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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Your characters, whether the African servant boy, Ugwu, or Richard, the English man, ring completely true. How do you get into the minds of the people you write about and how do you sustain it?
They are partly based on real people. Ugwu was inspired in part by Mellitus, who was my parents’ houseboy during the war; in part by Fide, who was our houseboy when I was growing up. And I have always been interested in the less obvious narrators. When my mom spoke about Mellitus, what a blessing he was, how much he helped her, how she did not know what she would have done without him, I remember being moved but also thinking that he could not possibly have been the saint my mother painted, that he must have been flawed and human. I think that Ugwu does come to act more and react less as we watch him come into his own. Richard was a more difficult choice. I very much wanted somebody to be the Biafran ‘outsider’ because I think that outsiders played a major role in the war but I wanted him, also, to be human and real (and needy!)
Since most of the novel takes place before you were born, how do you write so convincingly about the period?
I read books. I looked at photos. I talked to people. In the four years that it took to finish the book, I would often ask older people I met, “Where were you in 1967?” and then take it from there. It was from stories of that sort that I found out tiny details that are important for fiction. My parents’ stories formed the backbone of my research. Still, I have a lot of research notes that I did not end up using because I did not want to be stifled by fact, did not want the political events to overwhelm the human story.
What are the lessons for present day Nigeria in HALF OF THE YELLOW SUN?
The war is still talked about, still a potent political issue. But I find that it is mostly talked about in uninformed and unimaginative ways. People repeat the same things they have been told without having a full grasp of the complex nature of the war or they hold militant positions lacking in nuance. It also remains, to my surprise, very ethnically divisive: the (brave enough) Igbo talk about it and the non-Igbo think the Igbo should get over it. There is a new movement called MASSOB, the movement for the actualization of the sovereign state of Biafra, which in the past few years has captured the imagination of many Igbo people. MASSOB is controversial; it is reported to engage in violence and its leaders are routinely arrested and harassed by the government. Still, despite their inchoate objectives, MASSOB’s grassroots support continues to grow. I think this is because they give a voice to many issues that have been officially swept aside by the country but which continue to resonate for many Igbo people.
PURPLE HIBISCUS begins with a tribute to Chinua Achebe. What other writers do you read or you feel have influenced you?
I wish I’d written ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel García Márquez. When I was writing HALF OF A YELLOW SUN I hoped that it would be the kind of character-driven war novel brave enough to engage subtly with politics, as the Zimbabwean writer Shimmer Chinodya does in his remarkable HARVEST OF THORNS.
Have you plans for another novel? If so, what is it about?
I’ve just started graduate work in the African Studies program at Yale and so I’m starting to think about my next book, but I can’t really say more than that!
If you'd like to read more about Chimamanda, go to her website
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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