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Chimamanda Adichie on being unprepared for grief and how to deal with 'pain of absence'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: After a year of grief and sorrow for so many, a new book by acclaimed author Chimamanda Adichie explores the writer's recent personal sense of loss of a beloved father.

She was at her family home in Lagos, Nigeria, when she spoke with Jeffrey Brown for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Like families everywhere amid pandemic, the Nigerian-born Adichie family, spread across three continents, found a semblance of connection through Zoom.

Chimamanda Adichie: On 7 June, there was my father, only his forehead on the screen, as usual, because he never quite knew how to hold his phone during video calls.

"Move your phone a bit, daddy," one of us would say.

Jeffrey Brown: Days later, 88 year old James Nwoye Adichie was dead of complications from kidney failure.

Chimamanda Adichie: "On June 10, he was gone. My brother called to tell me. And I came undone."

Jeffrey Brown: The words are from "Notes on Grief" by James' daughter, Chimamanda, celebrated as one of the world's leading writers, author of novels such as "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Americanah."

Chimamanda Adichie: Culture does not make people. People make culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Her TED Talks "We Should All Be Feminists" and "The Danger of a Single Story," calling for an openness toward the culture of others, have attracted millions of viewers.

Chimamanda Adichie: I am a storyteller. I'm a believer in stories. And in trying to talk about the things I care about, feminism and how important it is to have a diverse sort of world, I use stories

And I think maybe people -- because there's something very universal about stories, and I think that's what maybe people respond to.

Jeffrey Brown: Now the story is her own in a deeply personal essay about losing her father last year.

Chimamanda Adichie: I'm only starting to realize how much of my sense of comfort in the world comes from having been raised by him and by my mother.

And so, in some ways, maybe what I would also like for people to get out of this is how important it is to be -- and I know this sounds really cliche -- but how important it is to be a good parent. And I wanted this book to be a tribute to what it means to be a father. He was so present and so patient. And he gave us room to be who we were.

Jeffrey Brown: James Adichie studied mathematics in college in Nigeria, came to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. at Berkeley and then became Nigeria's first professor of statistics, a beloved teacher for decades, patriarch of a close-knit family.

You write in the book, grief is a cruel kind of education. What did you learn about grief that most surprised you?

Chimamanda Adichie: I was surprised to discover that I could laugh a day after my father died. And it was surprising to me that laughter is part of grief.

And I also realized how much anger I felt and still feel about losing my father. And I have just been surprised by how it is such a multifaceted thing. There are moments when I think I'm fine, and I will be fine, and there are moments when I think I'm just never going to be fine.

And I just was not prepared. I was not prepared for all of that.

Jeffrey Brown: As with so many millions losing loved ones, the pandemic added to the sense of remoteness, in her case, literal, as she was unable for months to leave her home in the U.S. to be with her extended family in Nigeria.

Chimamanda Adichie: There's a measure, I think, of the death of a loved one being unreal, feeling that it hasn't happened.

But when it's -- there's a kind of distance that -- Zoom calls and lockdowns and airports closed, it creates a kind of distance that makes it even more surreal.

Jeffrey Brown: Did your personal grief give you any better sense of how to confront the collective grief of the pandemic?

Chimamanda Adichie: I just feel a lot more compassion for different kinds of pain that people are going through, particularly this period, the pain of absence, because it's not just death.

It's also -- one of the things I think this pandemic has done is that it has frayed human connection, because we can't hug each other, and we don't see each other. And screens just don't -- it's just not the same thing.

Jeffrey Brown: In March, as this book was going to print, a second loss, the death of her mother, Grace.

The T-shirt she wore in our talk read "Daughter of Grace."

Well, does writing help? I mean, you're a writer, of course. So you write. But this seems more personal.

Chimamanda Adichie: It does help. Writing actually does help.

And when I teach writing, I like to say the standard thing, which is don't think of writing as therapy. But, actually, sometimes it is. And with this little book, which is really an essay, I found it very -- it was just my way of trying to find words.

I'm trying to, oh, I don't know, talk to myself, trying to make sense of things. Writing is -- language, in general, I think, is what I turn to as a reader and as a writer. And so I found it -- even after my mother died, I found myself trying to say the unsayable.

And writing is the only thing that helps me do that -- and reading, I should say, and reading as well.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "Notes on Grief."

Chimamanda Adichie, thank you very much.

Chimamanda Adichie: Thank you. It's lovely talking to you.

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