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Shortlistees React to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Disregard for the Caine Prize for African Writing

AmericanahAfrican VioletSocial networks have erupted after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie expressed her disregard for the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was won by Nigerian writer Tope Folarin last week.

Probably the most extreme reaction came from Caine Prize shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim:

The question of Nigeria’s dominance of the Caine Prize was raised by Aaron Bady in a Salon interview with Adichie about her new novel Americanah. “Why is that a problem?” Adichie replied.

She went on to say that Elnathan John, one of the shortlistees, was “one of my boys in my workshop”, but claimed not to know who all the shortlistees were. She also said that she is not interested in reading the shortlisted stories. When she wants to read the best in African fiction, Adichie said, she goes “to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories”.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what she knows, and also what she does not. When I asked her a question which she didn’t like, she would tell me so, gently but firmly: “I don’t know what that means,” she said, several times, and then proceeded to turn to subjects she preferred. If I prompted her to speak on a topic that tired her—when I asked her why Americanah, her newest novel, was a love story, for example—she took apart the premise of the question. Why wouldn’t it be a love story? I think it would be fair to say that she does not suffer fools gladly, and at times, my questions made me feel like a fool.

But she was also unfailingly gracious and kind. After we had spoken for over an hour—the period of time allotted for the interview—I dutifully informed her that the time her publicist had given me was over, but she brushed that aside as irrelevant, and began asking me questions about myself. I told her about the classes I teach and my impending move to Texas. “You will become weird in Austin,” she said, gravely, “That’s what you do there.” She pushed me to tell her about teaching African literature at Berkeley, and was deeply interested in how my students read and react to writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo. When I tried to bring the conversation back to her, she shrugged off the fact that I also teach a young writer named Adichie, and went back to questioning me on why I felt embarrassed that I sometimes struggle with pronouncing, spelling, and remembering African names. “That’s very American,” she said, finally.

Caine Prize shortlistee Elnathan John, to whom Adichie referred in the interview, has responded on Twitter and with a blog post. While the twitter comment is quite funny and self-deprecating, the blog post gets personal, goes into detail about Adichie’s appearance and her “manhood-shrinking” emails to John.

It is the Americans you blame as you struggle to craft a response to Ngozi that sounds neither bitter nor desperate; ‘something funny’ your friend said, so people would be left with no doubt about your maturity and sense of humour. You blame the Americans for organizing that workshop and putting you on the guest list where you first met Ngozi. This is what the Americans have often been guilty of: causing wars through third parties and standing back, claiming ignorance of roots and beginnings. They made you meet Ngozi. They made you love Ngozi.

This is what the love of Ngozi meant: that you ignored pride and your status as a local champion from a small town who had been told by some well meaning but not so literary friends that you didn’t need any workshop- you applied for her ten day workshop. Ten days where you could listen to her speak and stare into her big brown glassy eyes, her skin smooth like flat milk chocolate. Where you could see a shimmer as light bounced off her forehead, a sparkle as light bounced off her eyes. You imagined her skin in terms of taste. You thought it would have the consistency of small cocoyams, the ones that overcook a little in between the big hard ones, the ones that slide out of their skins when held with a little pressure with the tips of one’s fingers. It is not something you would have admitted to anyone, especially not after you discovered she was married to a handsome doctor-man. You imagined he did sixty push-ups every morning and spent an hour after work every day at the gym. Your man boobs would not even let you entertain the thought of eating small cocoyams. Not around this hunk of a husband.

More reactions from Twitter:

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