'Americanah' Author Finds Connection to Duke Students in Talk

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Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie visited a class of Duke students Friday prior to her talk to the Class of 2018. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

It might not be obvious about how a story of new American immigrants might enchant incoming Duke students, but "Americanah" author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told an enthusiastic audience from the Class of 2018 Friday that students in transition can learn a lot from her own experience.

“Don’t try to be what you’re not. Be kinder to yourself; be kinder to other people. When I was 18, I was a bit of a smug know-it-all, and I hid my uncertainties [and]…I didn’t listen as very well…And I wish when I was 18, I had known to say, I don’t know. It really enriches your mind when you listen more than you talk.”

Speaking before a capacity crowd in Baldwin Auditorium, Adichie discussed her book, which focuses on the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, young lovers from Nigeria who seek their futures in America and England. Through the telling of their journeys, Adichie delves into issues of race, immigration, self-acceptance, cultural identity, and change.

The book was selected as the summer reading assignment for the Class of 2018.  The students held discussions on the book during orientation week, but the Baldwin Auditorium talk was their opportunity to directly address the author.

Adichie spoke briefly before opening the floor to the enthusiastic crowd. From the beginning, the examination of race propelled the dialogue. One student asked, “Can you explain more about what it meant for you to come to America and be black?”

“I think my experience is something that many immigrants who are black who come from the continent of Africa, or the Caribbean’s, or the continent of Europe can identify with because there’s a sense in which America’s racial categories can feel like a cage, and you feel yourself straining against it because the definition of blackness is so narrow," Adichie said. "It’s not even just that it’s so narrow, it’s so negatively narrow. I think black is many things, and what’s sad about this country is that, often, mainstream culture doesn’t seem to understand that.”

She added that it's possible to preserve one’s identity while giving oneself room to grow., “America gives you room to be yourself. Take ownership of that room. Don’t force yourself to be what you’re not.”   

For more on the event, click here.