She needs no introduction at home or internationally. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a true African icon of our times. Not only is she one of Africa’s literary greats, she is an icon the world has come to love and respect for her fortitude in speaking openly and fearlessly on issues ranging from the portrayal of Africa through the global lens, to gender roles and feminism.
The Nigerian author of the bestselling Half of Yellow Sun is on record for stating that she is a “happy feminist”, and Feminism and gender disparity was the focus of her keynote speech at the – TedxEuston (2012). As she returned to London’s Southbank centre on 7 August 2016 for a conversation on “Love and War – Half a Yellow Sun, Ten Years on”, we look back to the interview she gave New African Woman’s Deputy Editor Belinda Otas just after her TedxEuston speech. These views are still valid.
The F-word always ignites strong reactions, but more so in the African women’s movement and some other circles that view feminism with unease, or even derision, as being “un-African”. But as one of Africa’s foremost daughters, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes a rallying call – Africa needs feminism.
“We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them, to be macho. Then we raise our women to cater to our men’s fragile egos. Why should a woman’s success be intimidating to a man? A man who would be intimidated by me is a man I will have no interest in. Why do we put so much effort into preparing women for marriage, but not the same for men?” she wonders, cramming in as many comments as she can as if aware of the rather brief interview session that New African Woman has been allocated with her in the environs of the successful TedxEuston event.
Throwing light on her own philosophy, she explains in a tone of guiding authority: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes who we should be instead of recognising who we are. Imagine how much freer we would be if we did not have to live under the weight of gender expectations. Culture does not make people; people make culture. A feminist is a man or a woman who says there’s a problem with gender and we must fix it.”
The award-winning author, who has so far given us Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus, The Thing Around Your Neck and Americanah, has just been speaking to an appreciative audience at TedxEuston, whose mission is “to reflect ideas and inspired thinking of a new generation of African thinkers and leaders”.
It was clear that in just those short moments on the podium, Chimamanda had managed to move the audience (both male and female) out of their comfort zones as she aptly and pointedly highlighted the issues of gender inequality that continue to contribute to the political, social, economic and cultural subjugation of women, and the challenges which that subjugation poses for Africa. Her presence at the event couldn’t fail to challenge conventional wisdom. And in her trademark conversational style, Chimamanda’s delivery was effortless.
In our interview I ask what she considers to be the most important priority if Africa is to create a healthy discourse on the issue of gender advancement: feminism, gender inequality or how Africans raise their children:
“Whenever I’m asked which one is most important, I’m like all of them are important,” she says. “What I care about, which, we just all need to… I don’t like the way we raise girls in Africa in general. I think that is really important that we raise them differently. Due to the way they are raised, we find cases where some women can be highly accomplished and educated, yet still have a lot holding them back. They have internal issues because of things that they have learnt growing up.”
Feminism and gender disparity are not subjects that Chimamanda has suddenly taken on. In an interview with R. Krithika in The Hindu in 2009, she said: “My attitude to feminism is this: I am a happy feminist. I think all fair-minded people should be. Sometimes it becomes a problem of word choice, as many people have come to associate feminism with hairy women burning bras and so don’t want to be called feminists, even though they believe in the basic idea of feminism: that while men and women have their biological differences, those differences should not be used as a reason for any political, economic or social disadvantaging of women.”
In the same year, in a separate interview in Bookslut, she reaffirms her “happy feminist” label and adds: “I’m very interested in gender and how it affects life choices, just how gender affects things, and I think it does to a large extent.” And who can forget her seminal speech on How Will History Depict The African Woman?, delivered at the inaugural Royal African Society Literary festival? In that speech she focused on the need for all Africans to speak up for themselves, but more so African women.
She stressed then: “The (African) woman is more than merely an object but an (individual) with her own desires.” However, the ultimate test of her commitment to keep exploring how gender shapes our world, and attitudes to women, is best demonstrated in her characters, especially that of Kainene, Olana’s twin sister in Half of a Yellow Sun.
…That while men and women have their biological differences, those differences should not be used as a reason for any political, economic or social disadvantaging of women.
In a society where patriarchy is still rife and women are burdened by attitudes that want to marginalise them further – in spite of their progress in the corridors of power, social and economic advancement and the continuous growth of the African women’s movement – it cannot be denied that the relationship between and among women also plays a crucial role. Nowhere is this more prominent than how women can become competitors for the affection of men.
When the New African Woman puts this across to her, Chimamanda stresses reflectively : “How we are raised, that thing where we are raised to compete with one another for the attention of men… there is a lot of undoing that needs to be done. I think it is too late for us (laughs), I really do, but I’m hopeful for the future.”
She adds: “However much of all of this is construction. We are not born like this, we are made are made to be like this. While men and women have their biological differences, those differences should not be used as a reason to disadvantage women. So for me, we can unmake it and if I were to have children, it’s very clear to me and also my nieces and nephews the way I deal with them, it’s clear how I do it. I don’t do that gender bullshit. I don’t do if you are a girl, you have to think that other girls are competition for you and you have to be fake to get a man. Just be yourself and there are actually good men in the world (laughs).”
Achieving excellence is one way Chimamanda says African women can address gender challenges as they continue to reposition themselves in their fields of endeavour.
“The higher you go, the fewer women there are,” she says. This has sometimes created an atmosphere where women shy away from telling their own success stories: “There are so many women like that. We made to be apologetic, tone it down and the sad thing is, it’s not because men are bad. It’s a horrible structure that we are in, but we can change it, and excellence is very important. I often say to women, the answer is excellence. You can and you need to show that you can.”
However, she admits that it is a mixed affair because “on the one hand, women are advancing and doing better at work but on the other hand, there is the obsession with getting married, which I just think is awful.”
When we ask her what currently excites her about the younger generation of African women, she tells us:
“First, there are so many beautiful women with natural hair and that excites me, and I had to say that because it matters, because there is a new confidence we have and it’s saying, ‘this is us, this is what we look like and I’m not going to try and be what I’m not’, and I love that. I think it’s fantastic.”
About her book, Americanah, which explores the lives of Africans in America (diaspora), she says: “I was excited and also a bit nervous. It’s very different, different from what I have done. I wrote about hair and I’m actually very interested in hair. I wrote about race, immigration and about love. Almost everything I do is about love and I hope people connected with it.”
There are so many beautiful women with natural hair and that excites me…here is a new confidence we have and it’s saying, ‘this is us, this is what we look like.
A conversation with Chimamanda would be incomplete without asking her thoughts on how she sees Africa and feminism creating a workable relationship? Particularly given the number of times it has been said that feminism is un-African. So does Africa need feminism?
“Of course,” she says. “Many women, African women, shy away from it for many reasons. I mean we don’t have to… if somebody chooses not to call it feminism, it’s fine for me. It is just awareness that things are not okay and we can do better.”
Asked if African women can fight the equality battle without a label that is mainly associated with western culture, Chimamanda says:
“We don’t need a label but it’s easier when you give something a name because you have something to build and rally around and something for people to stand on. I don’t think we need to call it feminism. I call it feminism. Remember I started by going around and trying to make it African feminism, a softer, cultural feminism but I was, like, bullshit, I’m a feminist and I get to define it the way that I want. So I don’t have any concerns about my white feminist friends.
There is always a generational difference but I do think we need it. Women need to step up, and men too, and here is the thing – I don’t think feminism is for women only, it’s for men and women and that is the way we’re going to change things.”
“A feminist is a man or a woman who says there’s a problem with gender and we must fix it.”