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It’s a bit surprising that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be 40 tomorrow, 15 September. Surprising because we’ve known her from when she was 25, and in the 15 years since, it didn’t concretely occur to us that time was racing past.

How best to weigh the special place she has come to occupy at the crossroads of literature, feminism, politics, fashion and pop culture? Highlight each moment. So to mark her attainment of age 40, we decided to count down the 25 times we couldn’t stop talking about the most talked-about literary writer in the world. From 2003 to 2017: ranked. Did we miss anything? Is our ranking wrong? Do sound off in the comments section.


In October 2003, after a number of rejections, Purple Hibiscus was published by a small press, Algonquin Books. While it was her third publication, following the poetry collection Decisions (1997) and the play For Love of Biafra (1998), it was her first post-juvenilia work and the one that—backed by The Washington Post Book World‘s declaration of her as “the twenty-first century daughter” of Chinua Achebe—launched the legend we know today. The industry of Ebun Olatoye, Yemisi Ogbe, Jubril Lawal and the team at Farafina magazine ensured Chimamanda’s first public reading in Nigeria, in Lagos. The success of this event, writes Lawal, “led to the birth of NLNG involvement in literature.” The novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and longlisted for the Booker Prize, both in 2004; and it won the 2004 Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. There are no figures to prove this, but its piracy-induced ubiquity, particularly after being made required reading for examinations, suggest that it just might be the bestselling novel—and certainly the best known—of the current century so far in Nigeria.


In April 2005, Chimamanda, fresh from making the Orange Prize shortlist but still a new sensation, scored a conversation with the revered Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje, whom she looked up to, at the PEN World Voices Festival. Titled “Reinventing Home,” the chat was introduced by another, two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey. Ondaatje asked her about Purple Hibiscus and she asked him about The English Patient, in an encounter which left her fan-girling. In a 2015 profile of her, Vogue mentioned Salman Rushdie’s initial impression of her from the Ondaatje conversation. “At the time she was just out of the egg, so to speak, and it was plain that she hugely admired Ondaatje,” he said, “but what was striking was her own confidence and authority. She very much held her own, and spoke fluently and powerfully, and all of us there that day could see that someone very remarkable had just arrived. A star is born, I remember thinking, and so it was.”


In May, the first time the event would focus on a region, Chimamanda co-curated, with festival director Lazlo Jakab Orsos, the 11th PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature themed “On Africa.” The panels featured Kwame Dawes, Alain Mabanckou, Binyavanga Wainaina, Teju Cole, Boubacar Baris Diop, Nnedi Okorafor, Aminatta Forna, Chris Abani, Ntone Edjabe, Edwige Danticat, Yvonne Owuor, Billy Kahora, Achille Mbembe, Lola Shoneyin, Eltahawy, Zanele Munoli and Wangechi Mutu, alongside other artists from other parts of the world. At the end, Chimamanda delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.


In September 2006, Half of a Yellow Sun was published by Alfred A. Knopf: with a rare blurb by one of the most revered writers then still working, Chinua Achebe. If there were questions of whether Chimamanda would live up to the hype, they died instantly. “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners,” writes Achebe, “but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. [She] knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. Her experimentation with the dual mandate of English and Igbo in perennial discourse is a case in point. Timid and less competent writers would avoid the complication altogether, but [she] embraces it because her story needs it. She is fearless, or would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made.” The blurb, much-cited in publishing, became symbolic: a Great Writer formally handing over to his successor; and was the front cover blurb for her two subsequent books. The acclaim was rapturous, the awards recognition prominent: it won the Orange Prize, the Anisfied-Wolf Book Award, the PEN “Beyond Margins” Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2015, it placed at No 10 in BBC Culture’s “The Greatest Novels of the 21st Century So Far,” and was chosen by The Independent Bath Literature Festival—who considered books in the year they were eligible for awards—as the Best Book of 2007.


At the Schomburg Center in New York Public Library, Zadie Smith moderated an insightful conversation with Chimamanda in which they discussed Americanah, writing, race, classism, racism, and the uneasy relationship between African Americans and Non-American blacks. The significance of the pairing was not lost on fans: the two leading black female novelists talking literature and politics and having fun.


Called upon for the Commonwealth Lecture themed “Connecting Cultures,” Chimamanda’s speech, “To Instruct and Delight: A Case for Realist Literature,” used analogies from childhood to paint of picture of the impact that literature could have in altering perceptions and bridging cultures.


Following years of controversies about her comments on the Caine Prize, black women’s hair, and every other controversy that comes with merely being Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she granted her most personal interview yet to Olisa TV. Divided into Parts One and Two, her opinions and clarifications were as unapologetic and candid as they’d always seemed.


As part of The New York Times’ commissioned tributes to Michelle Obama in October 2016, titled “To the First Lady, with Love,” Chimamanda paired observation and affection in pulsating prose that centered on Michelle’s efforts to balance her race, intellect, background and responsibility in the public glare. During her farewell interview with Michelle Obama in the White House, Oprah Winfrey said, “That was one of the most beautiful things I’d read about you. I thought she summed it up for all of us.” And Michelle said, “I wrote her a thank-you letter,” and then, “That, that was…that moved me.”


A year after its release, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o came calling for Americanah. It was optioned for film, to be produced by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B alongside Lupita and Andrea Calderwood who had produced Half of a Yellow Sun. Later, Golden Globe nominee and Selma star David Oyelowo was cast to play Obinze.

16. INCLUSION IN TIME 100 (2015)

In April 2015, TIME named Chimamanda among “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” Her profile, titled “Conjurer of Character,” was written by the magazine’s deputing managing editor Radhika Jones: “her greatest power is as a creator of characters who struggle profoundly to understand their place in the world.” Japan’s Haruki Murakami was the only other novelist included. Remarkably, when her friend Binyavanga Wainaina was named in the list in 2014, Chimamanda had written his profile.

Chimamanda with Half of a Yellow Sun director Biyi Bandele.


Director Biyi Bandele’s casting for Half of a Yellow Sun was superb, the acting committed: BAFTA winner Thandie Newton as Olanna, 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor as Odenigbo, the rising John Boyega as Ugwu, Anika Noni Rose as Kainene, Joseph Mawle as Richard, music icon Onyeka Onwenu as Mama, and Nollywood queen Genevieve Nnaji as Miss Adebayor. But Nigerians weren’t satisfied: Genevieve’s casting in a small role was irritating; and Thandie wasn’t black enough for her lead role. The critical reception might not have been enthusiastic but Chimamanda’s work had a new audience. Her only requirement had been that the film be shot in Nigeria.


Back in 2014, Chimamanda had defended Beyonce against critics: “Whoever says they’re feminist is bloody feminist.” But after two years of refusing to further discuss the Beyonce feature, Chimamanda, in an interview with the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, dropped this epic line: “Her type of feminism is not mine.” Critics of Beyonce’s feminism smiled, the Internet cried shade!, and a tussle began between the Bey Hive and The Society of Chimamanda’s Boys and Girls over who gained more from their collaboration.


Nine years after its publication, eight years after winning the Orange Prize, Half of a Yellow Sun was named the Baileys Prize’s “Best of the Best” for the 2006-15 decade. The honour, for the best ever novel to win the Baileys Prize in the ten years in focus, was decided by judges but in a fan-voted poll, Half of a Yellow Sun still came out on top. The honour was significant given that, in her home country of Nigeria, a new wave of the pro-Biafran movement had just begun.


Seven years after her last fresh work of fiction, Americanah arrived in April 2013. The question, for some, was: Did she top her last? But then Great Artists never repeat themselves. In Americanah, Chimamanda had set another standard in ambition, range and execution, and in arguably her best prose yet. It swept everything from race and class to blogging and hair, was trailed by critical acclaim. For The New York Times, “It never feels false,” and it was named among the Best Ten Books of 2013 on theirs and other lists, en route to taking the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction, and garnering her a then record-tying third shortlisting for the Baileys Prize. In 2015, it placed at No 13 in BBC Culture’s “The Greatest Novels of the 21st Century So Far.” It spent 78 weeks on NPR’s Paperback Bestseller List and reached No 179 on Amazon’s list of 10,000 bestselling books. By 2015, it had shifted 500,000 copies in the U.S. The book was featured in Season 4 of the hit TV series Orange Is the New Black.

Chimamanda holds her award after winning the Orange Broadband Price for Fiction. Photo credit: SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images.


Even before winning the Orange Prize, Chimamanda’s second novel had cemented her relevance on the global literary scene, critically and commercially, with UK sales perched at 187,000 paperback copies. After winning it, the book shifted 525,438 copies according to a 2010 Nielsen BookScan report. It remains the third bestselling Orange Prize winner ever, after Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, with all three novels having outsold every Booker Prize winner except Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.


In the heat of the U.S. presidential election, after her fictionalisation of Donald Trump, BBC Newsnight invited Chimamanda to discuss whether Trump had been racist. R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., editor of the conservative The American Spectator and a staunch Trump Supporter, was there, and quickly, things went awkward. His approach was condescending: “I don’t really respond to the election the way this lady does. I don’t respond to it emotionally.” Her clapback was an epic lecture on white and gender privilege: “I’m sorry but if you’re a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.” Afterwards, Tyrell Jr. published an angry, insular, (sexist!), pretentiously dismissive piece in The Washington Times. Chimamanda told her version of events on Facebook, about how she felt “ambushed” after not being told until the last minute there she would not be alone. “We’re sad and sorry,” BBC Newsnight commented with an apology.


Nominated by the actress Bebe Neuwirth and up against Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, 50,000 New Yorkers voted to make Americanah the book they would all read at once. The development, and the novel’s impending passage of the million mark, stirred a conversation on whether Americanah has become her signature novel. Afterwards, Orange Is the New Black actress Danielle Brooks met prison inmates and fans to discuss the novel.


Tapped by the United Nations for the keynote speech on World Humanitarian Day, Chimamanda went up there and, opening with a story of her parents’ accommodation by a friend during the Biafran War, unspooled pointed and elegant words about the need to see the humanity and complexity of others. “Nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing,” she said. “Let us tell a different story. Let us tell the story differently.” It was a reminder, as if one were needed, that storytelling, when applied rightly, does move us more than simple logic can.


When Chimamanda was called up to deliver the talk that, as TIME puts it, ensured she “found her voice as cultural critic” (sic), she was still writing it. But after she finished speaking, the world had awoken to the subtle ways in which women are belittled and dismissed, and feminism, with the overlooked instances she highlighted, began generating new, refreshing debates. It was here that her crossover began. Published as a booklet in 2014, it was made required reading for sixteen-year-olds in Sweden. A video from the 2017 Glamour Women of the Year Awards showed Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Hudson, Kristen Stewart, James Corden, Amy Poehler and Winnie Harlow performing excerpts from the talk.


In her first TED Talk, Chimamanda draws on her Igbo culture, her experiences in the U.S. and domestic stories of class divisions to explain how nkali, the concept of being greater than, births and sustains the reduction of whole cultures to stereotypes, making a powerfully persuasive case against the ill-informed treatment of Africa in the global discourse. It became one of the most viewed TED Talks and is currently at nine million views. Most importantly, it made her a talk sensation, led to years of sold-out arenas, and as Vogue puts it, began her change “from a successful author into a celebrity.”

Image from Vogue.


In a powerful statement, the fashion powerhouse Dior’s first female creative director in 70 years, Maria Grazia Chiuri, had models walking the runway at her Spring 2017 Collection show, wearing T-shirts imprinted with “We Should All Be Feminists.” While her words boomed from the speakers, Chimamanda, the show’s guest of honour, sat in the front row in the hall which had Rihanna, Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Moss, among other celebrity A-listers.


As though it wasn’t surprising enough that Beyonce dropped her self-titled fifth album unannounced, she went one further by scoring a collaboration with Chimamanda. The second verse on “***Flawless” comprises lines from “We Should All Be Feminists.” As unlikely as it would have seemed, it was a match made in fans’ heaven, one that peaked at the 2014 MTV VMAs when, during her performance, Beyonce perfected a power pose as Chimamanda’s words boomed in the arena. “I was immediately drawn to her,” Beyonce said. “She was elegant and her words were powerful and honest. Her definition of a feminist described my own feeling: equality of the sexes as it pertains to human rights, equal pay and sexuality. She called the men in her family feminists, too, because they acknowledged the need for equality.” The feature earned Chimamanda a Grammy nomination off the mother album, Beyonce.


In a video interview with Channel 4, in response to a question about the place of transgender women in feminism, Chimamanda said, “Trans women are trans women.” And not women? The backlash was swift, furious, merciless and deep. She made attempts at “clarifying,” twice, but the Internet was already ablaze, birthing countless think pieces on how trans people are misunderstood, simplified and reduced.


The announcement of Chimamanda as the new face of the makeup company Boots No7 was surprising on several levels—she was a writer, she was a feminist—and, amidst the cheers, raised concerns about the fate of intersectional feminism at the hands of capitalism. It didn’t matter so much, and CNN found itself asking: “Is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the Most Influential Woman in Africa Right Now?”


On the morning of October 16, Chimamanda surprised the world by dropping the most detailed, most relatable 9,000 words on feminism one can find anywhere. Her suggestions were practicable: they were powerful and persuasive. Was it a major statement, her posting on Facebook an essay that any A-list publication would be too happy to publish? Whatever it was, it did launch her social media visibility, and on that morning, we went mad with awe. On publication as a booklet in 2017, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions debuted at No 4 on The New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List and won the Le Grand Prix De L’heroine Madame Figaro, her first award for nonfiction. Her tour for the book saw fans displaying quotes from it and she herself slaying fashion looks.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, an academic, literary journalist, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Transition, and in an anthology of the Gerald Kraak Award for which he was shortlisted. His work has further been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2016 and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. He attended the 2018 Miles Morland Foundation Creative Writing Workshop. He is the curator of the ART NAIJA SERIES, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, ENTER NAIJA: THE BOOK OF PLACES (October, 2016), focuses on cities in Nigeria. The second, WORK NAIJA: THE BOOK OF VOCATIONS (June, 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. He studied History and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is currently completing a postgraduate programme in African Studies, and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. He has completed a collection of short stories, YOU SING OF A LONGING, and is working on a novel. He is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. When bored, the boy just Googles Rihanna.

2 Responses to “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: 25 Most Talked-About Moments of Her Career” Subscribe

  1. Walter 2017/09/14 at 12:14 #

    This is very detailed and comprehensive. And befitting for a woman who has made such a huge impact in Nigeria and the world beyond.
    Good work.

  2. Anthony Dim 2017/09/16 at 21:41 #

    This is very rich! Deserves a wider readership.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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