Tuesday, 6 September 2016
Queen of Nollywood: Genevieve Nnaji’s 5 Most Important Performances
WHEN IN 2009 Oprah Winfrey called her “The Julia Roberts of Africa”, she wasn’t wrong, popularity-wise, but Genevieve Nnaji’s place in the African movie world is higher than Julia Roberts’ in Hollywood. Aside being Africa’s biggest home actress, she is also arguably the first superstar of twenty-first century Nigerian entertainment. Here, she is closer to Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett, a combination of what those two Hollywood untouchables are: queen of the box-office and most revered actress of her generation. In terms of star power, Genevieve is the Queen of Nollywood: the industry’s highest paid as well as its most successful professional. A cerebral performer, her uncanny screen presence is perhaps the most indomitable Nollywood has seen since the days of Liz Benson and Regina Askia. In her is personified an acting strength not so easy to come by in Nollywood: restraint. Since her 1998 debut, her work has garnered unprecedented popularity and acclaim. She was named Best Actress of the Year at the 2001 City People Awards, and won Best Actress in a Leading Role at the inaugural African Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs) in 2005. She has also racked up a host of major international profiles most notably by CNN where she was Connector of the Day in 2011. With her outstanding fashion sense and natural glow, Genny is one of most recognizable faces across Africa. For someone who is untouchable in Nigerian pop culture, someone frequently cited as an inspiration by tons of her colleagues, it is hectic narrowing down her most important on-screen moments, especially with her BeyHive-like fan base patrolling the Internet. This list, it must be made clear again, isn’t a ranking of her best performances. It is a list of her most important performances, decisive landmarks in a career that has become a standard for the industry.
Photo credit: unknown.
5. Ijele (2000)
Cast as the Igbo rain goddess, in a role that demanded charisma and charm, it is an epic turn that Genevieve churns out in Ijele. Her debut in Most Wanted (1998) had turned heads but it was Ijele that drew all attention to the then 21-year-old. Often cited alongside her roles in Last Party and Mark of the Beast, Ijele gave her a firm foot in the industry, elevating her into the new constellation that would dominate the 2000s.
4. Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)
Having stirred unnecessary controversy over the casting of the biracial Thandie Newton as Olanna, Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel saw Genevieve in a supporting role as Miss Adebayo. And what beauty it was. Her acting is stuffed with class, her composure aware and sublime. Her scenes with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Odenigbo are riveting, her attempts to seduce him elegant, and she effortlessly holds her own in that single scene with lead Thandie Newton, that handshake and graceful glide back to her seat. A later scene where she stands, shocked, as Odenigbo launches into fierce criticism of her, summarizes everything about Genevieve’s acting in general: her mastery of nuance. Or, as Biyi Bandele points out, as her great acting in recognizing when to offer another the stage (paraphrased). We may be enraged that Nigeria’s pre-eminent actress was onscreen for less than a total of ten minutes in a film rooted in Nigerian history, but her brief turn won her Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 2014 Nigerian Entertainment Awards. Think of Viola Davis’ Oscar-nominated 12 minutes in Doubt (2008): it’s less about the time and more about what is done with it.
Genevieve with Idris Elba. Photo credit: unknown.
3. Road to Yesterday (2015)
Opposite Nigerian-British actor Oris Erhuero in her first production effort, Genevieve plays Victoria, a woman in a sinking marriage who embarks on a journey with her husband in an attempt to figure out where they went wrong. When, in the jeep, she tells him, with a slight, sharp nod, “Let’s find a way out of here,” you simply understand the depth of her marital frustrations. Genevieve brings her trademark heavy intelligence here, a wholesome interpretation that the critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo describes as “unwavering excellence”, and that director Charles Novia summarizes as having a “Bow Down, Bitches undertone”, a warning to anyone aspiring to her throne. The film won Best West African Movie at the 2016 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards where she was also nominated for Best Actress in a Drama. While earning her nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2016 Nigerian Entertainment Awards (NEA), the film was controversially left out of the 2016 African Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs) nominations due to submission issues.
2. Sharon Stone (2002)
Unconnected to the real Sharon Stone, this is the film that exploded Genevieve’s fame all over the continent and placed her on a different pedestal, as a bankable star and a sex symbol. She is glamorous as the female Casanova at the center of a web of three rich men none of whom really interests her and all of whom she plays until all her lies come crashing down on her. In each scene, with every move, every stare or tilt of her head, she bores a hole through the screen, burns so bright that the rest of the cast pales in her shadow. Thomas Michalski characterizes her turn here as "fascinating" and having "a definite star quality". Even without solid box office figures back then, it was easy to see that Nollywood had had a landmark commercial smash, comfortably shouldered by the then 23-year-old's natural glow.
1. Ije: The Journey (2010)
Sunday, 31 January 2016
The Art and Politics of Pioneering: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, D’banj and Lupita Nyong’o: Part 1
Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o. Photo credit: unknown.
What do the writer and public speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the singer and agricultural entrepreneur D’banj, and the actress, model and video director Lupita Nyong’o have in common? Aside being sparkling, middle-class-raised Nigerian and Mexican-Kenyan celebrities in their thirties who have in the last few years attained unprecedented global acclaim for their work, they are also pioneers, not broadly in their fields but in their willingness, by chance or on purpose, to break new grounds in style, connecting with their art other genres. Adichie, a 2015 TIME 100 personality, ventured into music when her “We Should All Be Feminists” talk was sampled by Beyonce in her song “Flawless” from her 2013 eponymous Grammys 2015 Album of the Year-nominated set. D’banj, amidst racking up endorsement deals including becoming the official African ambassador for Beats By Dre, participated in the 2014 World Economic Forum and became Nigeria’s first United Nations Youth Ambassador for Peace. And then Lupita, Lupita whose star remains one of the brightest since her victory at the 2014 Oscars for a gripping performance in Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave, Lupita who is defying conventional notions of beauty as necessarily light skin complexion and was named People’s Most Beautiful Woman as well as Glamour’s Woman of the Year, both in 2014. With these milestones, each of these three have been introduced to wider audiences, their fiery fames resting on what, in Achebean terms, are “solid personal achievements”.
D'banj is a two-time winner of the MTV African Music Awards Artist of the Year, in 2008 and 2009. Photo credit: unknown.
So what particularly do Adichie and D’banj have in common? The first is that they have both been the Nigeria Future Awards Young Person of the Year: Adichie in 2008, D’banj in 2009. The second is the Biyi Bandele-scripted movie adaptation of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun: D’banj’s song “Bother You” is said to have been inspired by the movie and was supposed to serve as part of its soundtrack. The third is that the public consumption of both artists’ greatest works has at different times been censored in Nigeria. When, in 2011, D’banj released one of the greatest Afro-pop songs of the twenty-first century in the cheeky “Oliver Twist”, the lyrics, with references to “bom bom”, were deemed “lewd” by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission. The song was promptly banned. Adichie’s novel was never going to be banned, and so Bandele’s movie faced it. The long delay in the issuance of certification for what was then the biggest-budget Nollywood movie in history [at
N1.27bn, $8m] by the Nigerian Film and Video
Censors Board was described by Bandele as “a clumsy, heavy-handed ban in all
but name”. Popular opinion was that the unofficial ban was due to the movie’s
subject-matter, the Biafran War of 1967-70. Yet the move by the NFVCB came as
little surprise because this, after all, was Nigeria—a country where History is
barely taught in its secondary schools, where younger generations are shoved into
the same willful forgetfulness blinding their elders.
Chimamanda Adichie: her trademark smile. Photo credit: unknown.
There is also the fact that their parents initially had different dreams for them: Adichie was to be a doctor and D’banj was to follow in his father’s steps and join the military. While Adichie began Medicine and Pharmacy in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, D’banj began Mechanical Engineering in the University of Lagos, and herein lies the coincidence: in order to escape the expectations of their families, D’banj left for the UK to pursue his music dreams and Adichie left for the US where she eventually studied Communications and Political Science in Drexel University, graduating in 2001 and then getting an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003 from John Hopkins University. She would, in 2008, get another master’s degree, in African History. And then there’s the Genevieve Nnaji factor: her starring in both the Half of a Yellow Sun movie and D’banj’s “Fall in Love” video.
The ties between Adichie and Lupita, on the other hand, cross the arts and entertainment, through the personal and end up in the global political. Both are Yale-educated (for their master’s degrees) and exhibit refreshing confidence in their identity. When news came that Lupita had optioned the film rights to Adichie’s Americanah, it was met with excitement, partly in the way that fans roar with approval when their favourite celebrities collaborate. But there was more to it: a nascent Hollywood brand continuing in literature and a literary brand prolonging her stay in the movie industry. And yet this news was no great surprise; in some quarters, it was expected, hoped for, and publicly marked an association that will, perhaps, remain symbolic. It would appear to have naturally fallen on Lupita who, with her natural hair and gleaming dark skin, her wholesome acceptance of her Africanness, happens to be the most visible embodiment of the kind of black African woman Adichie outlines in Americanah. She fits the profile of Ifemelu in the novel and would do her justice as she has done 12 Years a Slave’s Patsey, if she eventually, as expected, takes that acting role in addition to her production role. Again, both women were nominated for MTV Africa’s 2014 Personality of the Year and Lupita took it.
And Lupita and D’banj?
They share Adichie in common.
Born in 1977, Adichie’s body of work—three bestselling novels (Purple Hibiscus, 2003; Half of a Yellow Sun, 2006; Americanah, 2013), several prize-winning short stories and a collection (The Thing Around Your Neck, 2009), viral talks (“The Danger of a Single Story”, 2009; the 2012 Commonwealth Lecture, “Connecting Cultures”; “We Should All Be Feminists”, 2013, which was published in 2014 as a monograph), and several essays—has seen the most wondrous acclaim for an African writer since the elderly set of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. She has been translated into 30 languages. But before these, she had authored a collection of poetry (Decisions, 1997) and a play (For Love of Biafra, 2000), both of which are relatively juvenilia.
Coming to fore in a culture whose veneration seemed reserved for aging minds, Adichie’s popularity among young African readers stems partly from her being young and a brilliant speaker, but mostly from her writing style, a style so clear and filled with humour, so easy to relate to in its brilliance, and then, crucially, the high number of central young characters in her work. While most of her own generation cite Achebe (she, for example) or Ngugi (Binyavanga Wainaina, for example) as influence, most of the younger generation blossoming in the 2010s, especially among the yet-unpublished, cite her or her contemporaries. The positive reception of Purple Hibiscus helped usher in a decade of brilliant writing on the continent. Her novel, though, is only part of an overarching story that includes Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel (2002), the success of the Caine Prize, and the efforts of such literary houses as Kwani? and Farafina which collectively spurred this production that has introduced what the Times Literary Supplement described as “a procession of critically acclaimed young Anglophone authors that is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”: Uzodinma Iweala, Teju Cole, Doreen Baingana, Sefi Atta, Dinaw Mengestu, Uwem Akpan, Chika Unigwe, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Lola Shoneyin, Chibundu Onuzo, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta, Taiye Selasi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Chigozie Obioma, and so many others. She has talked of the reluctance of agents and publishers to gamble on her Purple Hibiscus manuscript due to its being set in Africa and written by an African who writes like no known literary names, the wisdom being that no one would read it (a debacle Achebe faced with the Things Fall Apart manuscript), and the ridiculous case of one agent who tried to convince her to set the story in America and then to “use the African material as background”. Purple Hibiscus went on to win the 2004 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize and longlisted, that year also, for the Booker Prize. Previously, in 2002, she had been shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, for “The Tree in Grandma’s Garden”, and the Caine Prize which eventually went to close friend Binyavanga Wainaina, for “You in America” which would later appear in The Thing around Your Neck as the title story. In 2003, her “That Harmattan Morning” was a joint winner of the BBC Short Story Awards, and “The American Embassy”, which also appears in her collection, landed an O. Henry Prize. She took the 2002/2003 David T. Wong International Short Story Prize for “Half of a Yellow Sun”, the fore-running story often forgotten in the euphoria of its eponymous novel despite being arguably Adichie’s very best short story.
In 2007, the novel Half of a Yellow Sun made her the first African woman to win the Orange Prize and last year placed at Number 10 on BBC Culture’s Greatest Novels of the Twenty-first Century So Far, with Americanah at Number 13, Adichie being the only non-Westerner to make the top twenty. Acclaimed as “the first great African novel of the twentieth century”, it was also awarded the 2007 PEN Beyond Margins Award and the 2007 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award among others, and was last year named winner of the Best of the Best of the Baileys Women’s Prize winners (the former Orange Prize) in the last decade (2006-2015). Her relevance was cemented with Achebe’s blurb describing her as a “fearless” writer “endowed with the wisdom of ancient storytellers” and who “came almost fully made.” In 2008, she won, alongside 24 others, the then-$500,000 MacArthur Genius Grant: the first major novelist from Africa to do so, with Ethiopia’s Mengestu following suit in 2012. 2009 saw her named winner of the International Nonino Prize and, in 2010, she was included in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list. Americanah, described by a Kathryn Schulz in the New York Magazine as “an early…admirable stab at something new: a Great Global Novel”, took the National Book Critics’ Circle award for 2013 and the 2013 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize, the 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The novel made BBC’s Top Ten Books of 2013 list as well as the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2013, the latter of which helped move it up Amazon’s bestselling books list, to as high as No 179. It would go further elsewhere: it would reach as high as No 10 on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller List (as at May 25, 2014), placing that week above—wait for it—E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (at No 11) and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (at No 13).
Hers is part of the larger continental story of female domination in writing. Adichie’s extraordinary success, by helping draw the attention of the literary world back to Africa, paved way for the 2010s set of whom the most prominent are NoViolet and Selasi, a generation reveling in the publishing world’s hunt for regional voices not seen since the 1980s-90s rush for Indian writers that saw the discovery of Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, among others.
This success no doubt inspired her to begin the annual Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, where she is assisted by Binyavanga and Aslak Myhre. Other facilitators have included, at different times, Jeffrey Allen, Tin House editor Robert Spillman, Chika Unigwe, Eghosa Imasuen, the memoirist Faith Adiele, to name a few. Every year, since 2009, a group of twenty to twenty-four writers are selected from applications from all over the continent, lodged in a hotel in Lagos and guided in fine-tuning their writing. And this is the most important part: graduates of her workshop have gone on to earn acclaim also: Tolu Ogunlesi won the Arts and Culture Prize in the 2009 CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards, and then their Business and Economics Prize in 2013; Adeleke Adeyemi won the 2011 Nigeria Prize for Literature for his children’s book, The Missing Clock, under his pen name Mai Nasara; Jekwu Anyaegbuna won the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa Region for “Morrison Okoli (1955-2010)”; Elnathan John has twice made the Caine Prize shortlist, in 2013 for “Bayan Layi” and in 2015 for “Flying”; Uche Okonkwo won the inaugural 2013 Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize; Onyinye Ihezukwu won the 2014 Heinfield Prize; Pemi Aguda won the 2015 Writivism Prize; and Arinze Ifeakandu won a fellowship offered by the American magazine A Public Space and then made the top five of the BN Poetry Award, both in 2015. And these are only some. “After the workshop, my writing changed, the way I observed things changed,” Arinze says, alumni of the 2013 workshop. “Her success has given a lot of us confidence that our stories are worth writing. And her workshop…has kick-started many literary careers and friendships,” says Ogunlesi, who attended the inaugural workshop. For Imasuen, the nurturing of a whole new set of talents is all down to her: “I think that is her place, not the books, which are important by themselves, but that she brought a new generation of writers together.” One finds this idea of community in Adichie’s own definition of herself as a “hopelessly sentimental Pan-Africanist.”
Adichie with Eghosa Imasuen. Photo credit: unknown.
In the way that brilliant new writers are compared to brilliant older compatriots, the Washington Post’s Book World detailed her as the “twenty-first century daughter of Chinua Achebe”, sparking comparison to Achebe. Femi Osofisan identifies her reflection of Achebe in “her delicate manipulation of syntax and trope…control of irony and suspense…mastery of those subtle details that build and heighten effect.” Writing in The ScoopNG, James Eze digs the parallels deeper: By siring a new generation of writers through her workshop, Adichie is replicating Achebe’s opening-of-doors role as the pioneer editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series. The online writers’ community of her workshop’s alumni favourably compares, he argues, to the community of writers founded by Achebe: the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). And her confrontation of racism in Americanah as well as her TED Global Conference Talk in Oxford, “The Danger of a Single Story”, both echo Achebe’s 1975 seminal lecture in the University of Massachusetts: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”
While admitting how flattering being Achebe’s “daughter” is, Adichie insists that it puzzles her how Anglophone African literature has parents—Achebe as father, Flora Nwapa as mother—while American literature, for instance, has none, pointing out in that nuanced manner the condescension attached to such tags. The Achebe link spills into politics as well: last year, there were rumours of her rejection of honours from the Nigerian and British governments, just as Achebe famously turned down national awards in 2004 and 2011. It touches literary awards as well: Achebe also won the International Nonino Prize, in 1994. But, aside fiction, there is a line between them: while Achebe was a formidable academic and visionary social critic, Adichie is primarily a cultural critic who nevertheless has an intimidating academic record littered with summa cum laude degrees and fellowships. She was a 2005-06 Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, where Americanah is partly set, and a 2011-12 Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellow at Harvard University. And all her books are partly set in the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where she grew up.
Not one to hide her admiration for other writers, she has talked about their influence on her: from unconditionally reading Enid Blyton to decidedly being “saved” by Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye’s The Dark Child, to carrying her favourite Achebe novel Arrow of God within her, to a 2005 PEN Conversation with Michael Ondaatje during which she informed the Canadian-Sri Lankan novelist that she might pass out just for talking with him, to wishing she had written Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, to another high-profile 2014 Conversation with Zadie Smith (“Watch Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talk Postcolonial Lit”) in what is unarguably one between fiction’s two biggest black women of the twenty-first century, to loving Kiran Desai’s and Chika Unigwe’s fashion senses, to criticizing the racist and misogynist V.S. Naipaul in Americanah and in an interview. “What was so striking was her own confidence and authority,” Salman Rushdie said of her 2005 PEN Conversation with Michael Ondaatje: “All of us there that day could see that someone remarkable had just arrived. A star is born, I remember thinking, and so it was.” Eze recounts an earlier prescient declaration by Obi Iwuanyanwu, professor at Central State University, Dayton, Ohio. It was still 2003, and Adichie had just won the David T.K. Wong Prize for Fiction for the emotionally-gripping short story, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, when Professor Iwuanyanwu said: “Given my knowledge of similar astounding young writers in history, I would make bold to describe her as a genius. I believe that Chimamanda, who was born seven years after Biafra, is destined to write the Great Biafran Novel.”
The 2007 Orange Prize ceremony: Adichie with novelists Kiran Desai and Zadie Smith. Photo credit: unknown.
Adichie is also known to help other writers, writes Eze, including the critically-acclaimed Teju Cole who she recommended to her literary agency and hosted a pre-publication luncheon in his honour to introduce editors to his now multi-awarded Open City. It appears to be little coincidence also that, after attending her workshop this year, Akwaeke Emezi was signed to her agency, The Wylie Agency, which represents the crème de la crème of literature and of African writers: Binyavanga, Taiye Selasi, Yvonne Owuor, NoViolet Bulawayo, Helen Oyeyemi, and so many others. And it is now well known that she did introduce the novelist Elnathan John to her agent.
Not every writer manages to keep both literary critics and readers on almost the same plane of excitement but Adichie has with her selection and exploration of her subject matter. Her first novel, set in the 1990s, is about family and how religion and national political events shape its dynamics. Her second, set in the 1960s-70, a decade before she was born, is a love and war novel of astonishing emotional depth, described by American novelist Dave Egger as having “the scope and breadth of Tolstoy, or Chekhov, Edward P. Jones or even Steinbeck”, Adichie herself possessing “the kind of unwavering command of history and humanity that puts her in that company”. Her most recent sprawls from the 1970s to 2010 and stirs a host of subjects—racial politics, gender, hair, academia, blogging, reading itself—so much that Binyavanga calls it “the most political of Chimamanda’s novels.” In choosing such big issues as religious fundamentalism, Biafra, and racial politics, with powerful, relatable themes as family, contrasting but comparable cultures, love, friendship, military rule, academia, she firmly, with each work, contributes to major discussions—even, decisively impacts them.
She is vocal, criticizing Nigeria’s anti-gay law in a tender but insistent essay (“Why Can’t He Be Like Everyone Else?”), denouncing the misconception that fashion-loving women are shallow-minded (“Why Can’t a Brilliant Woman Love Fashion?”), and, most recently, admitting to being influenced by Pope Francis (“Raised Catholic”). “The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority,” she observes. “A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence.”
In stating her mind like very few, refusing to conform to expectations of females as meant to be seen rather than heard, she borders on the honesty and empathy and lack of apology that characterizes her fiction: Aunty Ifeoma and Amaka in Purple Hibiscus, Odenigbo and Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun, Ifemelu and Blaine in Americanah. These were what she echoed at the 2015 Girls Write Now Awards where she received their Groundbreaker award: “Forget about likeability.” And she does all these with disarming rhetoric. This also is, unfortunately, where the criticism emanates from. The Caine Prize controversy of 2013 during which she was criticized for insisting that the prize is “not the arbiter of the best fiction from Africa”, and referring to the shortlisted Elnathan as “one of my boys”, is example; the opinion being that, since she herself had once been shortlisted in 2002, she was wrong to dismiss the prize especially now that she has become big. Her critics were back again when, last year, they felt she was taking her feminism too far by refusing to be addressed as “Mrs”, preferring just her name or “Ms.” Her defenders have called it just one more example of misogyny, the discomfiture of male egos that it is a woman that is the face of African literature in this century. “When a woman becomes very famous, men in her field often resent that success…and jump at the chance to attack her,” says the academic Aaron Bady who did the Boston Review interview in which Adichie made her Caine Prize comments. Early last year, in her OlisaTV interviews, her most personal so far, she has put in context her statements, and will have won more fans for her willingness to continue having difficult conversations. “The Chimamanda I know is a sensitive soul,” says Imasuen, echoing what a host of others insist on: her good nature, her warmth. Importantly, Adichie is increasingly finding herself in positions from where she could lead these difficult discussions. She co-curated the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival where she delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, stating that “to write is to reject silence”. She was also enlisted to co-headline last year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature alongside thriller novelist Alexander McCall Smith.
With her 2013 TEDxEuston lecture, “We Should All Be Feminists”, Adichie, according to National Geographic on her inclusion in their Henry Louis Gates Jr.-compiled list of Africa’s Greatest Innovators in Arts and Sciences, “stepped into the realm of politics” and, according to her Radhika Jones-written TIME 100 profile, “found her voice as cultural critic” (sic). While her previously best known talks, 2009’s “The Danger of a Single Story” for TED which has reached up to 8 million views and 2012’s “Connecting Cultures” Commonwealth Lecture, have been on the need for respect for racial diversity and historical circumstances, “We Should All Be Feminists” debunks the myth surrounding feminism, simplifies it, and then cites cultural evidences that in the end turn not into an aggressive female-power rant but an empathetic rallying call not merely for women but particularly for men. The Beyonce feature has now instilled into popular culture her memorable lines: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller, we say to girls: you can have ambition but not too much, you should aim to be successful but not too successful otherwise you will threaten the man”; and “Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?” and “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” Growing up, she had been feminist without knowing what the term was. “The oppression of women makes me angry,” she says.
“I was immediately drawn to her,” Vogue would note Beyonce as saying. “She was elegant and her words were powerful and honest.” It was a two-way thing, both artists gained: Beyonce’s feminist credentials were finally solidified, accepted by critics as legit, and Adichie was introduced to new audiences. “The success of both of those talks,” writes Vogue’s Eric Wagner, “[arguably] changed her from a successful author into a celebrity”. In 2014, the talk was published, first as a fifty-two page e-monograph and latter in print, and “Flawless” was ranked Numbers 7 and 9 by Pass & Jop and Pitchfork Media respectively on their Best Music of 2014 lists. The mother album, Beyonce, was nominated for the 2015 Grammys Album of the Year which, had it won, would have made Adichie, a speaker, a Grammy winner in a singing category. Late last year, the monograph’s Swedish translation was made mandatory for the country’s sixteen year-olds.
And this is where, in this Internet age, visibility counts. Adichie is adored, too, because she is seen. Most of her new following, attracted by the Beyonce song and the movie adaptation, may not have read her but have watched her speak. With a Facebook following steadily approaching the 500,000 mark, she, perhaps, is the best example of literary fiction-writers globally, and writers in Africa generally, accumulating the kind of celebrity clout hitherto reserved for entertainers, sportsmen and political and religious leaders. A 2010 Nielsen BookScan source puts it that at 525,438 copies, Half of a Yellow Sun was the third bestselling Orange Prize-winning novel ever, behind 2004 winner Andrea Levy’s Small Island’s 834,958 and 2005 winner Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin’s 646,373. While the Orange prize organizers continue to cite these three novels as their most successful, the figures have no doubt increased in these five years since then, and her novel could be chasing the 1 million mark. Americanah, before its France publication, was noted by France 24 last year’s January to have shifted 500,000 in the US, on its way to being translated into 25 languages; and this was in roughly a year, and at a much faster pace than Half of a Yellow Sun. These figures—like the bafflingly static 11 million for Things Fall Apart—obviously do not factor in pirated copies, which are unfortunately more distributed than originals in developing publishing industries like Nigeria’s. While not attracting the publicity of its antecedents, Purple Hibiscus, it must be noted, remains her most read novel in Nigeria, although due to its lack of cross-over into Nollywood, it has lost premier popularity to Half of a Yellow Sun—word-of-mouth and news popularity, that is. Yet it is the only Adichie novel one is likeliest to find in the most unassuming of market bookstalls, likely to have been read by the average schoolgirl or boy, and one that would equally smash as a movie adaptation. Her only requirement for the Half of a Yellow Sun movie was that it be shot in Nigeria, and it was, in Calabar. But even with international A-listers like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton and Anika Rose-Noni and Nollywood icons Genevieve Nnaji and Zack Orji and Onyeka Onwenu in it, even with the prospect of the hotcake potential cast of Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo and Brad Pitt partaking in Americanah’s adaptation, and despite one of Hollywood’s few most powerful men Will Smith calling to her to say how much he loves her work, she insists that adaptations of her novels aren’t measures of success for her. “I’m excited. I’m quite happy,” she says. “[But] for me, success is that I have a book out. A woman said to me, ‘Your book made me feel less alone.’ That is success.”
Adichie's three novels on a bookstand: Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah.
In this insistence is her sense of focus. She is a writer primarily. In it she seems to whisper an acknowledgement, and gratitude, for how far she has come, because she did not just smash, did not just become Chimamanda overnight: she worked for it, earned it. Before Purple Hibiscus, “I wrote some other bad novels which I hope nobody ever sees,” she recounted at the Kwani at 10 Anniversary in the University of Nairobi. “Writing is the thing that gives meaning to my life. And if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have been published and to have been read, I would still be somewhere writing.” Asked about winning prizes in a CNN interview, she said: “It’s lovely to win. But that isn’t why I write. What matters the most for a writer, I think, is to be read.” Talking of reading, there was the small dissatisfaction of some fans with Americanah, its not being on the same level as Half of a Yellow Sun. Aside the general unfairness to artists in judging their works by relativity rather than on individual merit, we are in danger of losing foresight in this particular case. Make no mistake about it, Americanah is not just a Great Novel but a Great Book, whether standing on its own or in comparison to any other book: a reviewer calls it “a polemic disguised as a novel.” That Half of a Yellow Sun is immortal does not diminish Americanah’s greatness: with the previous, it is all wisdom and skill; with the latter, it is those two things plus something else that doesn’t come naturally: experience. Americanah can only be written by one who has proven herself with something as classic as Half of a Yellow Sun. It is an occasional minor debate in the online community of writers as to what her next work will be: 2016 will be three years since her last, and she has yet to exceed four years in gap. For one who tackles only challenging subjects, there may be limited options: Would it be something very modern, embracing everything from terrorism to the Ebola outbreak? Would it be another historical fiction—on the Slave Trade? Would it be another collection of stories? Or a political thriller? Or would it be a genre she admits to not quite understand—science fiction? Would it even be fiction? A memoir? A collection of essays?
Her recent work has been “practical”. She contributed a short story to The Art of Saving a Life Project, a The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s initiative that “brings together more than 30 world-renowned musicians, writers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors and photographers to demonstrate how vaccines continue to positively change the course of history.” Entitled “Olikoye”, the story centered on the work of Nigeria’s former health minister, the late paediatrician and activist Dr Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. Other contributors include Angelique Kidjo, Sophie Blackall, Thomas Ganter, Alexia Sinclair, and the novelist Yiyun Li. She also contributed a column titled “The Feminine Mistake” to the July/August issue of More magazine guest-edited by Michelle Obama.
Adichie poses for her Vogue UK's "Today I'm Wearing" photo shoot. Photo credit: Vogue UK.