For at least 50 years, Rollins College has sponsored a February celebration of literature, a monthlong cold-weather feast of contemporary writers. The 2012 edition of Winter With the Writers, as it’s come to be known, is as always a superior mix of writers, but they’ve saved the best for last: winner of multiple prestigious lit awards, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and one of the New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Carol Frost, professor of English and director of Winter With the Writers, says she hoped for 2012’s series to feature “a global literary family.”
“Chimamanda’s writing stood out as true and fine,” Frost says via email. “[She] was impressed by our stellar list of former WWW authors, and that often figures strongly in an author agreeing to participate. Because I invited her first, there was flexibility in the dates, and once I had her signed, I invited the others.”
That list of former participants is indeed stellar, featuring Michael Cunningham, Billy Collins, Barry Lopez, David Henry Hwang, Kay Ryan and Jamaica Kincaid in just the past four years. This year’s list, however, had a twist – the astute mix of Florida’s own Carl Hiaasen, Romanian poet Mihaela Moscaliuc, Ilya Kaminsky of Odessa (now Ukraine), American-in-Paris (if only in her writing) Paula McLain and Adichie forms an overlapping fresco of personal narratives. Frost says, “Being introduced to multiple stories from different continents reminds us of the freedom language gives us to open our hearts and speak our minds. The aim of all five writers has been the same: to give voice to the bitter and sweet secrets of family and country.”
Adichie in particular focuses on family and country – her novels and short stories are set in Nigeria, but the emphasis is on the personal. Readers of modern African literature often focus on the sociopolitical, but Adichie resists being pigeonholed. Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran war for independence, is a novel of characters, not a political tract.
And then there’s the shadow of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, a novel of postcolonial Nigeria perpetually featured on school reading lists (and a title perpetually stolen for headlines). Any writer must contend with revered forebears; Adichie, far from distancing herself in order to establish an independent voice, plays with the Achebe-worship. The first words of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, are “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion,” and her latest book is titled The Thing Around Your Neck. But far from the village life of poverty and religious ritual of Achebe’s masterwork, Adichie’s Nigeria is a modern space of CD players, Peugeots, Sesame Street and guns.
The stories in The Thing Around Your Neck are set in both Nigeria and America, elegantly parsing the divided loyalties of any modern immigrant. Adichie’s characters are individuals beset by specific circumstance, not allegorical ciphers.
Speaking to Chicago’s Newcity at a literary festival in 2010, Adichie said, “It would be really nice if my work was talked about as just literature,” continuing that she’d rather discuss “the struggle to write a good sentence” than be known as a chronicler of political struggle.
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