Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses Georgetown University


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning writer, a feminist and an all-round inspiration.  Being an audience member to her recent address at Georgetown University was a delight, as she treated her audience to her dry humour, her cutting criticisms on dialogue surrounding race and gender, as well as sound advice for budding writers. Adichie is famous for her novels Purple HibiscusHalf of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, as well as several other publications and two TedX Talks that have received over one million views each.

Adichie addressed several questions surrounding the topic of “African Literature” and what it means to be an African writer. While Adichie joyfully expressed her identity as an African and as a Nigerian, she pointed out the flaws of labelling her work and that of others as “African”, believing it can be constraining.

 She also noted that it can often be a political motive rather than a literary one, saying you must always pay attention to the person behind the design of these labels. She criticised many Western prizes for “African Literature” for this reason, noting how many African authors lose their creative flair by modelling their work on past winners. However, Adichie is not one to allow the tone to become too serious. She soon had the room laughing when she acknowledged her gratefulness for being a recipient of many of such prizes, especially enjoying the ones that came with a monetary reward.

In general, the discourse surrounding literature that has been pigeon-holed into a particular region is one that appeared to intrigue as much as it does irk Adichie. She asked if her writing could be considered “African Literature” if the plots of her novels were based around blue eyed, blonde haired children from Sweden. Further to this, she noted the bias that comes from her own country, gaining laughs when she told us of the common criticism: “You’re a Nigerian writer; so why do you write about sex like that?!” She later on said that she is “willing to offend people if that’s what it takes to write the book I want to write”.

There is a problem with how Western media and Western academia addresses African discourse and literature that must be acknowledged

Adichie is famous for challenging literary norms, especially when it comes to the topic of the silencing of voices in literature. She shared a story of a student of hers whom she described as bright and eager. One day, he said to her with surprise that he “didn’t know that people in the Caribbean wrote”. Adichie quickly said that while it would have been easy to castigate the student, this ignorance was inevitable when students follow restrictive writing programs that only focus on Western novelists.

Adichie addresses a lot of this in her TedX Talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”. There is a problem with how Western media and Western academia addresses African discourse and literature that must be acknowledged, no matter how much we like to convince ourselves that we’ve moved past these biases. The blog AfricaIsACountry (irony intended) made headlines last summer after publishing this post. At the top of the page stands Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, a book she described as “deeply personal” and as her “baby”. Yet its portrayal to Western readers is diminished and reduced to that of a single story, one that sees Africa as nothing more than an orange sky, or in a more specific example, the UK design of the “soulful-black-woman-with-colourful-smudges”.

Other African writers have identified this form of narrative stereotyping in other aspects of literature. Chinua Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness’”correctly identifies harmful and racist stereotypes that have permeated literature about Africa, with Africa being placed on a platform as “The Other World” and its people as “savages”.  This transfers to academic literature as well as popular, as I’ve come to learn from taking an African Politics class this semester. “The Political Awakening of Africa” is a great collection of speeches from African leaders, yet as my lecturer pointed out, it seems to believe that politics in Africa was dormant up until the 20th century.

This is a problem not just with literature, but with many aspects of how the West portrays African nations. Taking the recent Ebola crisis as an example, Adichie cited several articles as being culprits of “telling the single story”. Survivors were identified as sources for antibodies, seen as vessels instead of being portrayed as individual people. Flights from “Africa”, a continent of 54 countries, were deemed as potential threats to western nations, instead of flights from the three countries worst affected by the epidemic (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea). To top all of this off, Adichie made reference to the discrimination of the media’s reporting of the epidemic. As a recent Huffington Post article mentioned, there is a huge disparity in the emphasis we place on different stories of the Ebola crisis. Sierra Leone saw 121 Ebola deaths in one day; but the weight of Western media was focused on the death of the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US.

as a Nigerian woman, she had always felt valued – just not as valued as Nigerian men are

Unsurprisingly, given one of Adichie’s most renowned pieces of discourse is about feminism, her address was soon brought to this topic. One question from the audience asked about how girls are often socialised to diminish themselves and to occupy as little space as possible. It appeared that Adichie – and much of the audience – had been waiting for a question on this topic. She addressed the question on many platforms, referring to how, as a Nigerian woman, she had always felt valued – just not as valued as Nigerian men are. She brought up the fact that although she campaigns for equality, she often found herself ‘performing gender’, reinforcing the gender stereotypes of Nigerian women while around her elderly female relatives to maintain the status quo.

Adichie emphasised that she never “got the memo” that women were inferior, but often found herself socialised into this performance, as many women are. Jumping on a hot topic, Adichie used the example of Jennifer Lawrence’s response to her nude “scandal”, saying that she applauded her statement that she did not have anything to apologise for – but added that it was not necessary for her to justify that she took the photos because of a long distance relationship at the time.

Adichie extended this theme from the public stage into the personal when asked by an audience member about how to balance one’s feminism with relationships with men. Adichie seemed struck by the question at first, before answering that she could not imagine being with someone who did not see her as their absolute equal, or even feeling comfortable in a relationship such as that. As the perfect conclusion to the address, Adichie emphasised that in these situations, love for the right person alone is what is important.

 Illustration: Naoise Dolan