The New Yorker Festival: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Yiyun Li

By Jane Ciabattari

Nigerian born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has built upon the early promise of her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” which was shortlisted for the 2004 Orange Prize and won a Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book, with a complex and deeply felt novel of the Biafran war, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” which was a National Book Critics Circle finalist in fiction a few years back. Dubbed “Chinua Achebe’s granddaughter” by one critic, she lives within three cultures—Nigerian, British, American—and explores the brew of contradictions among them with piercing vision. I talked with her in June about her work. Friday night she was in New York to read from her 2009 short story collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck” for the first-night crowd at The New Yorker Festival. Her fans were out in legions (one even suggested a Nobelist in the making during the question session).

Seated alone onstage at Le Poisson Rouge, a Village club with an exquisite sound system and theatrical lighting (not to mention free tequila shots—their motto is “art and alcohol” and their usual performers bring instruments instead of books), she captivated the audience with a selection that alternated between irony, pathos and wit. With a rich voice and self-assured posture, she read a section from her story “Cell One,” set in the university town of Nsukka, and narrated by a woman whose pampered brother digs himself deeper and deeper into trouble.

“This was the season of thefts on our serene campus. Boys who had grown up watching ‘Sesame Street,’ reading Enid Blyton, eating cornflakes for breakfast, and attending the university staff primary school in polished brown sandals were now cutting through the mosquito netting of their neighbors’ windows, sliding out glass louvres, and climbing in to steal TVs and VCRs. We knew the thieves.

(Adichie left us to discover later that the story has an eye-opening and powerful conclusion). (Read the story, first published in Zoetrope as “You in America,” here. 
Adichie ended with an excerpt from the title story. Its opening lines—”“You believed that everybody in America had a car and a gun. Your uncles and aunts and cousins believed it too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you, ‘In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans’.’”—set up the second person point of view that she uses fluidly and to great effect throughout this story about a young Nigerian immigrant whose choking loneliness—that thing that wrapped itself around her neck—is eased, temporarily, by a relationship with a wealthy young man who finds her exotic.

First up was Beijing-born Yiyung Li, whose first story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” won the PEN/Hemingway award, and whose novel, “The Vagrants,” was published earlier this year. She surprised us by reading sections from a new novella called “Kindness” inspired by William Trevor’s “Nights at the Alexandra.” (Read her New Yorker story “A Man Like Him” here.)

“I hope this makes sense,” she said, adjusting the microphone several inches downward. “I’ll read three storylines in the narrator’s life—growing up in Beijing, as a girl; serving in in the Chinese army, and flashbacks about her parents.” The novella begins quietly: “I’m a 41 year old woman living in the same apartment where I have always lived….” We learn of the narrator’s mother, a beautiful woman with a “cherry petal mouth,” forced into a choice at age 20—-marriage to a man 30 years older or an insane asylum for “nymphomania.“The narrator learns these details from older professor/neighbor who teaches her English by reading: “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” “Return of the Native,” “Jude the Obscure,” and, when she is 16, the novels and stories of D.H. Lawrence.  Somehow, in a rush at times, focused as much on the page as on her audience, Li brought a patchwork of passages from the story to a touching conclusion.