‘I’m fiercely fem­i­nist, but I’m a writer first’

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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

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