The text message came, ” We’re having a reading at the British Library, this evening, will you come?” As the British Library was just a stone throw from the College where I was studying and, as productivity was diminishing at five-thirty on a glorious summer afternoon, I agreed. The text message was from my friend Chimamanda Adichie, whose first novel, Purple Hibiscus had (in the words of the British press) “stormed” the 2004 Orange Prize shortlist. Arriving at the towering imperious hulk that is the British Library, a veritable monument to books and knowledge, I made my way to the Reception where a large sign read Orange Prize Shortlist Reading.
Picking up my ticket, I made my way upstairs where a large display of the six books had been set up. A large crowd, mostly women, of all ages had gathered in the foyer, and as I chatted to Sarah, my classmate, a big fan of Chimamanda’s who had managed to wring a ticket out of the Orange machine at very short notice, I looked around for familiar faces. Spotting my younger brother, Chinazo who had originally many years ago, first introduced me to Chimamanda, I moved to his side, where we were soon joined by Chimamanda who seemed excited that she had support from her Nsukka childhood days in the audience. Having just returned from the Hay Literary Festival, an exhausting round of interviews and readings, she complained of exhaustion, even though her characteristic poise belied her grumbling. As the six authors posed for photographs holding their books, the magnitude of her achievement struck me. She looked almost incongruous, out of place – this young black woman in the line up of largely white middle-aged women. Photographs done, I noticed her lean solicitously towards Shirley Hazzard, the oldest of the authors and offer to return her book to the display table. Inwardly I thought, “Her mother would be proud, the respect for elders drummed into us as children still resonates”.
Moving into the theatre where the readings were to take place, the chair of the judges panel, Sandy Toksvig, a popular television personality and comedian, welcomed us with several jokes. Margaret Atwood was the only author absent, apparently it was her mother’s ninety-fifth birthday and there was a huge family celebration in Canada. Interestingly, at this point, she was the betting agencies’ favourite for the Prize.
Rose Tremain began the readings with a passage from The Colour, her 11th book, which is set in New Zealand. Before she began, she talked a bit about how she was inspired to write the novel during a visit to New Zealand and how she struggled, wondering whether it was a story best told by a native. In the end claiming the writer’s privilege to construct people and places, she went ahead. Her reading was cool, measured and experienced, recreating a New Zealand town in the middle of a gold rush in the nineteenth century. The next author to read was Gillian Slovo, daughter of the South African apartheid hero Joe Slovo. Her novel, The Ice Road, set in Russia in the nineteen thirties provoked a question from Sandy on whether there was an unwritten rule that books about Russia had to be huge. She retorted that the massive size and variety of the country compels this. Her reading was warm and evocative, spawning the past and the present. As she sat to applause, Sandy introduced Chimamanda, asking if she felt that being shortlisted was a burden or a blessing. Chimamanda replied that she was delighted to be shortlisted, particularly if it meant a wider audience would read and appreciate her work. She then read the opening chapter of her book which begins with the memorable lines that pay tribute to Achebe: “Things began to fall apart in our household when….” She was poised, and read in a clear, cool voice that earns her applause. Her reading was Andrea Levy, British born of Jamaican parents, who reads from her book, Small Island in a Jamaican accent which draws laughter and applause. She is followed by Shirley Hazzard whose book, The Great Fire apparently took eighteen years to write. An elegant elderly woman, she read in a gracious, comported tone, from her work set in Asia where she was brought up. The final reading is by Diana Quick, an actress who reads from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake set in the future. Sandy introduced her by joking about the radical plastic surgery we would have noticed that Margaret Atwood had had. Her reading, as expected of a professional, did justice to the work, redolent with a dark, forbidding humour.
The floor was then thrown open for questions. A woman asked whether the prevalence of books set in the past or in far away places was a conscious decision of the judges. Sandy denied any such bias. Rose Tremain reinforced the answer by adding that writers often felt a need to write about themes that transcended time and place, as they tended to endure, as opposed to contemporary fashion. The next question from a man asked whether a “chick lit” novel could have made the short list. Sandy did not mince words in saying no, making reference to the guiding themes of excellence and originality. The final question was directed at Chimamanda and asked if her opening line was a conscious tribute to Achebe, and whether she was consciously extending his tradition. She calls him the writer who has had the greatest influence on her writing and is flattered by any allusions to her extending the tradition.
As the crowd spills out into the foyer where the book signings are taking place, I am introduced to Jason Cowley, a journalist and former judge on the Caine Prize panel and Mitzi, Chimamanda’s editor. I tell them how proud we all are of Chimamanda’s achievements, sentiments that they both share. Several booksellers come up to Chimamnda asking her to sign several copies of her book, a sign that perhaps there is a demand for them. I make a mental note to guard my autographed copy more firmly.
We make our way back to her hotel on Cromwell Road for a quick drink, and as we sit in the lobby, waiting an unconscionably long time to be served, we talk about her forthcoming trip to Nigeria, the experiences of immigrants in the West and what the Orange Prize tour has been like. We talk about anything but the award ceremony tomorrow. I am torn between attending and putting in more study hours.
The next day, I decide to attend – such privileges are rare to come by. It is the hottest day of the year and I am glad I am wearing a short sleeved Mandela-type shirt. As I walk to the huge tent erected on the bank of the Thames with my brother, we run into Wale Adebanwi and Molara Wood, Nigerian writers also headed to the event. Walking down the red carpet and having our names ticked off the guest list, we enter a recreated English summer garden with green lawns, flowers, deck chairs and straw-boater wearing waiters circulating with glasses of Pimm’s the quintessential English summer cocktail. Making our way further into the tent, I spot Grayson Perry, this year’s winner of the Turner Prize, dressed as is his wont in a little girl’s attire down to the bow in his hair and ankle socks. There is no sign of his wife and daughter who had accompanied him to the Turner Prize award.
As we circulate, Chimamanda appears dressed in a stunning strapless yellow dress. “It was as close to orange as I could get” she jokes. Kathy Lette, an English writer walks over and says “That dress is so sexy”. We all laugh. A little knot of supporters surround her, her editor, publicist, agent, her brother Chuks and his wife, Tinuke, Mr Kenyon – an old English Nigeriaphile, my group, Tolu Somolu, a journalist and Binyavanga Wainana, Kenyan winner of the Caine Prize in 2002 and a close friend of Chimamanda’s. I tease Binyavanga that Nigeria will win the Caine Prize this year – Chika Unigwe has been shortlisted. “Ah,” he retorts, “but Kenya has one nominee and Uganda has two, and my mother is Ugandan, so I have a double interest” We laugh again.
It is getting to 6.45 and we make our way towards the podium where the announcements are to be made. The co-founder of the Orange Prize, Kate Mosse welcomes everyone and traces the history of the prize, pointing out that from next year, a new prize for first time female authors will be introduced. Sandy Toksvig then thanks everyone, Orange for the opportunity, the writers for their work and the guests for coming. The rest of the judges join her on stage after a few brief remarks from the Executive Vice President of Orange. Each author is called on stage in alphabetical order, while a brief video interpretation of her work is shown. They then receive a bouquet of flowers and specially bound copies of their books. As at the readings and on all the posters, Chimamanda is wrongly placed under the letter “N” for Ngozi her middle name rather than “A” for Adichie, her surname.
Nevertheless, it is soon her turn to get up on stage and get her flowers. The tension is rising, among the audience it is almost palpable. I scan the audience for the various nominees, they all look poised and unruffled. Sandy bounces to the podium, rips open an envelope and announces the winner for this year as… Andrea Levy with Small Island. Ms Levy is evidently gob smacked, as she makes her way to the stage. She laments that she has forgotten who to thank, but names, her agent, her editor, her husband and the Orange Prize. She poignantly says “There’s a place not many people go in their lifetime which is beyond their wildest dreams and that’s where I am right now”
As she makes her way down the podium, the other authors move to congratulate her. I join the circle around Chimamanda, as she is congratulated by various members of the audience. A journalist asks for her reaction, and she describes how honoured and privileged she feels to have made the long list and the shortlist. She is grateful and hopeful, knowing that she still has a lot ahead of her. I tease her saying I expect to be invited to a lot more award ceremonies. She laughs.
As we make our way to the restaurant where her publishers have kindly asked us to dinner, I reflect on the Orange advertising slogan “The future is bright, the future is Orange”