Famous First Words: Purple Hibiscus
Chimamanda Adichie managed to write two novels before she graduated from college, and kept one of them. Her initial venture was wrong from the start, forced and manufactured and wholly unrepresentative of the person she was, so she decided to let it go. The next one came in a rush.
In 2001, Adichie was in the final year of a communication and political science degree at Eastern Connecticut State University. She had transferred from Drexel University to live with her sister, who was starting up a medical practice near the school. Her sister’s husband was also a doctor, and they had a young son. Adichie was able to pay for college by becoming the boy’s nanny, incorporating his schedule into her own—she would get him ready for school in the morning and then head to campus, be at home when he got back in the afternoon, and cook supper for them in the evening. Then she would settle in to write.
It was a perfect arrangement for her, though her family couldn’t help but find it strange. Adichie was raised in a highly practical household in Nigeria—her father was a professor and her mother was a university administrator—and she had already contradicted logic by abandoning her medical studies after a year and a half to move to the US. She never wavered, though, constantly seeking out quiet spaces where she could work, electing to stay behind when her sister’s family would leave for the weekend and patiently enduring the bemused reactions she got from them.
Adichie’s first tentative experiments as a writer began when she was about seven years old, sketches assembled for review by her mother, and the process was something of an uphill pursuit from the onset. Writing what she knew, the stories that Adichie came up with were reflections of the stories she had learned to read. “All my characters were white, and blue-eyed,” she would explain in 2009. “They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather—how lovely it was that the sun had come out.” Her protagonists harbored a profound thirst for ginger beer, even though she had no idea what ginger beer was. Those British and American influences provided the early spark of inspiration for Adichie as a writer, but they also revealed a troubling conflict in her narrative technique and worldview. “I did not know that people like me could exist in literature,” she said.
That disconnect was rectified a couple of years later when she began to encounter books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye’s autobiography The Dark Child, and the young Adichie realized that there were African stories to be told as well. She quickly found her footing, introducing familiar voices into her compositions for the first time, and arrived at Drexel in 1996 with a hoard of material ready to be formed. Adichie made good use of her undergrad years, publishing a collection of poems (Decisions) in 1997 and then a play (For Love of Biafra, which she dismissed as “awfully melodramatic”) in 1998. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2003, and her short stories became increasingly frequent additions to various journals and anthologies. Several of those got shortlisted for major national prizes, and one, “The American Embassy”, ended up winning an O. Henry Award.
In the midst of all that activity, she was also in the process of reworking the second novel that she had written back in Connecticut—having learned from her mistakes in the first—and before the year was out, Purple Hibiscus, a story of political turmoil, spiritual devotion and tyranny, and the complicated bonds of kinship, related by a distinctly Nigerian voice, was published by Algonquin Books. Naturally, she started writing the next one.