Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chimamanda's Interview in Bookforum

BF: Are the people of Nigeria still grieving and processing this war?

CNA: A lot of people haven’t dealt with it at all, in part because we haven’t dealt with it as a collective nation. Nobody learns about Igbo culture in high school. You’re told that a war happened and nothing else. Igbo people have a sense that we’re supposed to pretend nothing happened. Now there is a new Biafran movement that’s been going on for about ten years. Mostly, it’s the poorer people in Igbo villages and rural areas who adopt things from Biafra and fly the Biafran flag. When I told people I was writing about the war, they thought I was crazy. They’d say, “You are just looking for trouble, you are encouraging violence.” I still get a few angry e-mails from people who feel I shouldn’t have written about that war. But then I do get pleasantly surprised by the many people who are asking questions about that period because of the book, people whose parents had been through the war and never said anything to their kids. Sometimes I get stupidly emotional. I did a reading in Nige­- ria, and a woman came up to me and said, “Because of your book, I can finally talk about what happened to me, and I thank you.” And then I start crying [laughs].

(Excerpt of interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)


Chimamanda s interview in the December/January 2008 issue of Bookforum, the literary magazine of the most influential contemporary art magazine, Artforum, is one more indication of the extent Half of a Yellow Sun, her award-winning novel set in Biafra during the war of 1967-70, has insinuated its story into contemporary consciousness. Thanks to this novel, Biafra, and the still-unaccounted-for, systematic mass murder of thousands of Igbo in Northern Nigeria in the months before the war—which remains a taboo in Nigerian political discourse—has returned calling for reexamination. As Chimamanda rightly points out, there has not been any effort by the Nigerian nation to grieve for the thousands of innocents murdered by fellow citizens in 1966, before the war. A pall of anxiety remains, while many Igbo await the process of healing of a nation.

The responses within and beyond Nigeria to HYS particularly the new interest in the story of Biafra and Nigeria of the 1960s is an encouraging sign that, perhaps, literature might actually provide the basis for open discussions about that dark period in Nigeria's postcolonial history. Already an important opportunity was missed when in the early 1990s an exhibition of war-time work by Biafran artists (works that circulated in Europe at the time and had just been repatriated to Nigeria after more than two decades) planned to take place in one of foreign cultural centers in Lagos was canceled after it became clear that the authorities might deem the show a dangerous attempt to open unhealed wounds. Then and even now Nigeria—the authorities and significant section of the citizenryfail to learn from history: that old wounds cannot heal unless they are opened, cleaned and treated, carefully. Which is why the recent colloquium on literature on Biafra, which featured readings of HYS, and other works by Cyprian Ekwensi, Chukwuemeka Ike, and Ken Saro-Wiwa among others is a bold, courageous gesture on the part of CORA, the organizers of the Lagos Book Festival. These are signs that there might afterall be a gradual movement towards beginning a process long overdue. In which case Nigeria owes Chimamanda for helping weave the fabric of the nation, by writing a book of compelling, powerful fiction!

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