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Chimamanda Adichie: a princess of the written word

Somewhere there is a pair of well-meaning, white "Africanists" blushing from shame at their fictional depiction as witless racists in Jumping Monkey Hill , one of a dozen note-perfect short stories in Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new collection, The Thing Around Your Neck . One of the Oxbridge experts Adichie skewers, named Isabel, reveals herself by commending Ujunwa, the young Nigerian narrator, for her "exquisite bone structure" - and guesses she is descended from ancient Nigerian royalty.

"The first thing that came to Ujunwa's mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London," Adichie writes. "She did not ask that but instead said - because she could not resist - that she was indeed a princess and came from an ancient lineage and that one of her forebears had captured a Portuguese trader in the 17th century and kept him, pampered and oiled, in a royal cage."

Meeting the 32-year-old author, however, inspires sympathy for Isabel. Perhaps it is the thrill of having a Haitian-born beauty serve as our own quasi-sovereign - perhaps it is the Michelle effect. Contemporary princesses are nominated by fate, not lineage. But you know one when you see one.

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Adichie's exquisite bone structure, set off by a stylish, crisply tailored suit, supports a commanding presence that belies her youth. She stoops to publicize her work, admitting she would prefer that it emanated of its own accord, but undergoes the ritual patiently. Like many of her characters - middle-class Nigerians of Igbo descent, making new lives in the United States - she is accustomed to fielding compliments about her English, her native tongue. She absorbs the ignorance and misunderstanding with graceful forbearance.

There are people who think that to be a good Nigerian is to shut up about all the things that are bad.

Adichie is so polished it seems only natural to ask her about her own political ambitions. Naturally, she has them.

"I only imagine, I don't think I will take the step," answers the author, who received her postsecondary education in the United States and now divides her time between suburban Maryland and downtown Lagos. "I imagine I will go back to Nigeria and run for governor of my home state."

Some of the few friends with whom she has shared the dream "laugh very loudly," the Adichie admits, saying she is mainly known in her native country as "that crazy feminist who won't shut up and writes sex scenes in her fiction." But one astute acquaintance offered to manage her campaign.

There is one problem: Adichie's depiction of Nigeria is far more scathing than her satire of the white enthusiasts who patronize its writers. Her highly praised first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun , dealt with the horrific civil war that followed the attempted secession of the new state of Biafra, which riveted world attention in the late 1960s and resulted in the deaths of uncounted millions - mainly the Igbo people who supported the breakaway state, including several members of Adichie's own family.

The stories in The Thing Around Your Neck chronicle the brutal military dictatorships that controlled the country in the 1990s. In A Private Experience , a Christian Igbo girl takes shelter with a Muslim shopkeeper during a Lagos riot in which "Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones," and killing a sister with whom she came downtown to shop. In The American Embassy , the wife of a crusading journalist seeks asylum two days after police thugs murdered her only child, joining an anarchic crowd of visa hopefuls who watched impassively as a soldier flogged "a bespectacled man with a long whip."

"She saw the man's glasses slip and fall. She saw the heel of the soldier's boot squash the black frames, the tinted lenses."

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Don't get the wrong impression, Adichie warns. The Nigeria she writes about is not the Nigeria she knows today. The habitual violence that runs like a flooded river through her current book ended with the death of military dictator Sani Abacha in 1998. "I find myself constantly talking about the problems of Nigeria and forgetting to add that I have a lot of hope in my generation," she says, especially "if we get into positions of leadership and power and the old guard dies, which we hope happens soon.

"There are people who think that to be a good Nigerian is to shut up about all the things that are bad," she says, adding needlessly that that is not her way. "I am quite patriotic in many ways. I care very much about where I come from. My heart is there. I care deeply. But I also think caring means you have to be honest."

Adichie's stories also undermine her politics by maintaining a rigorously personal point of view, showing no trace of the postcolonial "agenda writing" she disparages in Jumping Monkey Hill - "like a piece from The Economist with cartoon characters painted in." The bloody riot does not intrude into A Private Experience , which focuses instead on the sympathy that flickers between two strangers in hiding. The grieving mother waiting for a visa in The American Embassy simmers with outrage - not at the military regime that murdered her son, nor at the callous U.S. officials, but at her heroic husband who criticized the dictator in a newspaper article. "It was not courage," the woman thinks, "it was simply an exaggerated selfishness."

"The journalist who is a hero to the public is something else at home," Adichie says. A wife will have a more nuanced view. "And I think that's what fiction does. Fiction tries to complicate things that need to be complicated."

The latest complication in Adichie's work is its migration across the Atlantic Ocean, abandoning Africa for the struggles of identity and adaptation within the Nigerian diaspora of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The shift mirrors her own life, which includes an extensive postsecondary U.S. education, culminating in a post-graduate degree from Yale University, and now centres on suburban life in Maryland.

Even before she was born, Adichie's parents had established themselves in the United States. "My father got his PhD from Berkeley in California, and like many Nigerian and Sub-Saharan African academics at the time, was full of hope and very enthusiastic," she says. This was 1966, a year before the civil war. "He said that he had been offered a job at Berkeley [but]he didn't even think about it. He said, 'No, I'm going home, we're building a new nation.'"

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Her parents lost two of their eight children to the war, Adichie says. Nsukka, the quiet university town where they lived, was one of the first Biafran centres that fell to federal troops. She is the fifth of six children born after the war. In the book, a father-like figure appears in the form of a lonely and dispossessed academic waiting for a pension that never arrives. In Adichie's post-Biafra landscape, Igbo nationalism is a ruined dream that appears only as streaks of sorrow in portraits of family and friends.

She may be political, but Adichie is in no hurry to repeat her parents' unwitting mistake by throwing over the security of life in the United States. That decision paid off last year when she received one of the MacArthur Foundation's famous "genius grants" - $500,000 (U.S.) over five years to do with whatever she wants.

But that doesn't mean she intends to abandon African material in order to delve into the banalities of suburban life in America, "much as that is fascinating material," she says respectfully. "If I wanted to do that I'd just read John Updike and I'll have a good dose of it."

Although she superstitiously refuses to discuss the novel she is the process of writing, she allows that her current interest is the immigrant experience. "I think all of my work will ultimately be about Nigeria, but Nigeria in its different permutations," she says.

In another permutation, she would run the place. For the moment, however, this determined outsider is staking a claim as one of the most artful writers of the English language.

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