Irritation And Space: A Nigerian Writer In America No, she's not Jamaican and she doesn't care if you like elephants. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers up condensed tales of immigrant life in America. The Nigerian writer pulls back the layers of how we perceive "the other."
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Irritation And Space: A Nigerian Writer In America

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Irritation And Space: A Nigerian Writer In America

Irritation And Space: A Nigerian Writer In America

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GUY RAZ, host:

And one writer who might inspire your short fiction is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her first two novels, including "Half of a Yellow Sun," about Nigeria's civil war, won critical acclaim. Now, at age 31, Adichie has already written a third. It's a collection of short stories titled "The Thing Around Your Neck." It's the first time she's written about her adopted second home, the United States, where she's lived for nearly a decade. I asked Adichie why she waited so long to write about the U.S.

In many of these stories, it almost reads as if you've just been waiting just to sort of finally say some of these things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE (Author, "The Thing Around Your Neck"): Well, the stories in this collection are stories I've been working on really for the past nine years. So, I've had time to let things, you know, percolate because I've spent the better part of the last 10 years of my life in the U.S. And so, I, you know, I have observed a few things and find that I have a few things to say.

RAZ: Would you mind reading some of those observations for us? It's a passage from the story, which shares its title with the book, "The Thing Around Your Neck." It begins with: In later weeks.

Ms. ADICHIE: (Reading) In later weeks, though, you wanted to write because you had stories to tell. You wanted to write about the surprising openness of people in America, how eagerly they told you about their mother fighting cancer, about their sister-in-law's preemie, the kinds of things that one should hide or should reveal only to the family members who wish them well.

You wanted to write about the rich people who wore shabby clothes and tattered sneakers, who looked like the night watchman in front of the large compounds in Lagos. You wanted to write that rich Americans were thin, and poor Americans were fat, and that many did not have a big house and car. You still were not sure about the guns, though, because they might have them inside their pockets.

RAZ: This sounds very much like the observations of somebody who is really discovering America for the first time. But as you say, you've been here now for more than a decade. Has the way you've seen America evolved over that time?

Ms. ADICHIE: I think - I mean, I think it has. I - when I first came and I first came to go to university, I remember being profoundly irritated by people not having a sense of where I had come from. And the kind of questions I got about, you know, this monolithic Africa, I found both irritating and very surprising because it hadn't quite occurred to me how little people in general knew about my part of the world.

But I find that now, I mean, the things that irritated me now are quite comforting because one of the things I really like about America is that it gave me a sense of space and possibility and that I could reinvent myself. And not that I necessarily needed to, but just knowing that one has that option was very liberating for me.

RAZ: That phrase, the thing around your neck, which of course is a title of one of the stories in the book, is about loneliness, is about the experience of being a foreigner in a strange place. Can you talk about that experience?

Ms. ADICHIE: I think - I mean, a lot of my work, I'm very interested in gender. I think gender affects the way we experience immigration. And just observing immigrant communities in the U.S., I think that - and I think immigration in itself is a difficult thing, that it sort of involves layers of losses and gains. And I find that women, it seems to me, deal with immigration differently, and I'm interested in that. And I think a lot of my fiction is about exploring that and, you know, observing that.

RAZ: When you write about Nigeria from the United States, is that - is it difficult to do?

Ms. ADICHIE: No, I actually find that I distance - having that distance is very good for me. I like being at home from the outside. One has to let go of easy, sentimentalist things and just be very clear-eyed about looking at home.

So, I quite like it. And sometimes I find that when I'm in Lagos, in particular, I find Lagos sometimes to be a sensory overload, and I can't write about Lagos when I'm there. And then I leave, and it's just - it's just better and clearer, and some ways, easier to write about it.

RAZ: Do you - when you do go back to Lagos, and you go back a few times a year, is that right?


RAZ: Do you carry around a notebook with you to jot down observations or details? Because the book is filled with so many details, both from Nigeria and from your experiences in the U.S.

Ms. ADICHIE: I do. I always have a notebook with me. I have one now. I write things down all the time. I'm also very good at eavesdropping on conversations that have nothing to do with me. And it's quite important, sitting in that coffee shop, when you hear something from the next table, to immediately write it down before you forget it.

RAZ: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of the new book, "The Thing Around Your Neck." Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. ADICHIE: Thank you.

RAZ: You can read an excerpt from Adichie's new collection of short stories at

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