Writers In Baltimore Schools students interview Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Maia Washington, Cin’Shea Williams, and Anastasia Farley introduce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (sitting bottom right). Photo By Patrice Hutton.

Back in September, three high school students involved in Writers in Baltimore Schools—Anastasia Farley, Maia Washington, and Cin’Shea Williams—were tasked with delivering remarks on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, “The Purple Hibiscus,” which Maryland Humanities had chosen as the One Maryland One Book read for 2017. The students are writers; they perform their work for audiences throughout the city. But on this night, in the Evergreen Museum and Library’s Carriage House, the author herself sat in the front row, beaming.

After the event, the girls sat down to interview Ms. Adichie at a table set up in the venue’s stables. The famed novelist began the interview by joking about the interview setup itself. “It feels like an interview. You have the second interview, you’ve passed through the first stage, so this is the head of human resources, this is the vice president, and this is the communications executive,” she said. “‘What would I like to bring to the company? I would increase the diversity quota.’”

All four writers laughed. Ms. Adichie had put the girls at ease and the interview began. (Patrice Hutton, founder and director of Writers in Baltimore Schools)

Cin’Shea Williams: What made you want to write this novel?

Chimamanda Adichie: I wanted to write a novel that felt true—to me. I was in Connecticut, it was my third winter in America, I was so homesick, so I wanted to write about home. I wanted to write a book that is both sad and beautiful about what it means to love, what family means, what religion means, all of those things. So it wasn’t one thing.

CW: What about your past life is the biggest reason you are who you are today?

CA: The fact that I was fortunate to be raised by really wonderful parents who gave me space to be myself.

Anastasia Farley: What was most difficult to write about in this novel?

CA: The scene where [Kambili’s] father punishes her in the bathtub was really difficult. I wrote it and rewrote it 10 times, maybe. That was the most difficult.

AF: In previous interviews you’ve said you put realism before likeability in your writing. Did this influence your ending, including Father Amadi and Kambili’s relationship?

CA: Did I say that in a past interview—oh? I never think about likeability. And I don’t want you to think about likeability. You just need to be yourself. I think girls are always thinking about being liked, even by assholes—oops, sorry, I guess the language isn’t appropriate—and the thing is the world is such a lovely place that someone will like you, and I feel girls are always, “How many likes did I get?” Sorry, what was the question?

AF: Did this influence the ending, including Father Amadi and Kambili’s relationship?

CA: That’s an interesting—yes, that’s a simple answer, yes. Just because I think it’s important to be realistic, and also because Father Amadi and Kambili—she’s not old enough. And he’s a good man, he’s the sort of man who does the right things, so I kind of imagine—I don’t know but I kind of imagine when she turns 18 . . .

Maia Washington: What were some of your inspirations for the development of Kambili?

CA: I wanted to have a character who doesn’t really have a voice, who has trouble with speaking because I think—well, first of all, because most people go through that at some stage in their life, where we feel voiceless and struggle with voice and also we feel that we can’t be heard, so I wanted to write that. Also, I think that a child who goes through what she went through would struggle with having a voice. I remember when she came to me—because, you know, sometimes characters will just sort of come to me—and I remember that for me the thing was the hushed-ness of her voice, and her nature, that she had—it’s kind of like growing up in a place where even your soul becomes smothered. And to then watch her very slow, just slowly, come alive, I wanted that to be the journey of the book. And it’s nothing dramatic, but it’s that thing where she’s becoming a whole person who can be.

MW: What advice would you give to people who were in the same position, or feel the same way, feel trapped?

CA: I just wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all okay for them. But I believe in trying. The thing I would say is be kind to yourself. And I’m going to talk about girls in particular—but I’m sure also boys—but when girls feel voiceless they feel helpless, and they don’t know how to be kind to themselves, by which I mean that you feel like you’re voiceless, you feel like a failure, and you beat yourself up, and it becomes this cycle. So it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself, and you haven’t done anything wrong. And to keep trying.

You know how [Kambili] tries? When the book starts, when she goes to Nsukka the first time, she’s not talking. And she wants to talk, but she just can’t. But we watch that she keeps trying and at some point—she gets help, obviously, Father Amadi and her cousin, with all of her sharpness, care about her. So she gets help, but what is also important to remember is that Kambili helps herself when she keeps trying. Because people can’t help when you don’t do your part. She does her part, she keeps trying. And suddenly she’s talking, and she can laugh because she tried. So I think being kind to yourself, being patient, and trying. And always remembering that it’s not your fault. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.

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