Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a literary star, TED Talk supremo and fiery author of a viral-hit essay entitled We Should All Be Feminists. Added to this pile of achievements, she’s also a poised beauty, anointed brand muse by Dior and hailed by Beyoncé, who featured her feminist rallying cry in her song, Flawless. Not since Erica Jong’s 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, which reignited the second wave of feminism, has a writer become as well known for her real-life views as her fictional ones. Perhaps it’s this near-perfect package of brains, contemporary feel and style that leads me to get off on the wrong foot. When Adichie emerges from her London hotel room, dazed from relentless traveling, I congratulate her on her latest award and ask her if she’ll be hanging it in the loo. The prize winner is sitting opposite me in black jeans on giraffe-long legs, sloppy sweater and turban. There is no discernible makeup except for some enviably long lashes – which she bats in evident astonishment and murmurs: “Why would I do that?” I explain that awards-in-loos is something British writers do, to indicate that they are successful, but not so vain as to be showing off. Mercifully, Adichie grasps the idea, throws back her elegant head and laughs uproariously.
“I’m a bit slow,” she explains after a schedule that has taken her from her birth country, Nigeria, to the UK and criss-crossing the States (where she currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her Nigerian doctor husband, Ivara Esege, and their young daughter) to give the sort of talks that have turned her from a promising writer into one of the most sought-after lecturers on the book tour and campus circuits. She’s revived by crimson-colored hibiscus tea – fittingly, since her breakthrough novel of 2003, published when she was just 26, and which tells the story of a culturally and religiously fraught Nigerian family, was entitled Purple Hibiscus. Adichie is one of those rare writers who seems to arrive fully-formed among the global literati. The author Salman Rushdie recalls his reaction the first time he heard one of her early oratory performances. “What was so striking was her confidence and authority,” he says. “She very much held her own, and spoke fluently and powerfully, and all of us there that day could see that someone very remarkable had just arrived – that a star was born.”
He wasn’t wrong. Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Her second, Half Of A Yellow Sun, a reference to the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, brought international acclaim, more awards and a film adaptation featuring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. So too did 2013’s Americanah, in which she dissects the experiences of a Nigerian immigrant in the US who eventually returns home. And last year, she published an essay, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, based on correspondence with a friend back home, who had asked her for advice on how to raise an empowered daughter.
I say things that don’t quite fit with the ‘sisterhood’. Some feminists, some friends of mine, get a bit angry with me because of that. I like the idea of a sisterhood, but I don’t elevate it to some universal magical sisterhood”
Her wider significance is that she’s made debates on how diversity and feminism should work in practice sound inviting and attractive, outside the beltway of the already convinced or stern-faced activists. One of Adichie’s mercurial charms – and a good part of her success – is that she moves from being a reflective intellectual and passionate advocate to plain enthusiast who has an open curiosity about the other person’s viewpoint. Ideas, I venture, seem to act as a pick-me-up for her. “Yes! Yes!” she cries. “I think writing is a bit magical. When I’m having a good day of writing, I feel I can take on everything. It’s a mood drug.”
Chimamanda-speak is a distinctive, enunciated delivery, enabling her to give lectures that sound natural, but belie a knack to hold an audience in thrall to her complex ideas. Committing thoughts to paper was a habit she acquired young, growing up in an academic family with a passion for books. In the context of post-colonial Africa, that meant “a lot of books about girls at boarding school in England, which was very odd, when you consider that none of us had the faintest idea about that, and we were these little girls with brown faces and curly hair, reading about girls with white faces and ponytails.” The incongruity stayed with her – and inspired another famous lecture, The Danger of a Single Story, which placed her at the forefront of another important debate. It stemmed, she says, from recognizing “that we grew up in a world in which things from the West were just valued more. I do think it affects sense of self in a way that does subtle damage to the way we see ourselves.”
I wonder how she views, say, Enid Blyton, a favorite author she used to devour in the library. “I like the worlds she created. I wanted to be in the circus or The Famous Five, and I had this hankering for ginger beer – which turned out to be a bit disappointing when I tasted it!” Enid Blyton has long been on the naughty step of progressive opinion, I venture. “I know she was supposed to be terrible and a racist, but I enjoyed her books. I’m not someone who goes around trying to disapprove of writers; it’s the lack of choice and differing point of view that matters, and which I want to highlight.”
It could all sound a bit earnest were it not for Adichie’s way of delivering her thoughts, which are peppered with irreverent shafts of humor and a wide range of British “bloodys” and the odd American-inflected “F-it”. Not to mention the excursion she and multi award-winning novelist of You Shall Know Our Velocity and The Circle Dave Eggers went on together, and which he later recounted when he interviewed her for a cover story in The New York Times’s T Magazine.
She tells me about her search for a book with a dark-skinned main character to start introducing her toddler daughter to reading, or finding an alphabet book starting with “A is for Activist”, about a child going on a protest march with her mother. Perhaps she should start writing them herself, I suggest. “I don’t want her to think blackness is synonymous with political activism or being angry – it’s just ordinary and fun.”
At the same time, she’s very happy to speak out against cultural norms she considers damaging. In an essay on hair, she recalls how she and her sisters were regularly subjected to having their unruly manes brushed with painful metal combs to obey the Nigerian traditions of how they should look. When her sister offered to send the robust combs for her own daughter, she replied: “No, thank you. I’m not going to conform in that way. I’m not going to have my child go through pain because society expects neatness.”
It reminds me, as fashion magazines are being called to account for retouching the hair of black models, that Adichie is often streets ahead in identifying subjects that break out of the margins and enter into public debate. It’s happened with her passionate embrace of why feminism can only succeed if men are persuaded to make common cause with issues, such as those that have arisen following the Harvey Weinstein revelations, about how women’s stories of bias or sexual exploitation in general are all too often instinctively distrusted. “People will say, ‘Oh, are you sure?’ – their first response is skepticism.” But she judges that this is changing, and when I challenge the #MeToo movement of women coming out to share their own experiences, she defends it. “Yes, it is late, but there is a power in mass movements and recognitions of wrongs, so let’s not be cynical.” She believes Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg as “a cartoon of how to abuse women” but that the harder task will be rooting out subtle discriminations and exploitations.
Her first experience of feminism came via a childhood friend who lived on her street, whom she would play with after school. After one stand-off, he cried crossly: “You are a feminist.” She giggles at the memory: “And I really didn’t know what he meant,” so I said, ‘Yes, I’m a feminist.’ You should have seen his face. Then I went home to look up what it meant. And the more I read about it, the more I thought: yes, I really am. So I was a feminist before I knew the word.” I tell her that my own early immersion in the subject of feminism came from reading miserable tomes written by Marge Piercy or Marilyn French, which turned me away from the feminist section in bookstores for a while. How does she avoid preaching to the converted? “I agree there was a sense that we weren’t taking people with us in the argument, especially men,” she says, not entirely addressing the question. Her background, however, was storytelling, rather than politics. After gaining a prized place to study medicine at the University of Nigeria, she pestered her alarmed parents to take literature in America instead and sent off applications “really not knowing much about the whole business at all, except that America was the aspirational center of the world.”
She speaks warmly of her Nigerian family – an academic statistician father, university registrar mother and close-knit brood of six siblings, ranging from doctors to IT consultants, of which she is the fifth youngest. “They’re all sensible people; I was the strange one who wanted to write.” Her stories are full of evocations of the sounds and smells and foodstuffs of her upbringing. “Igbo people her ethnic group native to south-central and south-eastern Nigeria have phrases that can say a lot in an implication, or suggest a lot of feelings in a few words. That’s great for writers.” But what were the chances of Half of a Yellow Sun, a book by a young author about a post-colonial society, riven by the Biafran war, succeeding in the way it did on a global platform. It must have seemed a hard sell when she started out.
When I ask if she considers herself African-American, she bristles and says: “No, I don’t. I don’t have a US passport – I’m a Nigerian who likes to spend time in the US.” But it wasn’t easy at first. She recalls a dorm-mate in her first year at college in Philadelphia asking her if she knew how to use a stove. “I was furious, thinking: ‘But our stove at home is more modern than that contraption!’ It had never occurred to my roommate that someone from Africa could be more than a charity case.” Fellow students seemed to think that Africa was “a place that had lions or poor people with Aids”, so she was always having to frustratingly explain her background, how Africa is made up of multiple, culturally different countries, rather than the one homogenous mass they all assumed it to be. I wonder if, as she’s made her way to the critics’ sections of The New York Times and the front tables of the best bookshops, she and the roommate ever mended fences, or whether bruises over the “stove” incident still linger. “Let’s just say I haven’t forgotten her name.”
One thing that intrigues me about Adichie is her keen interest in fashion, particularly for a writer associated with strong causes. This was highlighted when her “We should all be feminists” slogan was adopted by Dior’s artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who sent models down the catwalk at her inaugural 2015 show with the slogan emblazoned on plain white T-shirts and handbags. Did she have doubts about turning up to fashion shows or fear that her core audience might think it frippery? “As well as being flattered, I thought it might start a conversation or inspire someone, so why not?” Fashion clearly comes naturally to her. She often gives speeches wearing beautifully striking Nigerian clothes to support home-grown designers. The Dior connection means she can borrow dreamy dresses for special events. “So I am a muse!” she laughs heartily at the notion.
It’s as simple as men keeping their hands to themselves. Really, I don’t want to live in a world where it is the responsibility of women to ‘handle’ men who make advances they don’t want. If it needs to be a battle zone, then let it be one”
Because she’s so comfortable with the link, she avoids the awkwardness that often hangs around clever women admitting to a love of fashion. “I think a lot of people in intellectual circles think fashion people are, you know, a bit dumb, but I haven’t found that at all.” But surely parts of the industry have challenges of their own when it comes to the portrayal of women? “Absolutely,” she says, agreeing. “I think a lot of models are too skinny and could do with being a size bigger. It can be quite unattractive, I think. Things are moving, and I hope they move more – but you have to get a critical mass of people to agree.”
On race and fashion, she’s less forgiving of the delay. “For too long the view has been, ‘We already have a black model’, as if one is all you need.” More racial diversity in the fashion press is, she reckons, “a moral obligation, and if the sales aren’t great at first, then you might have to go through that. But fashion has such broad appeal, we can change the status quo. If you put me in charge, I could find the models and sell the issues!”
More irritating to her, I sense, is the notion that being interested in fashion is unworthy of those with leftist consciences. “In some ways, fashion is the true meaning of democracy. You can see women in Nigeria, with really low incomes, but beautifully dressed and proud of their appearance.” When I ask her who she’s fond of wearing at the moment, she says she’s going through a “fashion nationalist” moment and points me to her Instagram of Nigerian designers. “My defense is, I’m bringing aspects of Africa to the global stage. But, fundamentally, I’m having fun too,” she admits, with a smile. If she has a quest at the moment, in an America riven by divisions around the Trump presidency, it is to keep debates lively on feminism, race and the difficult stuff of democracies, where we often grow tired of challenging themes. She’s courted controversy with the American Left, who she refers to as “my natural tribe.” “The assumptions run quite deep that you will think the same. And I want to make the case that it’s okay not to know something, or to use the wrong or not approved word. The important thing is to be curious.
“I do have an awkward relationship with parts of the Left in America,” she continues. “I say things that don’t quite fit with the ‘sisterhood’. Some feminists, actually, some friends of mine, get a bit angry with me because of that. I like the idea of a sisterhood, for instance, but I don’t elevate it to some universal magical sisterhood.” So, can women be misogynistic, too? “Yes, I think so, which is why I don’t buy the sisterhood idea. But, more optimistically, men can be feminists. And if they’re not, we’ll never get anywhere because we’re in this mix together.” Her end goal, she told The Guardian a couple of years ago, is for women “to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.”
Because she is so refreshingly outspoken, she often ends up in hot water, recently with transgender activists, about whether a biological man who identifies as a woman or makes the transition via surgery is the same as a ‘born woman’. “So much noise,” she groans, though she stands her ground on the substance of the distinction. But, the result of all this outspokenness was serious – she found herself needing extra security at book launches. And she’s since given up on Twitter and Facebook: “I banned myself. Now if I need to know something, someone else tells me. My friends are pretty protective. Some friendships became strained, but it happened her row with transgender activists and it was a learning experience.”
Gender, in her view, is “what the world does to you.” Really? Is there not a part of us that is (other than in transgender cases) one sex or another, in ways that we don’t always understand, but aren’t driven or shaped by social construction? “I don’t have a female soul,” she retorts, “I just have a bloody soul. Otherwise how can we account for the diversity among women? There are plenty of things girls are supposed to want to do that I don’t want to do. And last time I checked, I was a woman.”
Victim-blaming is something that exercises her a lot. She tells of the recent case of a woman brutally raped in Nigeria who didn’t want to report it “because she did not want to be known as ‘that woman who was raped’. And you know, I started to think, Would I feel like that, too?” I think I would, even though I live in far more progressive circles. The stigma becomes like a second crime, and we have to tackle that.”
She says she still comes across far too many cases where a young woman is implicitly blamed for being drunk when assaulted, or wearing provocative clothes. “I think it’s a distraction from the main point, which is that young men need to be brought up to think, It’s just not okay to force sex on women.” I suggest that, while many men and women will nod along with this, they may inwardly fret that the ease of flirtation or mild boundary-pushing is now under threat in our more watchful era. It’s a risk she thinks we need to take “because in the end, it’s as simple as men keeping their hands to themselves. Really, I don’t want to live in a world where it is the responsibility of women to ‘handle’ men who make advances they don’t want.” She sounds like she’s armed for a battle zone, I tell her. “If it needs to be a battle zone, then let it be one,” she answers.
We’ve been chatting for nearly two hours and I finally feel comfortable enough to tell her that I had somehow imagined, after consulting all those TED Talks and Instagram shots of her, that she would have arrived dressed in a colorful Nigerian-print outfit, complete with glam headdress.” I promise you the next time you see me, I will be in the full regalia,” she hoots. As she heads back home, I wonder if the Adichie household practices what she preaches on equal division of domestic work. “I think so, and a small child makes that easier. But I can’t help noticing, with friends who have older kids, how the boys get a lot of praise for what they do – more than a girl ever would. So you know, when I was helping bring up my nephew, my refrain was, “Make your own damn bed!”
Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist
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