‘I’m fiercely feminist, but I’m a writer first’
She’s a TED talk star, was namechecked by Beyoncé and is a powerful advocate for women. She also laughs – a lot. Jessamy Calkin meets award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie became a household name with her barnstorming 2012 TED talk We Should All Be Feminists, winning awards, global admiration and a spot on a Beyoncé track. But, she tells Jessamy Calkin, her greatest love is storytelling. Photograph by Broomberg & Chanarin. Styling by Cheryl Konteh
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was at primary school in Nsukka, southeast Nigeria, the teacher announced there would be a test and the person who did best would become class monitor. The class monitor would be able to patrol the room brandishing a cane, and report troublemakers. Nine-year-old Adichie got the highest score, but the teacher said that, obviously, the monitor had to be male. So instead the second-highest scorer – a boy who was decidedly unsuited to the role – became class monitor. And Adichie never forgot.
She discussed it in her 2012 Ted talk We Should All Be Feminists, which has been viewed online more than seven million times, and made into a book. ‘It’s not that I told people something they don’t know,’ she says. ‘It’s just that I did it in a language that was more accessible.’
We are in a cavernous studio in north London, and Adichie is working her way through a number of bright, bold outfits – a red dress by The Vampire’s Wife, a colourful African one by Stella Jean, Jimmy Choo shoes, a Peter Pilotto pink trouser suit, a long dress by Alice Temperley. She looks magnificent in all of them.
The shoot is noisy and fun. There are photographers, art directors, a hair stylist and make-up artist, along with her husband, a Nigerian-american doctor called Ivara Esege, or IV. And keeping busy and generally supervising everything is their little daughter, who is almost three.
Adichie doesn’t like having her picture taken, she tells me later. But she hides it well, tolerant of the changes of outfit, the schmoozy music that is a far cry from the Nigerian high life she admires. To pass the time, her hair stylist tries to teach her a few dance moves. She is a terrible dancer. Her family laugh at her. ‘When I was a teenager my friends used to say, “You’re like a white person.” They’d shout, “White person, sit down! You have no rhythm!”’
She has a rich, animated voice and is full of laughter. These unexpected, vibrant bursts are one of Adichie’s very appealing qualities. She has a formidable reputation, but it is her laugh that defines her. It starts small and flares up, spilling over into something unruly. She laughs at unexpected things, and is delightfully irreverent for a person who has won such deep respect for her views on so many serious issues.
Let’s run through a few of her achievements: chiefly, and most importantly, Adichie is a writer and storyteller. It is what she’s always wanted to do and what she is so good at. She has written three novels and a book of short stories – Purple Hibiscus was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004; Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Igbo’s struggle for independence in the Biafran war, won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction; Americanah, in 2013, about the experiences of a Nigerian student moving to America, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and has become an enduring bestseller. She wrote a book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, in 2009, and last year published Dear Ijeawele ,or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – advice to a friend on how to bring up a daughter.
But she is also an inspirer. Her first Ted talk, The Danger of a Single Story, from 2009, has been viewed 16.5 million times; her second, We Should All Be Feminists, was published as a book and distributed to every 16-year-old in Sweden; its title adorned a Dior T-shirt and a quote from it featured in Beyoncé’s 2013 song Flawless.
Adichie holds countless honorary degrees and awards, runs writing workshops in Nigeria and is on the required reading lists of campuses all over America. A talk earlier this year with Reni Eddolodge at the Southbank’s Women of the World festival in London saw them get an overwhelming standing ovation before they’d even sat down.
‘Feminist icon’ is not a label Adichie would have chosen or one she identifies with. Labels, she says, can be limiting. Storytelling is her job. ‘Obviously, I’m fiercely feminist, but I think of myself as a writer, although I know the space I take up in the world is more than that of a writer.’ Neither does she see herself as an activist. ‘When people call me that, it makes me uncomfortable; activists are the real deal, they do serious things. I just talk, using the platform my writing gave me.’
There is a cost to all this – which is chiefly on her time; Adichie turns down 95 per cent of the things she gets asked to do. ‘I want to do them, but I really just need to protect my writing time.’ She will agree to things ‘if I feel an emotional attachment. I might speak at an inner-city school in Washington, DC, because I think those kids will never get to see writers like me.’ Equally, she might speak at a ‘very fancy school – because I want to know how those things work’.
Adichie divides her time between America and Nigeria, but was here for the Cheltenham Literature Festival, where there were pupils from the Ladies’ College in the audience. ‘Afterwards they wanted to talk to me about that show – Love Boat?’ ‘Love Island,’ I say.
‘One of them said to me, “I’m a feminist, but I feel guilty about watching Love Island.” I said, “First of all, it’s good that you’re thinking about these things. I haven’t seen it, but never think you can’t do something because you’re a feminist.” I don’t believe in closing ourselves off from culture in the name of a kind of purist feminism; we have to know what’s going on in the world.’
She also gave a speech at the British Library, where she was awarded the 2018 PEN Pinter Prize for a writer of ‘outstanding literary merit who, in the words of Harold Pinter, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world and shows a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”’.
Her speech was called Shut Up and Write, inspired by the notion that in Nigeria, people like her books but some are angered by her politics. ‘An acquaintance said to me, “Nigerians just want you to shut up and write. They don’t like it when you talk about feminism and gay rights.”
‘Writers are not obliged to speak out about political things – some do, some don’t. I am a writer and a citizen, but when people disagree with my opinions they want to rob me of my citizenship. Being told to shut up and write means I can’t be a citizen; I can’t talk about the things that are unjust.’
In Nigeria, homosexuality is illegal. ‘A law that is quite popular there. Although there’s actually a vibrant community of young gay people there too, but there are consequences for them.
‘I feel that all the noise that follows my position on feminism and gay rights drowns out the thing I love, which is storytelling, and it creates in people’s minds a caricature of who I am.’
Adichie grew up in an upper-middle-class home, the fifth of six children. Her father James was a professor at the University of Nigeria, where her mother, Grace, worked as registrar. ‘My mother was the coolest mother on campus; all the kids loved her and you could come to our house and eat; and our birthday parties were the best. As I got older that thing happened, with mother and daughter not seeing the world in the same way, and I realised how different we are and how I am more like my father.’
The university campus was safe, secure and self-contained – church, school, library. Adichie used to hang out with her brothers. ‘We were rascals. I remember my childhood as happy and free – running around playing football, getting really dirty and having bucket baths together. We went out in the morning and came back in the evening,
‘When people call me an activist, it makes me uncomfortable; activists are the real deal. I just talk’
and it was fine.’ She wishes she could replicate that for her daughter. ‘But it was a different time.’
She is deeply attached to Nigeria and to her ancestral home town of Abba, where everyone is proud of her because she has not lost her Igbo language. ‘When I go back they’re so happy that not only do I speak Igbo, but I get the little nuances still. When I am in Abba, I become an Igbo woman of a certain kind.’ She still gets into arguments – when someone brings out the kola nuts, for example, which are central to Igbo culture, and traditionally blessed by a man, Adichie will say, ‘Why? I’d like to bless it. Let’s have that conversation. Why don’t we make it about achievement instead of gender?’ And all the men will roll their eyes.
But her faith in her country was challenged in 2015 when her father was kidnapped. She wrote about it in The New York Times, how her father, 83, was driven from Nsukka to a meeting and didn’t return; and the kidnappers called her mother and said, ‘We have your husband.’ How she was in America, pregnant, when she heard; how her father was gone for three days without his diabetes medicine and how her brother dropped off a large bag of cash in the forest, and her father returned. The next day he flew to America with his wife.
One of the things that haunts Adichie still is that the kidnappers knew who she was. They said, ‘Tell your daughter Chimamanda to get the money.’
‘It was because of me,’ she says now. ‘That incident affected my father – it robbed him of something; there’s a distrust that he didn’t have before. He comes from a generation with a certain kind of integrity. For a long time he didn’t understand things like bribery – it just perplexed him.
‘My father had given his everything – he got his PHD in the US and he had job offers there in the 1960s, but he was keen to come back to Nigeria. It was post-independence, everyone was enthusiastic and my father spent his life teaching. I felt that Nigeria had failed him – for a man of his age to be thrown into the boot of a car…’
Now her parents have moved back to Abba, where it is safer. ‘That incident broke my heart and it’s the first time I started to seriously question Nigeria.’ The driver is in prison awaiting trial, but nobody else has been charged.
After school, Adichie had begun studying medicine in Nigeria, but changed her mind and moved to America aged 19, graduating from university in Connecticut in 2001. She did a creative writing master’s at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship, know as the ‘genius grant’, in 2008.
She describes herself as a ‘curious and contented visitor’ to America. She now lives half the time in Maryland with her husband and daughter ‘in a big American house in a very nice, safe, bland neighbourhood, where there is no dirt anywhere and it’s so diverse – our lovely neighbours are white, Asian, Bangladeshi…’ Adichie also spends about five months a year in Lagos, where she has a house, and plans to continue moving back and forth with her daughter.
Not much writing gets done in Lagos because it’s so social. ‘There’s an energy to it – I think simply because it’s mine. Nigeria is mine. I don’t question my belonging. But it’s complex. The minute I land, I think, “This airport is rubbish!” And that starts my complaints, which continue until I leave. But within that complaining there is also joy, because I am home. I get Nigeria, I get it.’
She is different in Lagos, her friend, the writer Binyavanga Wainaina, tells her. Louder. ‘He says I become a different version of myself. You arrive in Lagos and put on a coat of swagger – that’s the way to survive.’
The day after this photo shoot, Adicie and her daughter greet me in the foyer of her hotel, One Aldwych. She is entirely without make-up and looks about 18. Her daughter runs off into the arms of her father. IV is very involved, Adichie says. She knew when she met him ‘that he was a keeper. His parents did a very good job with him.’
She speaks only Igbo to her daughter, and will do until she is seven, so she is completely fluent. She is surprised – and amused – that her daughter is already showing a strong will. Adichie tries hard not to brainwash her; rather allow her to discover things by herself. They eat lots of fruit and vegetables and healthy food, but recently her daughter came home and told her that she’d eaten a hot dog at school. ‘She said, “Mama, they gave me a hot dog.” I said, “Hot dogs are disgusting!” And she said, “They are NOT!”’
When Adichie was a child, her own mother would put her long, unruly hair into tight, painful braids. But on special occasions – Christmas, Easter, birthdays – her sister would straighten it with a hot comb that she had heated up on the gas cooker. ‘She would put Vaseline on it, which would sizzle, and then run it through my hair in sections. You could hear the frying of the hair, the crackle of the comb – but afterwards it would be long and straight, and I loved it. For two days I would swing my hair around. I had to avoid water or sweating because otherwise my hair would revert. When I think about it now – Jesus Christ…’ she trails off, looking appalled.
Will she let her daughter do what she wants with her hair? ‘Until she is 18, until I stop paying her bills, as long as I am feeding her, she cannot have straight hair. She’s got lovely hair, and I’m hoping she’ll realise that it’s stupid to use chemicals to make it straight. I’m going to explain to her, it’s not healthy. I’m going to say, “It’s ugly. End of story.”’ She cackles.
I think of the hot dog. Good luck with that.
A dichie is not afraid to be controversial – she is bored by classic feminist texts; challenges the popular view; thinks questions are sometimes not asked because people are so worried about causing offense; condemns a ‘quickness to outrage’ and rejects fashionable terminology. She also thinks it’s OK to separate the art from the artist (‘it’s a question of degree’). In other words, you can like someone’s books even if they’re an arsehole?
‘My thing would be, how much of an arsehole? Because in general, human beings should be excused a certain amount, just because we’re human. So people like Philip Roth – yes, I think a lot of his work has misogyny in it; not getting women, not liking women – but I like his work.
‘But also I wouldn’t want art to be scrubbed clean, because I wouldn’t believe it.
‘So I would want to know exactly what happened, case by case. There are some people I would never support, like Harvey Weinstein. Just reading about him – he is so disgusting.’ She recently spoke out about her own experience, when she was 17 and molested by a publisher. Nearly a year on from #Metoo starting, is there any kind of downside to it that she can perceive?
‘If there is – and I think there is a downside to every justice movement – it’s already happening. But I feel reluctant to talk about a downside because even if there is one, I don’t want that to be the conversation.’
The backlash, she thinks, is crystallised in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation: ‘They used those hearings to raise the middle finger to #Metoo.’ In a year when a lot of shocking things happened in the US, that one, she thinks, is the most shocking, one she did not see that coming. ‘No! I really thought Kavanaugh would be withdrawn or he would step aside. And that somebody else – a conservative, obviously – would be appointed. I was shocked and took it quite personally. I was in tears watching Christine Blasey Ford, realising what it took for her to be up there. She was bending over backwards to be nice, reasonable, helpful – all of those things. And then for her to be disbelieved. As if she would lie about that.
‘She did so well. Kavanaugh was petulant and angry, so rude, so entitled, nasty and disrespectful to US senators – and somehow to have that read as a strength… I found it incredible. That whole thing clarified for me the extraordinary privilege of being male. I remember watching and thinking this is the end for him, surely. This was the confirmation hearing to become a justice of the Supreme Court of America – it’s important we don’t have it reduced to another freak show.’
American politics, she thinks, has become like Africa. ‘Maybe it’s the fiction writer in me, but the scene that remains in my head is the chaos at airports with the Muslim ban. Nobody knew what
was going on – even the immigration officers weren’t sure what they were supposed to do. I never thought that would happen in America.’
There must be lots of occasions like that now, I say, with Trump behaving more and more like the worst kind of African despot. ‘Growing up in Nigeria, I remember how we would say, “This kind of thing would never happen in America.” I’m seeing all the things that would happen in Nigeria. The idea that the president can just install his family members in positions of power for reasons that are completely unclear to everybody, that’s very Nigerian; that he can be opaque about his business, no tax returns; that it’s almost like a personality cult – this is all very Nigerian. My friends in Nigeria all say that never again can Americans lecture us about good leadership. ‘There’s a sadness to it. I almost feel betrayed.’ Her biggest worry is what the legacy will be, post-trump. ‘I think the damage will be great and I worry it will be lasting. There’s an ugliness in American politics now.’ She is thinking of when Trump publicly mocked Blasey Ford. Adichie has been in the States for nearly 20 years, but says she’s never seen this level of ugliness. ‘I know that George W Bush was deeply disliked by people on the left, but there’s something vile in the air now, a permission for people to be misogynist and racist.’
Perhaps, I say, it will have a positive effect and galvanise people into action. ‘Perhaps. But I would rather not have all that activism and just have a president who is decent.’
Adicie is in touch with Hillary Clinton (‘she’s not over it’), but has concerns about the Democrats (‘they need to get over their self-righteousness’). California senator Kamala Harris, she admires, ‘But I don’t want her to run because she’s a woman, she’s black. I think maybe we should have a white man, just so we can get Trump out. His base is so fired up and vile. I worry.’
She has chosen not to become an American citizen, although she considered it after her father was kidnapped because she felt Nigeria had let him down so. ‘But it’s a choice I made [not to] because if I’m going to speak for Nigeria, then I should travel like a Nigerian, because having a Nigerian passport means you have to negotiate so many obstacles. To get a visa for anywhere is difficult – even Kenya. Nigerians have such a bad reputation.’
Even in Africa? She nods cheerfully. ‘Mm-hm, we do.’ And bursts out laughing. ‘We are seen as much worse than we are. It’s unfair, but it also amuses me. In some ways, Nigeria is the America of Africa. We’re big – culturally we occupy a lot of space: the music, the film, the fashion, everything. We are resented and admired – it’s that interesting tension. They think we can’t be trusted.
‘And can I just say, I think that some of those feelings are kind of justified…’ Another burst. ‘Whenever you’re at an airport you can always tell the Nigerian gate,’ she says. ‘It’s the most chaotic. You see the flight going to Nairobi and they’re all well-behaved Africans, and you see the flight going to Ghana and they’re just lovely, then you see the Nigerian gate and it’s a disaster. It’s loud, and people are already screaming at one another about God knows what. And I’m just thinking, “Oh my goodness…”’
At the same time, she says, that is also what makes Nigeria good. ‘Our energy – that feeling of “can do”. Nigerians feel as if they can do anything. I always say to people, “Come to Lagos.” Because Lagos really is the cultural centre of Africa – but Lagos doesn’t try to make you like it. Lagos says, “This is what I am.”’
In Igbo, the word Chimamanda means ‘the spirit that can’t be broken’. She is 41, but looks so much younger. Sometimes, she says, this counts against her, especially in Nigeria, where age and respect go hand in hand. ‘One good thing about age – especially in cultures such as Nigeria – is that when you’re an older woman, you can get away with so much more. I cannot wait to take that opportunity.
‘I think I’m going to be very cranky when I’m older. Very cranky. And I hope I live to be 70 – oh my goodness, I cannot wait,’ she shrieks. ‘I’m going to tell people OFF!
‘I mean, I kind of already do, but I’m going to do it so much more!’
Here we are, back to the thwarted nine-year-old in class, brandishing her cane. And laughing.
‘I would rather not have all that activism and just have a president who is decent’
Clockwise from top left Adichie champions Nigerian brands on Instagram: at Amherst College wearing Ré.lagos; Gozel Green in Washington, DC; Orange Culture top and Tifé trousers to collect an honorary degree; in Ilare at the PEN Pinter awards. Below left Speaking at the Hay Festival in 2012
Top With Lady Antonia Fraser, receiving her PEN Pinter prize at the British Museum. Above At the 2017 Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year Awards with Ruth Negga and Adwoa Aboah