How to Raise a Fem­i­nist

Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie is a writer, a mother, a thinker and a fash­ion icon—an all-in-one woman of the mod­ern world. And she won’t have it any other way, writes Mar­i­anna Cerini

Thailand Tatler - - AROUND ASIA -

A writer, a mother, a thinker and a fash­ion icon—Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie is an all-in-one woman of the world and wouldn’t have it any other way, writes Mar­i­anne Cerini

Her 2012 TEDx talk We Should All Be Fem­i­nists counts more than four mil­lion views on YouTube. It was adapted into a New York Times best­seller, and turned into a slo­gan touted by Chris­tian Dior in its spring 2017 col­lec­tion. Now, her lat­est book is be­ing hailed as a “fem­i­nist blue­print” for how to raise a fem­i­nist daugh­ter.

Is Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie the fem­i­nist icon of the 21st cen­tury?

Ask any­one fa­mil­iar with the au­thor and you’ll get a res­o­lute, col­lec­tive yes. But Adichie her­self? She has a rather dif­fer­ent an­swer. “No, I am not,” she says. “I have be­come a voice of mod­ern fem­i­nism, I’ll con­cede that, even though it wasn’t at all in­tended. But I am not an icon, nor a lead­ing fig­ure of any kind. I just speak my mind.”

But she speaks it with an elo­quence and pur­pose that has made her work re­ver­ber­ate across coun­tries and di­verse au­di­ences. Which makes her, if not an icon, cer­tainly one of the most re­mark­able women in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture to­day.

“I am, sim­ply, a writer,” she in­sists. “And a per­son who, for her en­tire life, has felt very strongly about how women are treated in the world.”

Born in 1977 in east­ern Nige­ria, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a univer­sity town, the fifth of six chil­dren. De­spite the pre­dom­i­nantly pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of Nige­rian cul­ture, her house­hold was a pro­gres­sive one: her fa­ther was a pro­fes­sor of statis­tics and deputy vice-chan­cel­lor at the Univer­sity of Nige­ria; her mother was the univer­sity’s first fe­male reg­is­trar. They were open, kind par­ents, Adichie says, “who al­lowed me to fol­low my own path.”

That path led her to drop out of med­i­cal school in Nige­ria a year and a half af­ter en­rolling and, at 19, pack her bags and move to the States on a schol­ar­ship, where she pur­sued her am­bi­tions as a writ er. To­day, Adichie and her fam­ily live be­tween La­gos and Bal­ti­more, Mary­land, and con­sider both coun­tries home.

Adichie was 26 when she pub­lished her first novel, Pur­ple Hibis­cus, which was short­listed for the Or­ange Prize for Fic­tion and won the Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize. Her se­cond book, 2006’s Half of a Yel­low Sun—set dur­ing the Bi­afran War in Nige­ria— was also crit­i­cally ac­claimed, pick­ing up a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional prizes. In 2008 she won a MacArthur Fel­low­ship—the so-called “Ge­nius Grant,” given an­nu­ally to be­tween 20 and 30 “ex­tra­or­di­nary” in­di­vid­u­als work­ing in any field—and in 2013, the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for fic­tion for Amer­i­canah, a mod­ern love story set be­tween Amer­ica and Nige­ria. The com­mon thread to all her writ­ing? Her un­com­pro­mis­ing hero­ines—some of the most en­gross­ing char­ac­ters in re­cent fic­tion.

Dur­ing those same years, Adichie be­came well known for her pub­lic speak­ing on is­sues span­ning race, gen­der and equal­ity. Her 2009 TED talk The Dan­ger of a Sin­gle Story, which warned against see­ing the world from a sin­gle per­spec­tive, went vi­ral—it cur­rently counts 12 mil­lion views on the TED web­site. Her next talk, We Should All Be Fem­i­nists, ad­dressed a fem­i­nism be­yond race or class. It took on a life of its own, and pro­jected the au­thor into celebrity ter­ri­tory. Bey­oncé even sam­pled the speech in her 2013 song Flaw­less. Af­ter the huge suc­cess of her talk, Adichie wrote a book of the same ti­tle which turned into a call to arms for a gen­er­a­tion of young fem­i­nists—so much so that in 2015 ev­ery 16-year-old high school stu­dent in Swe­den was given a copy as a manda­tory read. Adichie has re­ceived a fair share of crit­i­cism for the book, par­tic­u­larly from some of her Nige­rian read­er­ship, which doesn’t quite know how to grap­ple with her role as a fem­i­nist as well as a writer. “Which is frus­trat­ing, but I have come

“We should al­low women to be more than ‘mother,’ or ‘wife’”

to terms with it,” she says. “Peo­ple need to un­der­stand that we can be many things at the same time.”

As for the suc­cess of the book, “I don’t think I was telling women what they don’t know,” Adichie says. “My thoughts and anger are shared by many, and I think my words just ar­tic­u­lated those feel­ings.”

She is, she ad­mits, still very an­gry to­day. “Gen­der in­equal­ity is very much an un­re­solved is­sue in many places in the world,” she says. “From the States, where you have a room full of men mak­ing de­ci­sions about women’s bod­ies and ca­sual misog­yny that is just rou­tine; to Italy, where a wor­ry­ing num­ber of women are killed by former part­ners, or are of­ten vic­tims of acid at­tacks.”

Does she fore­see any change? “Oh, I hope so,” she sighs. “There has been some progress over the last few years, at least here [in Amer­ica], but so much has yet to be done. Start­ing from chang­ing peo­ple’s cul­tural mind­sets on how they think of women, and what they ex­pect of them.”

Which is where her lat­est book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Fem­i­nist Man­i­festo in Fif­teen Sug­ges­tions, comes into play. Writ­ten as a let­ter to a friend who asked Adichie’s ad­vice on how to raise her baby girl as a fem­i­nist, the 63-page vol­ume sets a se­ries of ba­sic but es­sen­tial guide­lines about every­thing from how to par­ent (“Do it to­gether”) to us­ing the right lan­guage (“‘Be­cause you are a girl’ is never a rea­son for any­thing. Ever.”) to chal­leng­ing tra­di­tional gen­der roles (“Never speak of mar­riage as an achieve­ment”). “Her job is not to make her­self lik­able,” Adichie writes, “her job is to be her full self.”

Such as­ser­tions have be­come par­tic­u­larly per­sonal for Adichie since the birth of her first daugh­ter, now 20 months old. “I wrote Dear Ijeawele be­fore I be­came a mother my­self, but I now feel even more strongly about it,” she says. “Moth­er­hood is a glo­ri­ous thing, and it has given me a new per­spec­tive on the sub­ject. But it has also re­in­forced my be­lief that we should al­low women to be more than ‘mother,’ or ‘wife.’ That’s what I mean when I say I want my child to ‘be a full per­son.”’

Adichie tells me of a fairly well-known

“‘Fem­i­nism needs to be­come an all-in­clu­sive con­cept em­braced by dif­fer­ent classes and gen­ders. It’s some­thing we have to fight for”

woman who re­cently had a baby, and, want­ing some time for her­self to go and get her hair done, left the in­fant with her care­giver. When her in-laws found out, they were hor­ri­fied. “It’s a small thing, but it’s very telling of the core prob­lem so many of us face: the idea that, once you’re a mother, you’re not sup­posed to care about your­self; that you’re no longer a per­son. I loathe that judg­men­tal ap­proach.”

Hav­ing her daugh­ter hasn’t changed much of Adichie’s ap­proach to work—“be­sides the sleep de­pri­va­tion,” she laughs. If any­thing, it has made her hun­grier for tan­gi­ble change. “I want my daugh­ter to never apol­o­gise for who she is, for her opin­ions; for sim­ply oc­cu­py­ing space in this world. I want her to feel like she fully mat­ters. I want her to be kind. And I want the world she’ll live in to make all of this pos­si­ble.”

It’s some­thing Adichie can strive to­wards with her fem­i­nist dis­course, per­haps. “Yes and no,” she says. “I am a fem­i­nist, it’s part of who I am. But I am not here to cre­ate a fem­i­nist ‘man­ual’ of any kind. I be­lieve that kind of fem­i­nism—the one that sets and abides by nar­row cri­te­ria of what makes a fem­i­nist—alien­ates a lot of or­di­nary women that are just try­ing to get by. No real change can come from that.”

“I didn’t be­come a fem­i­nist be­cause I read a book,” she ex­plains. “I’ve been a fem­i­nist since I was a child, be­cause I sim­ply watched the world and the gen­der in­jus­tice that comes with it. So yes, my writ­ing might help voice per­spec­tives other women share, and chal­lenge com­mon as­sump­tions in the process. But for a shift to re­ally take place—for women to ac­tu­ally be al­lowed by so­ci­ety to con­trib­ute how they right­fully should—‘fem­i­nism’ needs to be­come an all-in­clu­sive con­cept em­braced by dif­fer­ent classes and gen­ders. It’s some­thing we have to fight for.”

Adichie her­self fully per­son­i­fies the de­fi­ance she pro­poses. Over the past year, the au­thor be­came the face of Bri­tish re­tailer Boots’ No7 beauty brand, push­ing back the idea that in­tel­lect and makeup can’t go hand in hand. “I am so tir ed of peo­ple say­ing that if you’re part of the literati and a real fem­i­nist then you shouldn’t care for friv­o­lous things,” she says. “It’s just plain misog­y­nis­tic, and all the more frus­trat­ing when it comes from other women.”

She has also made her style a talk­ing point. Dur­ing Paris Fash­ion Week last Septem­ber, she sat front row as guest of hon­our at the Dior show—the per­fect perch from which to see mod­els strut­ting down the run­way, sport­ing T-shirts that bore the line: We Should All Be Fem­i­nists. The de­sign was an ode to the power of her work, but it also firmly placed her on the Olym­pus of fash­ion’s power play­ers. Celebri­ties and in­flu­encers from Ri­hanna to Jen­nifer Lawrence and Chiara Fer­ragni have all been spot­ted flaunt­ing the tees, as have style-savvy women around the globe.

But the col­lab­o­ra­tion was also dis­par­aged, with some pun­dits hail­ing it as proof of the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of mod­ern fem­i­nism—the tees sell for US$710. “Crit­ics will al­ways be there, but I am not in­ter­ested in win­ning any pop­u­lar­ity con­test,” says Adichie. “I love the T-shirts, and I love that Maria Grazia [Chi­uri, Dior’s new cre­ative di­rec­tor] de­cided to use my words as a ‘slo­gan,’ so to speak. She’s gen­uine and real and in­ter­est­ing, so when she came to me with the idea, I had no qualms giv­ing my per­mis­sion.

“Yes, they’re ex­pen­sive by most women’s stan­dards, but what I find in­ter­est­ing is the re­sponse they’ve been met with—start­ing with the plethora of knock­offs on sale on eBay, which both Maria Grazia and I find won­der­ful. The most ap­peal­ing as­pect of it is how peo­ple have em­braced and shown off a mes­sage and a word, ‘fem­i­nist,’ that’s still so prob­lem­atic for many,” she ex­plains.

Re­cently, Adichie started a new style project, Wear Nige­rian, to sup­port de­sign­ers from her na­tive coun­try. She’s de­cided to wear mostly Nige­rian brands for pub­lic ap­pear­ances, and en­rolled the help of her nieces Chi­som and Amaka to run an Instagram page dis­play­ing her out­fits. “It’s a lot of fun,” she laughs. “And fas­ci­nat­ing, too. I am dis­cov­er­ing so many new Nige­rian brands. Not every­thing I order has been of the high­est qual­ity, but I en­joy wear­ing the clothes.”

“This is who I am,” she says. “A per­son who likes lip­stick and cares about her ap­pear­ance, and a per­son who wants to fight for gen­der equal­ity and write about race and pol­i­tics and what it means to be a woman. No­body can tell me oth­er­wise.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Thailand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.