It’s the rare novelist who in the space of a year finds her words sampled by Beyoncé, optioned by Lupita Nyong’o and honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. But the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is just that sort of novelist. A MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, Adichie writes of the complex aftermath of Nigeria’s colonial history and her nation’s rise to prominence in an era when immigration to the West no longer means a one-way ticket. With her viral TEDxEuston talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” she found her voice as cultural critic. (You can hear it rising midway through Beyoncé’s woman-power anthem “Flawless.”) She sets her love stories amid civil war (Half of a Yellow Sun) and against a backdrop of racism and migration (Americanah). But her greatest power is as a creator of characters who struggle profoundly to understand their place in the world.
Jones is a deputy managing editor of TIME