeastern state of Anambra—was deeply involved. She dedicated Half of a Yellow Sun to her grandfathers, both of whom died in refugee camps during the conflict. In the novel, which takes its title from the emblem on the Biafran flag, Adichie focuses on the daily struggles of her characters, whose personal lives are inextricably bound up with the turmoil. As in Purple Hibiscus, Adichie attempts to reflect the diversity of the Nigerian experience accurately. The story, which concerns mainly Igbo characters, explores the barriers separating poor villagers from the middle class and the English-speaking elite, and the hostile divide that separates all of them from the Yoruba, the Hausa, and the British-backed Nigerian military. There are five main characters: wealthy, educated twin sisters Olanna and Kainene Ozobia; Odenigbo, a math professor at the university in Nsukka (and Olanna’s lover); Richard, a young Englishman and would-be writer infatuated with Kainene; and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s peasant houseboy, who is conscripted into the Biafran army.
In some respects, Americanah traces Adichie’s own life history. The title of the novel is a slang word in Nigeria referring to natives with American pretensions. The novel tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who receives a fellowship to Princeton. After many years as a struggling, homesick student, Ifemelu begins to write a successful blog about issues of race and nationality and what it means to be black in America. Ifemelu’s blog is both discomfiting and humorous. The social commentary is balanced by a love story that takes her back to Nigeria for a reunion with her high-school boyfriend, Obinze, who has returned to Lagos after a disastrous stay in London, a reversal of the more common East-to-West migration that characterizes postcolonial fiction.
Adichie takes a similar outsider’s perspective in her short stories, most of which feature Igbo characters who settle in the United States or, less commonly, England. Among the best known of the stories are “Cell One,” about Nigerian university students who get involved in American gang-style violence; “My Mother, the Crazy African,” about an immigrant woman who struggles to instill in her daughter a sense of cultural pride; “The Headstrong Historian,” about the cultural dislocation caused by colonization; and “Imitation,” about a failed long-distance marriage and the fashion among Nigerian elites to have American-born children.
Adichie’s three novels are already, after less than a decade, considered key works in the Nigerian novelistic tradition. She is often likened to Achebe for her exploration of religious bigotry and commitment to documenting the history and politics of Nigeria with a spirit of resistance against the lasting and damaging impact of colonialism. Adichie freely acknowledges her debt to Achebe, and her fiction makes explicit reference to his work, especially Things Fall Apart. While noting thematic parallels, critics regularly credit Adichie with revising Achebe for a twenty-first-century audience by bringing a diasporic perspective to bear on issues of nationhood and ethnic subjectivity. Adichie articulates the sensibility of Nigeria’s so-called third generation, many of whom left their homeland in the 1990s to live and work outside the country. Although Adichie expresses the third generation’s preoccupation with themes of exile and migration most overtly in The Thing around Your Neck and Americanah, critics emphasize that her transnational experience is equally important to Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. Daria Tunca (2010) described Adichie’s “three-fold concern with ethnicity, colonization and migration” as a contemporary rendition of the search for self-definition that has long been at the heart of the Nigerian novel. Ayo Kehinde (2007; see Further Reading) argued that Adichie illuminates Igbo culture in Purple Hibiscus from the perspective of her experiences in the United States, globalizing both old traditions and new experiences in a process of cultural negotiation that reaches beyond the colonizer-colonized divide.
In her interview with Ondaatje, Adichie said that her reimagining of the historical novel includes a concerted effort to reverse the perception that the authentic Africa is synonymous with poverty and dependency. Critics have most often addressed this aspect of her art with respect to the sweeping cross section of society that she portrays in Half of a Yellow Sun. As John Marx (2008) noted, Adichie aimed in this novel to recover voices marginalized by ethnicity, class, and gender, and it is especially significant that she granted the child-soldier Ugwu, and not Richard or another member of Odenigbo’s privileged intellectual salon, the authority to write the eyewitness account of the war that forms the book within the book.
Much of the criticism on Adichie’s work concerns her reassessment of the national imaginary (the set of symbols, values, and traditions common to a particular nation) in terms of the gendered legacy of colonialism. This aspect of her work connects it with an earlier feminist tradition in Nigerian letters represented by such authors as Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa. Scholars including Susan Strehle (2008), Julie Mullaney (2010), and Tanya Dalziell (2010) have studied Purple Hibiscus for its themes of violence against women, its female perspective on the unequal relations of power in postcolonial society, and its shift in focus from Kambili’s brutal silencing to her liberating association with a powerful female role model, Aunty Ifeoma. Critics have emphasized Aunty Ifeoma’s awareness of the patriarchal bias of both Eugene’s fanatical Catholicism and Papa-Nnukwu’s traditional religion and her efforts to instill in Kambili a democratic spirit open to the more forgiving aspects of both traditions. For Mullaney, Aunty Ifeoma represents a reformist vision of cross-cultural relations in her “development of an inclusive set of beliefs and values empowered not endangered by its encounters with other cultures.” Christopher E. W. Ouma (2011) suggested that Kambili destabilizes the orthodox father-son genealogical line in African culture through her identification with the feminine attributes of her grandfather’s spirituality. According to Ouma, Kambili offers the possibility of an “androgynous genealogy-in-the-making” in which daughters embody a patrilineal legacy.
Critics have studied Adichie’s works for their participation in the language debate: the hotly contested question of whether an authentic African literature can be written in the language of the colonizer. Like many other African writers, Adichie believes the official language of English represents the only practical approach to reaching a wide audience in Nigeria, where hundreds of indigenous languages are spoken, as Brenda Cooper (see Further Reading) discussed in her 2009 essay. At the same time, however, language is an important site of cultural negotiation in Adichie’s works. Such scholars as Faith O. Ibhawaegbele and J. N. Edokpayi (2012) have made detailed studies of the experimental strategies Adichie uses to produce an Igbo-infused English that contests the hegemony of European culture through its representation of local experience, concepts, and speech patterns.
From: Janet Mullane. "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 364, Gale, 2014.