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Arts and Culture

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Notes On Grief' Is A Raw Elegy For Her Father

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In June of 2020, as the pandemic shut down most of the world, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lost her father. James Nwoye Adichie had been a renowned professor of statistics in Nigeria and the patriarch of Adichie's large family. He was 88 years old and died suddenly of complications of kidney disease. Adichie has just written an essay-length book called "Notes On Grief" to memorialize her father. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "Notes On Grief" is a charged account of the passing of one particular human being. But it's also a narrative of mourning in the time of pandemic, an advance scout, if you will, of the legions of such narratives that will likely be appearing on the horizon for years to come. On June 10, 2020, when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a phone call from one of her brothers telling her of her father's death, she writes, I came undone. My 4-year-old daughter says I scared her. She gets down on her knees to demonstrate, her small, clenched fist rising and falling. And her mimicry makes me see myself as I was - utterly unraveling, screaming and pounding the floor.

This scene occurs on the second page of "Notes On Grief," and I confess that for a moment I stood back from Adichie's reaction. Adichie's father had lived a long and meaningful life, and he died quickly. No doubt it's a consequence of living through the devastation of this pandemic. The images of overflowing hospitals and patients on ventilators amplified by the tragic losses of some young people in my family's wider circle that briefly kept me at a remove from Adichie's despair upon her father's natural death. But, of course, her elderly father's death was not natural for his daughter.

As anyone knows who's read Adichie's work or watched her record-breaking TED Talks, "The Danger Of A Single Story" and "We Should All Be Feminists," Adichie's great strength is the authority of her voice, her moral and emotional centredness that draws the resistent close. Here, she insists on her right to desolation in response to the singular loss of her father. In this passage, Adichie describes dwelling in the twilight state of knowing but not knowing of the inevitability of his death. It's a state that many adult children of aged parents will recognize. (Reading) Perhaps my family unreasonably thought that his goodness, his being so decent, would keep him with us into his 90s. A thing like this dreaded for so long finally arrives. And among the avalanche of emotions, there is a bitter and unbearable relief. It comes as a form of aggression, this relief, bringing with it strangely pugnacious thoughts. Enemies, beware. The worst has happened. My father is gone. My madness will now bear itself.

"Notes On Grief" toggles back and forth between this kind of timeless reflection on loss and the strangeness particular to mourning in the time of pandemic. Adichie begins the book by telling readers that she, her siblings and her parents, scattered over England, Nigeria and America, held a family Zoom call every Sunday. On June 7, Adichie recalls 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. A few days and two pages later, she describes how one of her brothers is holding his phone over my father's face. And my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose. Our Zoom call is beyond surreal, all of us weeping and weeping and weeping in different parts of the world. From there on in, the missing Zoom square with the word dad is an oppressive absence in their family calls.

As centuries of writers have done, Adichie tries to resurrect her father through words, his kindness and dry humor. At the same time, she reflects that you learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language. Language best rises to the challenge in simple passages where Adichie captures her father's pride in her. Each time I traveled for speaking events, she tells us, I would send my itinerary and he would send texts to follow my progress. You must be about to go on stage, he would write. Go and shine.

This past March, "Notes On Grief" was already in press when Adichie's mother suddenly died. How does a heart break twice, she rhetorically asked in a letter she posted online. A world of readers, some of them struggling to come to terms with the vast sorrow of the pandemic, can empathize with both the stunned anguish contained in that question and in Adichie's raw elegy.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Notes On Grief" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. On the next FRESH AIR, Seth Rogen talks about his new memoir, which he describes as being about his grandparents, bar mitzvahs, Jewish summer camp and more stories about doing drugs than his mother would like. He says things about other famous people that he's sure will create awkward conversations at a party one day. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "ROSETTA")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "ROSETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.