GAITHERSBURG — Award-winning and world-renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke to an audience of about 1,000 people at Gaithersburg High School on Sept. 26 as part of the One Maryland One Book program.
Adichie is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award and her work has been translated into over 30 languages. She divides her time between nearby Columbia and Lagos, Nigeria.
The Maryland Humanities Council established the One Maryland One Book program 10 years ago to encourage Marylanders to read and discuss a certain book every year. A committee with the council chooses a book that aligns with the year’s theme. This year’s book is “Purple Hibiscus” by Adichie and the theme is “Home & Belonging.”
This year, there are 350 programs in the state focused on this book, including three events with the author, said Phoebe Stein, executive director of Maryland Humanities.
“Purple Hibiscus” is a coming-of-age novel that follows the account of 15-year-old Kambili as she navigates a fraught relationship with her abusive father during political upheaval in Nigeria. Kambili and her brother spend time together living in two different homes: one with their parents, and another with their aunt who, while having less money than Kambili’s family, has a home full of laughter and life. The novel tackles themes such as colonization, religious hypocrisy and gender and family dynamics.
During the first half of the event, the author engaged in a moderated discussion about her book as well as her feminist ideology.
“I feel there’s an innocence in that book that I’ve lost, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” Adichie said. “…I’m no longer that person who wrote that book.”
Adichie wrote “Purple Hibiscus” during her senior year of college at Eastern Connecticut State University when she felt homesick for her home in Nigeria.
“That book for me is about nostalgia, a romanticized remembering,” she said. “There’s a romanticizing in the way that you miss home. What you remember isn’t so much home as it is a construction of home.”
She addressed the relationship between silence and violence in the book.
“I wanted to write about many things, one of which was the idea that you love somebody that’s harming you, and somehow you’ve been socialized to accept it.”
She also discussed why she supports using the term “feminist” when discussing women’s rights issues, rather than more generic terms such as “universalist” or “humanist.”
“You have to name the problem in order to solve it,” she said. “…It’s important to call yourself a feminist because the problem is gender. The problem is that one-half of the world have been oppressed and suppressed and they have not been granted the same courtesies that men have been granted.”
Adichie received a round of applause following her comments on feminism, as she did for many of her other statements that night.
She talked about her latest book “Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” and how she is using her advice from the book to raise her own daughter.
She also gave advice to aspiring writers.
“In order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader,” she said, adding that writing “gives meaning to my life.”
A question-and-answer session with the audience followed the moderated discussion. Many participants thanked her for helping them discover their own identities through her writing.
“I wanted to thank you as an immigrant who came here four years ago from Cameroon,” one participant said. “…I wanted to let you know that you have changed my life as an African immigrant and shown me that I can do more.”
The Q&A session covered many topics, including Adichie’s inspiration for her characters, the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL, whether Adichie is considering writing any children’s books (she is), her writing process and Nigerian politics.
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, founder of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, attended the event. “We’ve been trying to get her at the book festival for years, so when [One Maryland One Book] announced they’d have her, we [Gaithersburg] wanted to be one of the hosting places,” he said.
He said that Adichie has a “message that resonates with this diverse community.”
Andrea Lewis, a program officer with Maryland Humanities, said the book can also connect with readers on a personal level about family dynamics.
“Maybe you have not been to Africa, or maybe you don’t know a lot about African culture or the food in Africa that are all a part of this book, but what we hope will resonate with you is this look inside the dynamics of this family,”Lewis said.
Najma Stubblefield, a Germantown resident, attended the event with her two daughters, ages 9 and 13.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for it to be in your backyard,” she said. “The fact that it’s right next door, she’s a phenomenal author, I thought it would be a great introduction to the girls as well…For them to be able to see an author who is of African descent and for my 9-year-old (who) enjoys writing herself, it’s a great opportunity.”
Maryland Humanities, Montgomery College, the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Montgomery County Public Libraries and Montgomery County Public Schools sponsored the event.