Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In Her Own Words
There is no doubt that Chimamanda Adichie has influenced millions of people around the world. Incredibly gifted and opinionated, the Nigerian novelist’s influence transcends literature. From being featured on Beyonce’s Grammy-nominated album, Lemonade to having one of her novels Half Of A Yellow Sun being adapted into a film in 2013 and now recognised as the first Nigerian and youngest African to be honoured with the United Nations Foundation Global Leadership Award.
Revered and celebrated home and abroad, Adichie is well aware of her influence and the criticisms that greet some of her opinions. She discusses this, feminism and her writing in this exclusive interview with The Guardian Life.
On researching and writing on the Biafran war
Both my grandfathers died in refugee camps in Biafra. My parents lost almost everything they owned. After the war ended, my parents were driving back to Nsukka to try and pick up the pieces of their lives in the university when Nigerian soldiers stopped them.
The soldiers noticed that my father was wearing glasses and they slapped him and made him carry cement blocks, to humiliate him because they said the educated Biafrans were the so-called rebel leaders.
The war was about big losses and deprivations but also about small humiliations like that slap. While researching my novel, I had all of these in mind. I knew I was dealing with real things that had real consequences on people’s lives.
I read every book published about Biafra. I looked at newspaper cuttings and video clips in library archives. I listened to old radio broadcasts. I interviewed many people. And very often, in the process of writing, I stopped to cry. It was deeply emotional. I felt the presence of my grandfathers as I wrote. I also often felt pride at what ordinary Biafrans were able to achieve – local refining of crude oil, local manufacturing, a sense of community.
Sometimes, looking at something in a library archive, I would feel a heavy sadness and sometimes just give myself time to cry. I am still heartbroken that the injustices have not fully been addressed – there are buildings today in Port Harcourt that were labeled abandoned property and forcefully taken away from Igbo owners. Very wealthy Igbo people were given only fifty pounds at the end of the war because Biafran currency was no longer valid.
Igbo people were unable to benefit from many of the indigenization policies of the government. Igbo people are not the only ones who have suffered in Nigeria, many other ethnic groups have suffered at the hands of the Nigerian state, but it is important to acknowledge past injustice and how it still shapes Nigeria today.
On Connection With Characters
I feel a strong connection to Aunty Ifeoma in PURPLE HIBISCUS because she is in many ways my ideal woman. I admire Kainene in HALF OF A YELLOW SUN because she is mysterious and dares to live her life outside the constraints of convention. And I love Obinze in AMERICANAH: a thoughtful kind funny sexy man and a lover of books.
Ifemelu she decided that it took too much of an effort to speak in a way that didn’t come naturally to her.
That said, many people take on American accents in the US as a means of survival, so it’s too easy to criticise them.
When you live in a country that is often hostile or condescending to foreignness, you just want to adapt and survive and sometimes taking on the accent is one way to do that.
Being one of the most celebrated African writers in the last decade has given Adichie a platform with global acclaim. Her writings are not only topical, they also help put aspect of Nigerian history in proper perspective.
Interest In Politics
I believe in ‘never say never’ but this is one place where I think I can say ‘never.’ It is important to get involved in politics because we cannot complain endlessly and not get involved but I think there are many others in my generation who will be better at politics that I would be. I am a storyteller, a writer, a thinker.
I would make a bad politician because I am not very good at compromising on things I don’t believe in, and the reality of leadership is that you have to necessarily compromise on things you might not fully agree with. I would, however, be happy to be an advisor to a candidate whose vision I believe in.
I was born and raised in Nigeria. I now live partly in Lagos and partly in the US. I have always spoken my mind. As a child, I was known for speaking my mind. There are women in Nigeria today who are strong and speak their minds.
It has nothing to do with where you live. It is a question of what you are willing to forfeit. Following convention and silencing yourself and doing only what people expect of you and not what you want to do can win you praise but at what emotional cost?
Although Chimamanda is widely known as a storyteller, she once opined that she would not mind being referred to as a feminist writer. ‘ “I’m very feminist in the way I look at the world, and that world view must somehow be part of my work.” Even though feminism is constantly being disparaged, Adichie thinks everyone should be a feminist.
As the face of feminism
I have always been a feminist. I was a feminist before I knew that word ‘feminist.’ As a little girl I questioned why I couldn’t see the most exciting and interesting masquerades in the village, I questioned why a confident female professor was called ‘arrogant’ while a confident male professor who behaved exactly the same way was called ‘authoritative and strong.’ I questioned why women were expected to be domestic before anything else. I wondered how much we as a society had lost out on by not allowing intelligent, clever women to reach their full potential. I wondered why my female cousin had to serve my male cousin his meal even though they were the same age and she was more intelligent than he was and she had no interest in serving food. My great grandmother was a feminist because she pushed back at cultural practices that were bad for women and for that she was labeled a ‘troublemaker.’ Feminism is quite simply a justice movement. Anybody who cares about true justice cannot ignore sexism. Anybody who recognizes that the world has historically treated female humans as inferior to male humans is a feminist.
Doubts about feminism
Not in the importance of feminism, no. It is about justice. It is about living in a fair world that treats everybody as full individual human beings. But there are times when it is mentally exhausting to deal with people who are in denial about the reality of sexism, and it is sad to see that all over the world the rates of male violence against women are still very high. More woman die in childbirth than should in this world of modern medicine. Women still do not have real political power.
Equality of sexes
Men have to be part of the justice movement that is feminism. Feminism is good for men because feminism advocates loosening the rigid ‘roles’ men are expected to play just because they are men. Feminism advocates for men being allowed to be human beings too, for men being allowed to cry, for example, without being mocked for ‘weakness’ because the truth is that all human beings experience sadness. We are all better off if we live in a fair world.
Future of feminism in Nigeria
Political will is a strong part of it. We need leaders who do not just talk the talk. We need to change laws and create policy. But more importantly, we need to change mindsets. Our cultural assumptions about women are deeply misogynistic. Both men and women are often very harsh in their judgment of women. We need to change this by educating ourselves, having more conversations, being more open-minded.
I do think things are changing slowly. Young women across the continent are speaking up and claiming their space in the world and it is wonderful to see.