Podcast #75: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith on Race, Writing, and Relationships

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
August 25, 2015

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There are few authors as smart, powerful, and visionary as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith. Adichie's Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award with its delicious satire, while Smith took the Orange Prize for her moving transatlantic novel On Beauty. This week, we're proud to present Adichie and Smith discussing clear writing, race, and relationships . The incredible conversation was part of the "Between the Lines" series at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2014.

Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie

Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie

Not only did Adichie describe her aesthetic as one revolving around clarity, she also noted the pitfalls of falling for convoluted styling:

"Clarity's important to me. I forget who said that 'Prose should be as clear as a window pane.' I'm very much in that school, and it's the kind of fiction I like to read. The kind of writing that I like to read is writing that is clear. I think it's very easy to confuse something that's badly written as something that's somehow deep. If something is incomprehensible and the sentences are bad, we're supposed to say, 'Oh that's really deep.' It's not the kind of fiction I like to read, so I guess maybe when I'm editing I'm thinking about that. I'm thinking that the sentences I really admire are sentences that are lucid."

Many admirers of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun have observed the pleasures of reading about strong female characters moving through relationships. Adichie sees the romantic relationships in her fiction as diametrically opposed to the paradigm of the Mills and Boon romance novel:

"It took me a while to realize I really didn't like the Mills and Boon format, where the man decides. It's sort of the destiny of the relationship is in the hands of the man. And it's okay as well if they meet and don't like each other, then he grabs her at some point and she melts. You know that idea that a woman can't own her sexuality, can't own her choices? So this is the anti-Mills and Boon in many ways. The women in my world don't have to wait because they're women."

Adichie also parsed the differences in understandings of blackness in Nigeria and the United States, including the way in which African-American blacks might be seen differently than African blacks by white Americans and the way in which racial difference might be expressed differently between the two countries:

"In Nigeria, people will say 'sister,' but they don't mean it racially, so I think it's the understanding that it's racial that for me and for many immigrants from West Africa, it's just a little off-putting. It's a little disorienting because you don't quite get it. And I think it also has to be said that you very quickly realize that you're expected to play 'The Good Black' because you're not African-American; therefore, you're 'The Good Black.' White people will say, 'Oh, but you're different!' and you're not supposed to be, instead of being furious, because that's really an insult, you're supposed to be happy... There are many Nigerians who don't get it. There are also many Nigerian immigrants who are raising children here, children who are very affected by race because America is a society that's steeped in race whether we like it or not, but somehow the parents are oblivious. It's one of the things I wanted to explore in the novel. They're just completely oblivious, so the kid is the only black kid in an all-white school in Maine and the parent thinks it doesn't matter."

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