Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the award-winning novel “Americanah,” says she’s emotionally attached to African writing, but reads widely “to know what it’s like to be a human in different cultures.” Adichie was selected to be this year’s speaker at Wellesley College’s May 29 commencement.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
ADICHIE: Let me look at my Kindle. I’m reading Edna O’Brien’s short-story collection “The Love Object.” I just finished Oliver Sacks’s new memoir, which I found very beautiful. I just downloaded but haven’t started reading the novel “The City Son” by the Nepalese writer Samrat Upadhyay. From childhood I’ve read a lot of things at the same time, but it has been a bit warped lately. I always joke that being in the US has made my short attention span shorter.
BOOKS: Do you read only on your Kindle?
ADICHIE: I read recent things on my Kindle and more fiction. I read nonfiction in book form, which is why I have a book on my nightstand that I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while, “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner. It’s actually interesting but isn’t the sort of book I would finish reading at a go.
BOOKS: Did you have books in your house growing up in Nigeria?
ADICHIE: My father was a professor of statistics and mathematics, which meant we had lots of books in the house but not a lot of literature. As a child I was interested in the kind of history that I had no business being interested in. When I was nine I read a history of the Catholic Church. I was reading romance novels at the age of seven. I also loved Nancy Drew.
BOOKS: Did you get teased for being a bookworm?
ADICHIE: I was a very annoying mix. I was a bookworm, but I was also voted most popular girl. Growing up in Nigeria, you don’t get teased for doing well in school. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
BOOKS: Is reading thought of differently in Nigeria than in the US?
ADICHIE: One of the problems in the Nigerian school system is there isn’t time or effort put into having kids just read for the sake of reading. The kids will read textbooks. They do read literature, but not much time is given to that. A lot of Nigerians graduate from school, and they are brilliant scientists, but they don’t have a lot of emotional intelligence because they haven’t read very much.
BOOKS: What were some of the first books you read by African writers?
ADICHIE: There are two that stood out, which I have never forgotten. The first is “The Dark Child: The Autobiography of an African Boy” by the Guinean writer Camara Laye. It’s supposed to be a novel, but it’s really a memoir about his life before he moved to France. It felt so affirming to me. The other is “Arrow of God” by Chinua Achebe, which is a less well-known novel of his but his best. It’s set in my part of Nigeria in the 1920s.
BOOKS: Are there any African writers you wish were better known?
‘When I was nine I read a history of the Catholic Church. I was reading romance novels at the age of seven. I also loved Nancy Drew.’
ADICHIE: Some of the older generation writers, such as the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo. She’s a brilliant feminist. Her best-known book is “Our Sister Killjoy.”
BOOKS: When you moved to the US as a college student, did that change you as a reader?
ADICHIE: It must have. I spent a lot of time in my college library, and I read a lot of American fiction. The writer I discovered in America who remained very important to me was James Baldwin. Before I moved to the US I hadn’t read him, particularly his nonfiction. He helped me understand America’s race relations. Reading was a central part of my adapting to the US.