Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already absorbed a disproportionate share of worldly knowledge by the time she quit pre-med studies in her native Nigeria and travelled to the United States with the ambition to become a writer, brimming with enthusiasm for the grand tradition of 19 th-century literature and trailing a perfect record of academic accomplishment.
But one thing Adichie didn't know then was that she was black. The issue of race is one she had never confronted in her native country, and certainly not in the Russian novels she idolized. She was shocked to discover how pervasive the issue was in America, and struggled to navigate the contours of an unbidden new identity.
"There was an assumption that I knew what it meant to be black," Adichie says, still surprised more than a decade later. "People would ask me for 'the black perspective,' and I had no idea what that was."
Adichie wasn't prepared to be called "sistah" by men she had never met, and was mystified as to why references to fried chicken could be racist. "I remember seriously thinking, 'Can I ask why this is racist?'" she says, laughing at the memory.
Today, Adichie is quick to add, she knows to be "horrified" when she hears that smear. "Race is such an absurd thing," she adds. "You have to learn it." At 35, she says, she's getting to the point where she "kind of gets it."
Others disagree. They say Adichie had it nailed when she wrote her latest novel, Americanah, which chronicles the adventures of a young Nigerian migrant whose journeys parallel the author's own experience of becoming American while struggling to remain Nigerian. One African-American reader buttonholed her at a reading recently to say, "'You really went there, you said all the things we think but don't say, you say what we say when the doors are closed,'" Adichie reports, clearly delighted by the spontaneous rave. "She said, 'You raise a mirror and you're not afraid.' Then she paused and said, 'You do realize you're not going to get any more awards.'"
In that, the reader is almost certainly mistaken. As discomfiting as its social commentary may be – much of it contained in posts from a fictional blog subtitled "Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black" – Americanah is no mere issue novel.
Among other things, it is "a lush, lush love story," says Adichie, her deep voice and lyrical accent well matched with the chosen adjective. It is big, generous, funny and bravely old-fashioned in execution, if not in sensibility. Readers will wonder how it could be that George Eliot was reincarnated in southern Nigeria in 1977.
"I love Middlemarch," Adichie confesses, just as much as the "old Russian novels" that continue to inspire her. "I love that Eliot tells stories about human beings but has something to say in a larger way, and doesn't do tricks. I love that."
Experimental fiction holds no interest for her, either as a reader or a writer. "There's an immense arrogance about certain kinds of experimental fiction," she says, "and for me art is about a certain humility."
"I want to tell a story," she adds. "I hope, of course, that the sentences are good sentences, but I don't want my style to get in the way of character."
The story of Ifemelu, Adichie's heroine, shares many details with the author's own biography. But like Eliot's yearning Dorothea, Adichie's brilliant Ifemelu is also a bit of a dope.
Strong feminist principles underlie the characterization. "I think we often expect female characters to be easily likeable, in a way we don't expect male characters to be," the author explains. "Do we expect to like Nabokov's or Roth's characters? No. We expect them to be interesting. And I wanted Ifemelu to be that kind of character, where sometimes you want to smack her and sometimes you want to hold her close. Because I think that's human."
Adichie is evasive about who gets to hold her close, denying the significance of a circle of sparkling diamonds on her finger ("I just like rings," she says). She attributes her reticence to "a sense of unreasonable feminism" sharpened by the insistent personal questions that hound her at home in Lagos. "I want to pull my hair out of my head because I think, 'If I had a different reproductive organ, would you ask me that?'"
Unlike Ifemelu, Adichie never either wholly left nor wholly returned to her native country. "I have a home in Lagos, it's where I'm happiest," she says. "But then I like leaving Nigeria, and I have a home in Maryland."
Just don't call her "Afropolitan," a trendy term to describe younger, foreign-educated Africans which she finds "very annoying."
"I'm not an Afropolitian. I'm African, happily so," she says. "I'm comfortable in the world, and it's not that unusual. Many Africans are happily African and don't think they need a new term."
"My experience as an outsider has very much shaped how I look at the world," she adds. "But my eyes are still very Nigerian."
And the writing that results, like that of her literary heroes, is universal.