It was almost instinctual that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I started talking about our daughters when we met. They are the same age: two-and-a-half. Maybe it was because I looked a little frazzled when I went to receive her for our shoot on a blisteringly hot July day in London. I had just gotten off a strange conversation with my mother a few minutes ago. She had called to say that my daughter had stubbornly refused to wear clothes all day. When I regaled Chimamanda with this story, she laughed out loud. And when she started talking about her own daughter, her nanny travails (let’s not go there) and her family (her beloved 17-year-old niece, who manages her Instagram account, and sister-in-law, both of whom accompanied her on the day of our shoot), it was easy to forget her reigning otherworldly, multi generational presence that transcends the world of literature and high fashion. Chimamanda, as she likes to be called, wears her fame with unhurried ease and generosity. “I’ve learnt that to be famous is fundamentally to be unknown by a large number of people. You have motivations projected on you that are so far from the truth as to be absurd. And your humanity is very often overlooked,” she says. Irreverently witty, curious about our stories, and intuitive about our negotiation with the world, Chimamanda is a writer who is personal in her approach to her craft. And it is her intimacy and psychological dexterity that allow her to command the position she does.
ELLE: Your book, Purple Hibiscus, came with a Q&A with you, where you spoke about how much you loved fashion and enjoyed reading fashion magazines. To me, that was so refreshing. I had grown up reading authors for whom clothes and fashion were not important in the scheme of things. It made me want to know more about you, love your work even more. It gave me hope as a writer—that I could love fashion and yet, have strong views on our place in the world, and that both these aspects needn’t be mutually exclusive. Where does your interest in fashion come from?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: It must have come from being raised by Grace Ifeoma Adichie. My mother is a beauty. When she was young, she was known to be the beauty and the brains of her hometown, and because she was very light-skinned, she was called the brilliant white egret. Anyway, she also liked to dress up, and she raised her children to care about their appearances. I do think though, that in Nigeria, in general, fashion is mainstream and democratic. The norm is to care about your appearance. As a teenager, I experimented a lot. I remember, I once wore jeans, a white shirt and my brother’s tie to a birthday party. I designed all kinds of ridiculous outfits that a tailor in the market made for me. I am more interested in style than fashion, which is to say that I still happily look at fashion magazine photos, but I don’t care about wearing something because it’s on trend or because it has a particular designer label. I wear what I like. It’s important to challenge the idea that an intellectual woman cannot possibly like fashion. There are intelligent women all over the world who like fashion, but they feel the pressure to pretend otherwise, because they want to be taken seriously by a mainstream world that has decided that intelligent women cannot possibly like fashion. A woman does not have to be one or the other. She can be both.
ELLE: Your mother seems like an inspiration. Now that you are a mother, do you ever wonder how she did it all?
CNA: Yes! She and my father raised six children. She was a successful university administrator. And I don’t remember ever feeling that she wasn’t present. It was a different time obviously, and I think they had much less anxiety and guilt about being parents. But, I have a new empathy and admiration for her now that I am a mother.
ELLE: How do you get started on writing a new book or piece?
CNA: Ideas swirl around in my mind for weeks, months. Sometimes, a character comes to me. Sometimes, I hear a story or read about something that causes me to make a connection to something else, and suddenly, I find the storytelling spirits whispering to me. But my plans don’t always end up as I planned. Sometimes, a story starts out in a particular way, and I generally know where I want it to go. And then, in the course of the writing, something magical and ineffable happens, and the story takes a different turn.
ELLE: How much of a book is in your mind before you start?
CNA: I have a vague sense of what I want to do—of mood, of tone—but I never know my endings, because the writing is always a journey of discovery for me. One of the things I most love about writing fiction is the ability to be transported, to lose sense of time, and also the ability to be surprised by your own creation. I am a very keen watcher of people. My sister, Ijeoma, teasingly calls me a witch because I am very perceptive about people. I feel as though I was given a gift of seeing past the surface of people, of reading people, and also of inventing lives for people. Some writers are focused on ideas, and some on lived experiences, and I am very much in the latter camp. I am endlessly curious about people’s lives, and endlessly curious about human psychology—and that feeds my fiction. I am impatient with artifice as well, and agree very much with George Orwell’s idea of writing being as clear as a windowpane.
View this post on Instagram
ELLE: How long do characters stay with you when you begin to write, and do they stay with you long after you are done with the novel?
CNA: Characters are sometimes based on real people, and sometimes not. But even when they are, they are never really those people. I invent and remake. More often, characters are a reinvention of an amalgam of people. There are characters I admire—like Kainene in Half Of A Yellow Sun, Ifemelu and Obinze in Americanah, Aunty Ifeoma in Purple Hibiscus—and I feel a sense of loss when I am done writing them, but I’m not sure it would be true to say that they stay with me. I have friends who think they know who a character is based on, and then invariably, they say, “But she didn’t do it that way.” Or I’ll use a story a friend has told me and that friend will read it in my book and go,“Wait, I told you that story, but you changed so and so.”
ELLE: Food plays a huge role in your books. Do you enjoy cooking?
CNA: I am a good cook, and I like to cook when I am in a good mood. I also like to experiment. I am simply unable to fully follow a recipe. I make a mean jollof rice, but I’ll use coriander, for example, which might scandalise West African jollof purists. But the gendered politics of cooking makes me less inclined and less interested in talking about cooking. Many Nigerians ask about a woman’s cooking not from a neutral interest, but to pass potential judgement—can you cook, and therefore, can you keep a man and a marriage? If you can’t, then you have failed at some sort of female virtue. There are actually people who criticise, in moral terms, a woman’s inability or unwillingness to cook, which I think is absurd.
ELLE: Fashion has been notorious for being exclusive, until it was cool to be inclusive. Thoughts?
CNA: The shift hasn’t happened. It will, once all your examples are no longer noteworthy, when it is absolutely ordinary to have a major all-black film, to have black models who don’t have to worry about whether they will get cast in a show because the show already has their ‘black person’. We’re not there yet.
ELLE: Being famous doesn’t spare you from stereotypes and generalisations. How do you deal with that?
CNA: [Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria] Rilke wrote that fame is the sum total of misunderstandings that accumulate around a name. I deal with it by trying to remember that all of this comes with the territory. It happens to everyone in a similar position. Of course, I have many kind and lovely fans: people who engage with my work in good faith, whether agreeing or not agreeing. So that makes it easier to disregard the generalisations.
Photographs: R. Burman
Styling: Malini Banerji and Rahul Vijay
Hair: Dionne Smith
Make-up: Alex Babsky/Hair and make-up
Assited by: Divya Gursahani, Pujarini Ghosh, Raghav Tibrewal and Rupangi Grover (Styling), Sandra Seaton (Photography)
Production: Myra Gonzalez
Flying partner: Swiss Air Lines (Swiss)
Location courtesy: Cinema Suite, Taj 51 Buckhingham Gate Suites and Residences, London