Described as the most prominent of a “procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors [that is]succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s meteoric rise in world literature beggars belief. But stardom comes with its own aches: from bad press to nosy frenemies. In this interview with CHIAGOZIE FRED NWONWU, the famous writer disassociates herself from the toga of arrogance being foisted on her. Among others, she explicates her position on the Caine Prize controversy, her attitude towards criticisms, views about feminism, preference for books and, above all, the nuances located in her latest novel, Americanah.
I find it interesting that there is this link between the natural hair controversy [sometime ago]and the controversy about your referring to a former participant in your workshop as “one of my boys.” So the last contact you had with this former workshop participant was because he had reportedly joined in re-tweeting the false quote about natural hair, and you heard about it, and contacted him to tell him you expected better from him. The quote itself came from a question about the Caine Prize and I would like to ask what your views are on the Caine Prize.
I want to say very clearly that I do not much care for the Caine Prize. When I was shortlisted for the prize years ago, I had a horrible personal experience with the first administrator of the prize, on which I based my short story “Jumping Monkey Hill”. He was sexist and lecherous. I still sometimes blame myself for not handling things better. I think women who have had similar experiences will recognise that sense of self-blame, when someone says something disgusting and offensive to you and, instead of telling them off, you find yourself laughing along, because you are uncomfortable, and because a part of you still has this reluctant respect for an ‘older’ man.
He did not like the few times I challenged him (I wish I had done so more often but I was really young…), and he certainly did not like that I already had an agent in America, because it meant I didn’t really need anything from him.
He then later told all kinds of petty lies, which are presently still being told and retold in the Caine Prize network, and when I first heard of them, I thought: my goodness, there are some things that a man his age should be above doing. He is no longer with the Caine Prize, but I think there is a kind of self-righteous entitlement in the very DNA of the Caine Prize administration. So, while I think any writer who wants to enter should certainly do so, I am categorically not an enthusiast.
I must ask, how did you feel about the whole fall-out from that ‘boy’ controversy?
I was hurt at first, mostly because what started it was shocking in its utter falseness. And also because, once you put out an ugly falsehood, it is very hard to undo the damage. I heard different versions of the story – somebody told my aunt that I was shortlisted for a prize and because I did not win, I then insulted the winner by calling him ‘boy!’ I found that very funny in a dark sort of way. It shows how easily untrue stories, when they are told and re-told, can change and become even more untrue.
As I said earlier, there were people who genuinely bought into this person’s attention-seeking action and I don’t blame such people for attacking me.
But I also think some of the attacks had nothing to do with the ‘boy.’ It was an opportunity for people who already had pre-existing issues. There are people for whom another person’s success is like an itchy skin rash. Your success bothers them, and so they want to manage it for you. If you don’t wear your success in a way that keeps them comfortable, they respond with a vicious hostility. There are also people who dislike you because you do not dislike yourself. And so the ‘boy’ thing was an opportunity for such people.
What is your reaction to that kind of hostility? How do you deal with it?
When I’m not in a good mood, it just upsets me. When I’m in a good mood, I laugh about how many unhappy and unfulfilled people there are in the world who channel their misery outward.
Someone will say, for example, that you are successful because you don’t have too many pimples on your face or because you went to America or because the sky is blue, which may all well be true. But they always conveniently forget another possible reason, that maybe you are successful because you wrote a book that people actually want to read.
But, you know, negative talk comes with the territory. I would actually be worried if it didn’t happen to me. It happens to all public figures. Actually, I think it happens to everyone, whether public figures or not. The difference is one of degree.
Think of it like this: most people have at least one or two co-workers who don’t wish them well. It might be a co-worker who wants to prevent your next promotion, or a co-worker who is envious of your car or your flat or who resents the fact that the boss likes you. In my case, these co-workers are people I don’t actually know but would most likely dislike if I knew them. And I have to say that, in general, there are far more non-hostile responses than not. The world is really full of good people. It’s worth remembering that.
The word I heard used most often to refer to you when this “boy” controversy was going on was ‘arrogant.’ Some people said that if you were a male writer with all the accomplishments that you have, being the best-known and most widely read contemporary Nigerian writer, in fact contemporary African writer, who has organised the most important Nigerian writing workshop in recent years, who has gone out of her way to nurture talent and support new writers, that there would not have been the kind of outrage there was about your calling somebody you were a mentor to ‘one of my boys at the workshop.’
If you are female and you stand your ground and challenge and push back and boldly speak your mind, you are labelled “arrogant”, “difficult”, “bossy”. If you are male and have the same qualities, you are considered in a more positive light: “tough”, “strong”, “a good leader”. A lot of the outrage from both men and women was definitely shaped by my being female. But “arrogant” is not a word that scares me. “Arrogant” is not a word that will ever silence me. I have heard it many times.
What about cases where people have disagreed with what you actually said, without any distortions or inventions?
Probably the most vociferous responses to any opinion I have publicly shared came from the article I wrote after the so-called anti-gay law was passed. There were quite a number of people who said I had made them think differently. But by far many more were extremely hostile. People even called my family members: “Tell her to shut up!” “Abomination!” “She used to be my role model, but I will never buy her books again!” “She is writing this nonsense because white people give her prizes!” That sort of thing. Even some of my family members were uncomfortable. The sense I got was they would just rather I keep quiet about gay issues.
But I would say exactly the same thing if I had to do it again. If my voice can get just one person to think differently, then it is worth it, because it means there is one person who is likely to stand up for the justice of her fellow citizens.
Why do we respond with antagonism to what we do not entirely understand? Why can’t we say ‘okay this person loves in a way that is different from how I love and I may not entirely understand it but I do not believe it is a crime?’ It’s really that simple. And it’s very sad when people use ‘African culture’ to justify anti-gay discrimination.
Many African cultures are traditionally tolerant. In fact, I think it’s the fundamental tolerance in the cultures of Africa that made colonialism so successful. We need to live and let live. We need to make space to accommodate what is different. Diversity is human. Throughout our history as human beings, there has never been a time when we were all the same.
What about criticism of your books? How do you deal with that?
I don’t read reviews. Just because it’s important to preserve a certain kind of head space. The good reviews can be just as distracting as the bad. I also don’t read articles about myself, because there is a certain kind of self-consciousness I want to try and avoid. I have a beloved small circle of family and very close friends who sometimes read certain things written about me, just so that we know, as my people say, ‘ndi anyi ga na-eze eze.’
I quite like hearing directly from readers at my events. I love stories of how people ‘found themselves’ in my work. In general, I like to hear what people really think, rather than what they think I want to hear.
Some criticism can be very interesting. One reader told me she had trouble with Americanah because she felt that the ending betrayed the entire premise and voice of the novel, which is that the ending was about wish-fulfilment in a novel that was really about tearing down fantasies. I thought it was very thoughtful and fair criticism. But some criticism I don’t find interesting. Like a woman telling me that Ifemelu should have been grateful to have a man who loved her and Ifemelu should not have had all the success she had. That told me more about the reader than about the book.
It also often depends on the tone of the criticism. So much depends on tone and context. You can say the same thing in two different tones and get two entirely different reactions from me. For example, somebody told me that Americanah was not as good as Half of a Yellow Sun, which I could tell was obviously coming from a sincere place. I told her I respected her opinion, and that my own feeling was that it was like comparing a bicycle and a mango, but I was interested in her thoughts. Another person said the same thing to me in a spiteful tone, and my response was: well, guess who wrote Half of a Yellow Sun?
This has just reminded me of an article in which you were described as being essentially without guile. You have also often been described as “fearless.” I believe these descriptions refer to your tendency to speak your mind without fear or favour.
My family and friends always tell me that my emotions are unusually obvious, which is not something I am conscious of. So, apparently, when I like, it is obvious that I like, and when I dislike, it is obvious that I dislike. My friend Michelle told me I have a kind of autism. I found that very funny, but it perhaps also has a ring of truth.
In general, I think it’s a waste of precious life to pretend. I don’t talk behind people. I say what I want to say in front of people. I don’t have patience for people who do not wish other people well. I dislike falseness. If we don’t care about each other, why bother fake-smiling with each other? When you are about to die, are you going to be thinking about how many frenemies you accumulated throughout your life or are you going to be thinking of how.
How much of Americanah is you?
A woman once asked me how I had dealt with my weight issues and at first I was puzzled and then I realized she had conflated me with Ifemelu. I have actually never had weight issues. I’m always amused when people meet me and say they are surprised by how tiny I am! I have not been bigger than a US size 8 most of my adult life. But I do feel strongly about the way the global idea of female beauty is so narrow. ‘Fat’ should never be used as a pejorative. Women should not be made to feel that they have to over-focus on their weight. If anything, both men and women should focus on being healthy, so that the question should be: whether you are fat or thin, can you comfortably run up a flight of stairs? I know slim people who cannot and overweight people who can.
Actually, I have a lot of Blaine’s annoying healthy-food enthusiasms which my family and friends endlessly tease me about. It was easy for me to write about Blaine eating quinoa because I am a quinoa eater, while Ifemelu finds that sort of thing ridiculous. I can spend the rest of my life happily eating my own healthy-ish moimoi recipe and lentils and salads. I spend time online looking for pastry recipes that use almond flour instead of regular flour. It’s terrible.
I’m not a “foodie”, but I’ve always been a picky eater and I’m very interested in what Americans call “wellness.” I am very keen on healthy simple nutritious foods. I am also a huge chocolate connoisseur and one of the latest ways that I have been wasting my writing time is by researching different cocoa beans online.
In Americanah, Ifemelu says that having an American passport means that she has the choice to always go back to America. Do you feel the same way?
I don’t have an American passport. I have only a Nigerian passport and it is a choice I made. I love America; I think it’s the best country in which to be an immigrant. I also really admire that it is one country that holds on to its sense of its foundation as an idea. It is a second home to me. But, for a long time, I didn’t even apply for a green card. I had this foolish self-righteous idea of “I want to suffer like my fellow Nigerians so that I can write truthfully about how humiliating it is to apply for a visa on a Nigerian passport.”
Until one day my friend who I thought was my fellow Freedom Fighter – ha! – told me he was going for his green card interview. I didn’t even know he had applied. He said – “it’s a travel document that makes life easier.” Which is true. So I brought my head out of my foolish cloud and went and applied for a green card, and got it in this interesting category called Immigrant of Extraordinary Ability. Very American. The sort of thing that sets America apart from other countries in the world really.
I still apply for visas, but I don’t deal with as much bullshit as I used to before I had a green card. There is something very wrong about a world where a certain kind of value you are given as a human being depends on the passport you carry. I still haven’t decided if I want to get American citizenship.
Somebody who read your New York Times article about light commented that it sounded as if you had really moved back to Lagos and settled down but that you were not ‘visible’ on the social scene.
I spend much more of my time in Nigeria now, in Lagos. Sometimes I go to my hometown in Anambra but not so much since my beloved Uncle passed away, although I usually go home at Christmas. But my ideal dream house has not been built. It will be in Enugu, and I will have a huge Frangipani tree in the back, and a riotous garden of roses and hibiscus in the front.
I am very much a stay-home person. So I guess that’s why people think that I live just in the U.S. and don’t realise that I live in Nigeria much of the time.
I’m one of those people who, when I do go out, I have a lovely time. And I like to entertain friends from time to time, but in general I am a stay at home person. If the world were divided into people who need to go out and people who don’t need to go out, I am firmly in the latter group. I think that by the time I am 60, if I live to be 60, I will be a slightly right-wing recluse reading Muriel Spark and muttering to myself in my dark study in Enugu. A vision I find quite appealing.
I read somewhere that you turned down a merit award from the Nigerian government, and you also turned down an MBE honour from the British government.
There are some things you turn down and you don’t do it publicly because that isn’t the point. So, I really don’t want to talk about the things that I have turned down.
Since you have become an internationally recognised voice for feminism, are there women who inspire you as a feminist?
Of course. There are many women I know who are not public figures but who have taught me much more about feminism than any book could. My sister from another mother, Uju Egonu, and my cousin Nneka Adichie Okeke are huge inspiration sources. I admire Jessye Norman and Viola Davis and Toni Morrison, because they occupy their space in the world without apology. I admire Josephine Anenih. I once heard her speak about gender, and, for a Nigerian woman of her generation, she was so unusually blunt and progressive that her words lifted my spirit. I admire Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker and Hillary Clinton. There are many Nigerian women who inspire me, not because I know them personally, but because of the space they occupy in the world, like Joe Odumakin and Ayo Obe.
So many friends inspire me with their strength and their ability to live the life they want and not the life they are supposed to want, like Jackie Kay, Bose Afolabi and Yewande Sadiku.
There are so many others. I am generally admiring of women who like themselves and who wish other women well and who do their part in working for a more just world.
What about men?
Most of the men I admire and am inspired by are not public figures. But there are many and they belie the idea that to be feminist is to believe that there are no good men in the world. There certainly are many good men in the world. I greatly admire the late Thomas Sankara, who, as president of Burkina Faso, spoke out about gender equality.
Let’s go back to the subject of hair. Your novel Americanah is often described as being about hair, among other things. It was of course during an interview while promoting Americanah that you were misquoted as saying that Nigerian women who wear weaves lack self-esteem.
Americanah is really not as much about hair as people who haven’t read it think it is. Anyway, I think hair is an important subject that goes beyond aesthetics and I wanted to start a conversation about black women’s hair. But it was never about blaming individual women. It was about challenging our society’s narrow definition of mainstream beauty. Our society gives women limited options. I think there are many women who would like to wear their hair in a short afro or in cornrows with no attachments or in twists, but they can’t because there are social consequences. Their boss at work will say they don’t look professional. Or their mother will say they look “rough.” Or somebody will say that men won’t find them attractive.
What are your thoughts on the adaptation of books to films? Do you watch films?
I generally prefer books to films. But, yes, I watch films. I just saw Boyhood, which I liked very much. I adored SELMA; it made me cry. More generally, I am drawn to European films. Not art house films o. Two films I watched recently that I loved: Flame and Citron, which is Danish and a German film called Barbara with Nina Hoss.
Some of my favourite films are The Lives of Others, City of God, The Secret In their Eyes, Babette’s Feast, The Battle of Algiers. I think I’m drawn to similar things in film and fiction: the ability to tell a real human story in a specific political context. I have some strange likes. I’m drawn to European films about the Holocaust, for example. So the standing joke in my family is that when I say “lets watch a movie,” nobody wants to. Because I will invariably choose something subtitled and dark. I also like British television shows like Broadchurch and Downton Abbey.
Credit: The Sun.