Interview by Belinda Otas, additional reporting by reGina Jane Jere
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: It is a name many can’t hear enough of. But aside from her “unapologetic feminist” persona, the prolific author is also a wife, mother, and a global African, who cannot be fitted into one box – ‘feminist’. After some recent back-to-back media interviews and photoshoots, New African Woman caught up with her and in this exclusive interview she opens up on all things feminism, her new book, media sexualisation of women, ideal beauty, depression, supporting Hillary Clinton and raising her young daughter in Donald Trump’s America.
It’s an unseasonably pleasant day for March in London, and there is a flurry of activity in the lobby of the hotel where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is staying. A photoshoot is taking place with a London weekly in the hotel’s basement media room. They are overrunning their allocated time and one of Adichie’s spokespersons respectfully apologises to our team as we patiently await our slot in – more than an hour has passed since our allocated time.
But this is Adichie – everyone wants a piece of her, and we don’t mind waiting. We are not the only ones. A group of six Middle-Eastern women are crouching in a corner near the reception area. One of them approaches our editor, asking excitedly: “Are you with Chimamanda Ngozi?” She says she and her friends, refugees from Afghanistan, are fans and had heard she was at the hotel. “We just want her to sign our books and have a photograph, is it possible?” she asks. Our editor explains that she is not part of the famous author’s team. “We hope to get a chance for an autograph,” the woman adds.
Later, after our slot, our art director fishes out a copy of Dear Ijeawele from her bag, and approaches Adichie. “Excuse me, if you do not mind, my friend is from India and a huge fan or yours,” she says. “She is based in Palestine where she works with women on gender equality. She asked if you could sign the book for her, and I will send it to her.” Adichie has by this time – as we learn from her PR, – not slept in 48 hours due to press interviews from both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, she obliges and signs the book with a beaming smile, whispering words of encouragement.
As she is rushed off to the next media slot, she still shows no sign of tiredness and her pleasantness is infectious. She stops to pose for photos with those waiting outside the hotel’s media room. No doubt she will give the Afghan refugee women waiting in the lobby their chance.
Adichie indeed transcends borders. Her award-winning books and stories, delivered with the intellect, wisdom and wit of a matriarch resonate and are endearing to women (and some men) across the world. This would be attested to later that evening when a full auditorium of people (men and women of all colours) packed into London’s Southbank Centre to listen to her in conversation with journalist Ellah Wakatama Allfrey on the topic: What Does It Mean To Be A Woman, To Be A Feminist. It is part of the centre’s Women of the World (WOW) annual festival that celebrates the global achievements of women while putting a spotlight on gender inequality.
Adichie’s new book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, started off as a viral Facebook post in 2016, in which she was giving advice to a friend on how to raise a feminist daughter. It explores what it means to be a woman in a world that is still packed to the rim with the patriarchy, sexism, misogyny and toxic masculinity that contributes to the systemic oppression and holding back of women at all levels – issues that she discusses in this exclusive interview:
NAW: There are so many voices on women’s issues and sometimes it can be confusing to decide which one to follow. How can the women’s movement strengthen its voice in numbers with one clear goal where there is no right or wrong voice?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I understand that. One thing that I would say is that maybe we shouldn’t expect [that]… We can’t all be one united voice and this is why I talk about thinking about feminism as ‘femini – ‘isms’. Which is to say that as long as we start off with that basic premise of full equality, people can have different opinions. Lately, I have been thinking about how Christianity works and is such a force on the continent of Africa. I actually believe that it’s possible to forge a feminist platform around Christianity. Now, I am not the person to have this conversation. It has to be someone who is very involved with Pentecostal Christianity. My point being people who are feminists and see religion as part of the problem, which I think is also true but I also think that within religion, we can in fact create a platform that is feminist.
I have often said that I wish Africans would read the history of the Bible because you can use the Bible to justify anything. I mean let’s not even get started on the Old Testament. Let’s just look at the life of this man called Jesus Christ; if he lived today, we would say he is a crazy left-wing hippie.
But Jesus Christ was a person of love, and he clearly believed that men and women were equally worthy. So if we can start from there, we don’t have to have one single voice. We just have to have the same basic premise. And that’s partly why I started the book by talking about the two feminists’ tools because people have different experiences and interpretations. In the end, as long as what we are talking about is not diminishing women.
I see younger women being more willing to question things and that is probably what is very important, the ability and the willingness to question.
You share your time between the US and Nigeria. Given the political direction under Donald Trump, how do you feel about raising your daughter in this environment and has it made you extra protective of her?
Yes, in a way, America has become less aspirational to me, but at the same time I would like to think of Donald Trump’s administration as a temporary setback. I don’t know if it’s because I am being naïve but it’s almost impossible for me to accept that this will now be the new America.
And my daughter, I am lucky that I can have both worlds and she is going to have both worlds. I worry obviously; I have a friend who teaches in elementary school and she was telling me that after Trump won, the children in her class, I mean these are children who are six years old, were telling the Hispanic children, go home, go back to where you came from.
I thought that was the most horrible thing and that they are so young. Obviously it’s concerning but again, it’s this thing where it’s a temporary setback as bad as it is.
We can only all hope this will come to pass soon. But in the meantime it seems that the election of Donald Trump has spurred more women into action – the Global Women’s marches for instance. However, on the other hand, a lot of white women voted for Donald Trump despite everything he stood for during the campaign. How do you feel about that?
I know, I know. It’s incredible to me. Honestly, I am still digesting it. I mean Gloria Steinem in her memoir wrote what I thought was actually quite interesting. She wrote about talking to many of the white women who did not like or not support Hillary Clinton. She said she was struck by how for many of them, it was very personal – they resented her because she seemed to be equal with her husband and did not hold back from chasing her own dream.
Somehow, they resented her for this and I found it very interesting because I hadn’t really thought of it that way and there’s probably some truth to that.
I also think that because Donald Trump appealed to race in a certain way, and his campaign was very coded about race and while white women are women, they are also white and I can see how some of those appeals to race resonated with them. The idea of ‘America first’ and sending immigrants home and all of that, I can see how all of that can also appeal to them.
I actually believe that it’s possible to forge a feminist platform around Christianity…My point being people who are feminists and see religion as part of the problem, which I think is also true but I also think that within religion, we can in fact create a platform that is feminist.
Hillary Clinton was heavily criticised for some of her policies in Africa when she was Secretary of State. How were you able to reconcile that with supporting her? Did you ever question her legacy in Africa when she was in that powerful position?
You are talking about her intervention in Libya for example. I don’t expect American policy to think of Africa’s wellbeing as a primary thing. Let’s be realistic, America’s policy will be about America and protecting America. Personally, I thought that the whole Libya thing was a complete disaster and was ill-conceived, but I just refuse to hold Hillary Clinton personally responsible for it. It’s a larger part of a long history of American policy and so I don’t take it as a personal failing of Hillary Clinton. If anything, I think of it as a failure of American foreign policy.
Trump’s misogyny and sexism is indisputable, but sexualisation of women in images, music videos, lyrics and other media platforms has continued unabated for centuries and is getting worse. What’s your take and what can be done to halt this once and for all?
I don’t know. Honestly I don’t know. I don’t even watch music videos. Is there a new way, maybe not? Changing the status quo is never easy and is never going to be something that happens when you say it a few times. Sometimes, you need to say it a few thousand times.
It’s similar to the representation of women in magazines and media. I am a person who likes fashion and I read fashion magazines, and I often talk about how I wish there was a wider range of women’s’ images because I think those are aspirational.
Magazines for young girls, teach them to think what they see is the ideal beauty. And when editors say to me, how can we change that, it is as though somehow, it is something very difficult thing to do! I say we can change them by just stopping it. I mean people have power. It’s not as if these things fall from the sky.
So during your editorial meetings, decide you are not going to have 20 pages of thin white women. Have two pages of thin white women, two pages of white women who are not thin, two pages of black women and two pages of Asian women, you know it’s actually not that difficult.
People often have commercial concerns and they think if we change it, it’s not going to do well commercially but I don’t think that is true at all. People are hungry for images that reflect the real world and I really believe that.
The people who have made changes have seen it work. In some ways it’s similar to saying that films with black people will not do well but they do. I don’t think any of these things will stop or end overnight or that it will be easy. But I also just don’t think it’s a reason to stop trying or stop talking about it.
The last time we spoke to you was four years ago, when we published the article “Africa needs feminism”, which was very well received. Does that statement still ring true and do you think the need is more urgent today than it was then, given the antagonism and hostility the word ‘feminism’ elicits?
I think it still rings true. I don’t think it’s any more or less urgent. It has always been urgent and still is.
I see a lot of young women from the continent starting to talk about these things and the fact that this conversation is being had, is a good thing. I see younger women being more willing to question things and that is probably what is very important, the ability and the willingness to question.
The hostility and antagonism is something I think one should expect. For me, I try to focus less on the hostile pushback, and it’s not so much, it’s just that it’s almost an automatic response from many people.
You say the word feminist and there is automatic hostility and it closes the door to debate. It’s also important to say that a lot of this hostility is primarily coming from men. There are some women, who are hostile to feminism, but it’s primarily from men and in a certain sense, it’s not that surprising because all attempts to correct injustice are met with hostility and antagonism. It comes with the territory.
I guess my point is that it’s not a reason to stop or lose hope, because for every 100 loud voices of hostility, there are also those who are quieter and more reflective, and for me that’s progress.
There is a lot of feminist conversation on social media. May I draw your attention specifically to the Nigerian context of the issue, which by and large, reduces the subject to cooking. Is this not a distraction from the core issues of gender and equality that feminism wants to address?
I don’t necessarily think it’s a distraction that cooking is part of the discourse. I think it’s important because it symbolises this idea that a woman’s place is domestic and only domestic and it suggest that a woman’s worth is measured by how good she is in domestic things. It’s also important because it’s actually a central part of the conversation about whether a woman can have it all. When we talk about women having it all, we really are talking about domestic work, and obviously, cooking to me symbolises domestic work in general. So I actually don’t think it is a distraction at all. It’s a conversation that should be had particularly because it seems to matter to a lot of people; which is to say that men who are hostile to the idea of equality should relinquish the notion that cooking should be gender based. I mean they have a really visceral rage about it.
So it’s important to talk about it. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that we live in a culture across the entire continent and in fact, the world, that somehow continues to insist and to teach girls that cooking is part of what makes them worthy. It’s like a central part of their worth. To challenge that, we need to talk about it.
Do you believe that intersectional feminism is necessary for uncomfortable conversations that enable better collaboration?
I have talked endlessly about how race shapes the way women experience gender, class and sexism. To be a black woman who has taken on that feminist label, in some ways, it is automatically intersectional. Western feminism focused on white women in the past and so the idea of intersectionality was a response to that and a means of being more inclusive.
In your new book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, you write about women learning to know that they matter. How can older women coming into the feminist and equality conversation at an older age begin to unlearn ingrained biases on women and gender?
It’s difficult because, as I said at the South Bank conversation with Ellah, half joking, I think it might be too late for older women. It’s very difficult if you have lived with something for 30 or 40 years, but at the same time, I think it’s necessary and better if we are to achieve a more just world. And more people in general will be happier, when more women reach their potentials. It’s a difficult thing but at the end of the day, women who have absorbed many of these ideas want things to be different and I say this knowing it’s very difficult. So for me, it’s about trying.
Talking about trying, Hillary Clinton did just that in the last US elections. As a part US resident, you were a vocal supporter. How does her defeat affect women’s confidence in vying for political office?
I actually think that it’s going to make more women want to get out there and try. It’s tough and it’s not just the psychological impact on these women. I remember wondering often how Hillary Clinton coped because I just thought my god, to have to endure all of these things.
For many young women in America it’s sad, partly because Hillary lost and also partly because Donald Trump represents that idea of casual disrespect and disregard of women. But I see many are getting much more politically active in response to all that. So I am actually not concerned. I am hopeful.
Let me touch on another subject that affects many, but is a rare discussion. Depression. You wrote an article in 2014 about your experience with depression. How would you like to see the conversation around this illness progress to a place where people, more so Africans, are not ashamed to talk about it?
I really think [the article] has added to the conversation. The reason I was so upset with The Guardian is that I wanted to write it and then go out and talk about it. Even that requires a type of mental energy, so I wanted to be ready to do that. And then The Guardian just sort of put it out there and I was very upset by that.
It was sort of like you are planning to go out and you want to dress up and like the way you look, and then somebody pushes you outside when you are still naked or just in your underwear and you are not ready.
At some point, I still plan to write about it properly and publish it because I want to take the stigma out of it. I meet so many young people and I can tell depression is something they live with. It’s important to know that one is not alone. It’s also to let them know that it’s okay, it’s not a bad thing or something to be ashamed of. It’s just what is. You have these moments, a terrible darkness and you can’t control it, you didn’t make it and it’s not your fault. It’s something one has to learn to manage.
So I am happy that the article started a conversation and I plan to talk about depression some more particularly for us in Africa. I think it’s important for us to not be dismissive about depression. People will often just say, what’s your problem? Cheer up or go and pray. And I feel as though those approaches kind of blame the person and I feel we just need a bit more kindness and a bit more knowledge. Part of it is not that people are mean, it’s that people are ignorant and they don’t understand.
There are some women, who are hostile to feminism, but it’s primarily from men and in a certain sense, it’s not that surprising because all attempts to correct injustice are met with hostility and antagonism. It comes with the territory.
In Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, you write: “Make sure she doesn’t inherit shame from you, you have to free yourself of your own inherited shame.” Is shame a weapon of oppression, deeply ingrained in African societies?
The first step is to recognise how very difficult it is. It’s being alert, it’s being yourself over and over and being aware that this shame is there and in some ways, it’s like giving yourself therapy everyday and it’s hard. This is why I keep saying, unlearning gender and stereotypes is very difficult but we have to try. It’s being aware, talking to yourself. It’s what they say about talking to yourself the way you would talk to a dear friend or a family member or someone you love.
Finally, do you remain hopeful for young African women, who are out there making change happen?
Yes, that’s the most exciting thing for me and I see it more and more. Anytime I meet a young African woman who talks about what she is doing, it gives me hope. That’s what I was talking about being hopeful despite all of the hostility. Even in Nigeria, there are young women interested in information technology and web design. They are not all going the more traditional route of being a lawyer, which is fine, it’s that they are saying I want to code, I want to start a web magazine, I want to start a fashion business and I want to sell affordable clothes.You have young women starting their own businesses and they have a can-do-ness. It is gratifying to see this can-do-ness because they are doing things that are not necessarily expected. I think that’s fantastic.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is published by Fourth Estate.
ART DIRECTION KARISHMA MEHTA | PHOTOGRAPHY JOUPIN GHAMSARI
HAIR CHARLOTTE MENSAH USING CHARLOTTE MENSAH MANKETTI OIL