Through a set of interviews, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, let’s us have a glimpse of her voice, her thoughts and her dreams for a better world.
THOUGHTS ABOUT CATEGORIZATIONS
Generalizations are always reductive, I think, because they shrink you from a whole to a mere part. I am Nigerian, feminist, Black, Igbo, and more, but when I am categorized as one, it makes it almost impossible to be seen as all of the others, and I find this limiting.
I used to insist that I was simply a writer, that I rejected tags before ‘writer,’ especially tags based on race like ‘black’ or ‘African,’ because they are not value-free. They come with baggage. For example, a black writer who wrote about Africa would be placed on the ‘ethnic’ shelf in many bookstores in the US and UK, ‘ethnic’ in this sense subtly suggests not being quite on a par with ‘mainstream’ writing. A white writer, such as the Polish Ryszard Kapuscinski would not be on that ‘ethnic’ shelf. He would be considered ‘mainstream’ although he would be writing on the same subject as the black writer. The point is that it would be preferable if categorizations were based on the writing rather than on the writer.
Yet, we cannot deny that there are strong linkages based on race or gender or nationality. Being part of an under-represented group brings with it a sense of ‘we-ness’ which is why I feel an odd pride when an Igbo or an African or African-American or woman or Nigerian does well. I suppose categorization can be positive in this way. My being seen as a ‘Nigerian writer’ could motivate other Nigerian writers, in a way that my just being a ‘writer’ would not.
The more I think about just being a ‘writer,’ the more I realize that it is a position that is too easy to take. It would work only in a happily homogenized fantasy world. I cannot be just a ‘writer’ all the time; there are situations in which I will simply have to accept some tag before it. We all carry different labels and they come into play in what we write and in how we are read. The sad thing is that critics and sometimes readers do not hold all labels in equal significance.
I am less resentful of categorizations. I accept, sometimes even celebrate, them but I still feel much ambivalence about them. I am also wary of the baggage that comes with them and of having somebody else be prescriptive about them.
BEING BLACK IN AMERICA
Adichie finds the peculiarities of American racial politics fascinating — and also, well, hilarious.
"I feel as though being African, I can laugh at certain things that maybe if I were African American I wouldn't. I don't know race in the way an African American knows race," she says, speaking by Skype from a hotel room in Boston, where she's on tour. "Sometimes it takes an outsider to see something about your own reality that you don't."
She laughs and continues, "I wanted Ifemelu to be a character who wasn't easy to like," she says about the character in her book Americanah. "I think it's a very feminist book — I think all of my work is very feminist. She just refuses to keep quiet. In a way that in my life I think I refuse to as well."
"Makes me angry. I can't not be angry. I don't know how you can just be calm. My family says to me, 'Oh, you're such a man!' - you know, very lovingly… But of course I'm not, I just don't see why I shouldn't speak my mind." She got into trouble for speaking her mind in Nigeria: when an interviewer addressed her as Mrs. Chimamanda Adichie, she corrected him, saying she wished to be known as "Ms", which the journalist reported as "Miss". Her insistence on her own family name was all over the news here last spring. She should be happy to be addressed as "Mrs", she was told, since she was, after all, married. She laughs now, but it's clear the story still disturbs her. "It was the lack of gratitude on my part for having a husband. And yet I didn't want to proclaim it: I wanted to claim my own name."
AFRICAN VS AFRICAN-AMERICAN
"I only became black when I came to America," she writes in Americanah; her character Ifemelu's experience is drawn from her own. "In Nigeria I'm not black," she says simply. "We don't do race in Nigeria. We do ethnicity a lot, but not race. My friends here don't really get it. Some of them sound like white Southerners from 1940. They say, 'Why are black people complaining about race? Racism doesn't exist!' It's just not a part of their existence." But it has been part of hers in America, where her experience "is always shaped by race. Somebody sends a limo to pick me up, and I just notice an attitude that the white, older male driver has. He's thinking, that's who I'm picking up? And I can't help thinking, if I were white, would he have a problem? If I were black and male, would he have a problem?" She has focused her attention on gender inequality because here in Nigeria, that's her primary experience of inequality. In Nigeria she would know why a driver would have a problem with her: "Because I'm a woman."
WORDS FOR YOUNG GIRLS
"I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it's also something that's quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likeability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you're supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you're supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don't quite say, don't be too pushy, because you have to be likeable," she said as she accepted an award at the 2015 Girls Write Now awards ceremony, New York Magazine reports. "And I say that is bullshit. So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likeability. If you start thinking about being likeable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that's going to ruin your story, so forget about likeability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multi-faceted place that there's somebody who's going to like you; you don't need to twist yourself into shapes."
ADD TO YOUR BOOKSHELF