Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Sometimes it feels like the universe is conspiring against me”

The struggle is real.
The struggle is real.
Image: WISE 2017
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a global feminist icon. She’s also a mother raising a daughter in a gendered world, trying to make sense of a divided America.

A public thinker, but private with her personal life, Adichie’s transition to motherhood came as a surprise to a society accustomed to celebrities’ “pregnancy performance.” Adichie’s most recent work Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is a letter to her friend who has recently given birth to a daughter. Her own daughter was 15 months old when it was published. 

Adichie splits her time between Nigeria and the US, where she lives in Baltimore. ”I know America has many problems,” she recently told Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Interview podcast. ”But there is, for me as a black woman, as an African woman, a sense of possibility in America that I don’t feel when I’m in Europe, particularly in continental Europe.”

We met in Doha at the World Innovation Summit for Education last month where she was a panelist on the final day of the conference. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauren Alix Brown: With a lot of what’s going on in US politics, I’ve been thinking that maybe part of the divide is there are people who really care about language and the power of language and what words mean, and there are people who don’t?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Umm, I don’t actually know if I agree with that. I mean there is a great divide in the US, but my sense is it has always been. It’s just more pronounced. I also think maybe Americans need to understand that there are divides in countries. There’s kind of a mythical idea of being united and I’m not sure if any country is really quite united. There’s always, I think there’s always divides in countries. I think the reason that I’m concerned about the US now the nature of the divide seems to be one side seems to believe that a fact is still a fact and the other side doesn’t. So maybe it’s not so much about, maybe it’s the meaning. It’s that it’s what language means is what we don’t seem to agree on.

LAB: In Dear Ijeawele, in the “Feminist Lite” chapter, you talk about words not to use, like “misogyny” and “patriarchy.” Are there words that you think people should be using that they’re not?

CNA: So do I think there are words we shouldn’t use? No. It’s not so much that I’m saying we shouldn’t use “patriarchy.” Because I actually just gave a talk in which I used “misogyny” quite a few times. It’s rather to say that if you’re teaching a child or trying to get somebody to understand why feminism is important, it’s helpful not to use jargon because jargon can get in the way.

So I think that there are many people who hear “patriarchy,” but if you said to them, can you give me four examples? They wouldn’t be able to. I think because I’m a novelist, I come from the point of view of storytelling and I’m keen with stories. I think storytelling is the most effective way to communicate. So if I talk about feminism, I want to tell stories. I find that to be a better way to reach people.

LAB: So in terms of teaching people how to be feminists, has raising a girl changed or challenged any of your suggestions for how to raise a feminist?

CNA: It hasn’t challenged anything, it’s just that it’s made me realize how difficult it is. Because I think I felt that. I’m only just realizing that sometimes it feels like the universe is conspiring against me. Because I am trying to push against ideas and norms that are so ingrained that they can start to feel invisible. And it’s little things.

I’m just amazed at how everything is gendered—diapers. I mean baby bodies are the same. But now there are diapers where there’s the girl picture. Some months ago we wanted to get the overnight diapers for Baby because she was starting to wake up quite wet. So we wanted to get the diapers marketed as overnight because they absorb more and there’s girls and boys. I remember saying to my husband, who’s a physician, I said, “Do you think maybe the boys’ has a little thing to hold the penis? I mean, why are they different? He had a good laugh and he’s like, “It’s just marketing.”

I remember thinking, there has to be a reason for this because it made no sense to me. But there’s no reason for it. Also, I’m just realizing how early the sexualization of girls starts. Four-year-old girls’ dresses. I find many of them disturbing. It’s sort of like four year olds’ now have to be mini women. I’m noticing these things a lot more just because of my child. And children’s books and cartoons. It does sometimes feel that there’s a conspiracy of the universe. But at the same time, I’m utterly undeterred.

It requires pushing back, but I’m going to push back. I want to equip her with the tools. I’m hoping that she grows up to be the girl who sort of mocks these things—who gets it and who mocks them. That’s my hope, that would be ideal for me.

LAB: Do you think there is anything that you’ve learned or were you taught that allows the power of your message to somehow resonate so widely?

CNA: Do you know, I would say it’s my love of reading. I would just go back to being a novelist, a person who’s drawn to stories. There is a sense in which my love of reading trained me to think of communication as a series of stories. I say this not just as a writer but as a reader. I know what I’m drawn to and there’s a sense that I want to tell the kind of stories that I would be keen to hear.

And also I’m going to say it’s probably that I want to tell my truth. I want to say what I think and it’s lovely to be liked and I like being liked but I don’t need to be liked. I think that also sort of has been a thing for me where because of that I say what I think, for good or bad.

LAB: Did you always?

CNA: I think so, because when I look back, I got into trouble with my teachers.

LAB: For what?

CNA: For doing what they called quote unquote “not showing respect,” which really meant that I asked questions and refused answers that seemed too simplistic. So I would challenge. I was being educated in a culture that often mistakes fear for respect and I thought I was respectful but I wasn’t afraid of my teachers.

LAB: Do you think the attention to sexual harassment and sexual assault is because these stories are so white? Is it whiteness?

CNA: Lupita was…

LAB: But also that was the one Harvey pushed back on…

CNA: But here’s the thing we say, the whiteness, yes and no. It’s white women because it’s white women who even get to be in the room and then are open to being harassed. So I think it’s a larger question of who gets access, who gets the call from the producer, who has the agent—that’s really what the question is. So of course it’s white, but then we’re dealing with a larger system that benefits and privileges white women.

I think it’s important to remember the humanity, which is to say because a white woman is privileged for her whiteness doesn’t mean that the gender injustice she experiences is any less important. 

LAB: What do people not know about you or get wrong about you?

CNA: Well, they don’t know that I have zero rhythm, because I walk through the world pretending that I can dance. It is terrible. Um, I don’t know. I think I don’t know. I don’t actually spend my time thinking about what people think.

LAB: You don’t care?

CNA: It’s perhaps because I care. I don’t want to be the person—when you start doing that it becomes a cycle, it feeds itself so I just, I don’t. And if you’re speaking your truth. I like to feel that I’m presenting my most honest authentic self to the world and people can make the judgment that they want to.