I was listening to the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie speak.
She was talking about when she was a little girl.
She discovered reading at a very early age and fell in love with books.
She devoured everything her parents could find.
In Nigeria, at that time, children’s books were mainly British.
When she was 7, she began writing.
Everything she wrote was about white children with blonde hair and blue eyes.
They all ate apples and drank lots of ginger beer.
They played in the snow and always discussed the weather.
They’d say, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if the sun came out today?”
She wrote all her stories like that, because that was what she’d read in British children’s books.
So she thought that was what characters in books had to be about.
Even though she had no idea what snow was.
Even though she didn’t know what apples or ginger beer were.
That was the world that existed inside books.
So, if you wanted to write books, that’s what you had to write about.
Of course, it was a different world to hers.
In her world little girls were black not white.
And they had kinky hair, not ponytails.
And they ate mangoes not apples.
And they never discussed whether the sun would come out.
Because it was always out, and scorching hot.
But books weren’t supposed to be about her world.
Books were about this fantasy world where these other children lived.
Then, when she was about 10, she read a book by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.
And it floored her.
It was a book about her world.
Suddenly the pages between the covers were full of everything she knew.
And she realised books didn’t have to be about someone else’s world.
She said, “For the first time I realised people who looked like me could live in books.”
And a new world of possibilities opened up for her.
She didn’t have to write about other people.
She could write about everything she knew.
She went to university in America, and got a Master’s degree in Creative Writing.
Then she got a Master’s degree in African Studies from Yale.
And she put them together to write about the world she knew.
Her first book won The Orange Prize.
Her second book was shortlisted for The Booker Prize.
She’s been named by The New Yorker as one of the best young writers in the world.
She received the MacArthur Fellowship Award (nicknamed ‘The Genius Award’).
She’s now a fellow at Harvard’s Institute For Advanced Studies.
She found success not in being a second best someone else.
She found it by discovering what made her different.
Not by looking at the rules for books and trying to copy them.
By looking at what she can offer that no one else is offering.
Not by being the same.
But by being an alternative.
Not by fitting in.
But by standing out.