Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is no stranger to having her name butchered.
Once, she related to Harvard’s class of 2018 at commencement Wednesday (May 23), her name was terribly mangled by the presenter at a talk in London. Backstage, the presenter had studiously practiced saying Adichie’s name, writing it phonetically on a cue card, which she gripped tightly before going on stage. But after a flattering introduction, the author the English woman nervously introduced wasn’t Chimamanda. It was Chimichanga.
Adichie found no malice in the mispronunciation—after all, her name, Chimamanda, is Igbo for “my personal spirit will not be broken,” she explained.
Not everyone would be as charitable. Adichie said she relayed the story to a dinner party guest, who was angry that the woman didn’t try harder. For Adichie, though, it was clear that the woman had tried her best to say her name correctly. What mattered, she felt, was her intention.
“The truth is, she did try very hard,” Adichie said. “In fact, she ended up calling me a fried burrito because she had tried very hard and then ended up with an utterly human mistake that was the result of anxiety.” But for the Nigerian author, “the point is that intent matters. Someone might very well call me chimichanga out of a malicious desire to mock my name, and that I would certainly not laugh about. But there is a difference between malice and a mistake.”
With everyone shouting at each other across ideological lines around the world, Adichie’s call for context is particularly pertinent. It’s also personal. Adichie was herself the center of a public controversy last year for her comments on trans-women. At the time, she asked that her intent be acknowledged, but had the necessary self-awareness to know that brandishing her own record as a voice of LGBTQI rights in Nigeria was a poor defense against being called transphobic.
Adichie’s call for intent and context is a call for empathy and understanding that people each come with their own story, which should be heard. Challenging single narratives has been a mission for the prize-winning author.
Think of people as people, not as abstractions who have to conform to bloodless logic but as people—fragile, imperfect with prides that can be wounded and hearts that can be touched. Literature is my religion. I have learned from literature that we humans are flawed, all of us are flawed, but even while we are flawed, we are capable of enduring goodness.