The novelist has been accused of making equality mainstream: isn’t that the point? Plus an extract from her new book
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in Lagos last summer, teaching a writing workshop as part of an annual schedule that sees her time divided between Nigeria and the US. For much of the year, Adichie lives in a town 30 minutes west of Baltimore, where her Nigerian-American husband works as a medic and the 39-year-old writes in the quiet of a suburban home. When Adichie is in Nigeria, where her parents and extended family still live, she has a house in the vast city she regards with the complicated love and condescension of the part-time expat.
It’s an ambivalence with which many Nigerians regard her, too; last year, the workshop ended in a question-and-answer session, during which a young man rose to ask the famous novelist a question. “I used to love you,” she recalls him saying. “I’ve read all your books. But since you started this whole feminism thing, and since you started to talk about this gay thing, I’m just not sure about you any more. How do you intend to keep the love of people like me?”
Adichie and I are in a coffee shop near her home in the Baltimore suburbs. We have met before, a few years ago, when her third novel Americanah was published, a book that examines what it is to be a Nigerian woman living in the US, and that went on to win a National Book Critics’ Circle award. A lot has happened since then. Half Of A Yellow Sun, Adichie’s second and most famous novel, about the Biafran war, has been made into a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. Her essay, We Should All Be Feminists, adapted from her 2013 TEDx talk, has remained on the bestseller lists, particularly in Sweden, where in 2015 it was distributed to every 16-year-old high-school student in the land. The talk was sampled by Beyoncé in her song Flawless. Adichie has become the face of Boots No7 makeup. And she has had a baby, a daughter, now 15 months old.
Adichie is still somewhat in the blast zone, not entirely caught up on sleep, but has published a short book, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, an extended version of a letter to a friend who, after having her own baby girl, asked Adichie’s advice on how to raise her to be feminist. I have had twin girls myself since our last meeting, so I am curious about her approach, not least because one of my two-year-olds currently identifies as Bob the Builder and the other as Penelope Pitstop. I would like to equip them to be themselves, while resisting whatever projections might be foisted upon them. We show each other baby photos and smile. “Welcome to the world of anxiety,” Adichie says.
The success of We Should All Be Feminists has made Adichie as prominent for her feminism as for her novels, to the extent that “now I get invited to every damned feminist thing in the whole world”. She has always been an agony aunt of sorts, “the unpaid therapist for my family and friends”, but having the feminist label attached has changed things, and not just among her intimates. “I was opened to a certain level of hostility that I hadn’t experienced before as a writer and public figure.”
This is partly why she has written the new book, to reclaim the word feminism from its abusers and misusers, a category within which she would include certain other progressives, and to lay down in plain, elegant English her beliefs about child-raising.
Dear Ijeawele is, in some ways, a very basic set of appeals; to be careful with language (never say “because you are a girl”), avoid gendered toys, encourage reading, don’t treat marriage as an achievement, reject likability. “Her job is not to make herself likable, her job is to be her full self,” she writes in reference to her friend’s daughter, a choice Adichie has come to elevate almost above any other.
That day in Lagos last summer, her friends were furious at the cheek of the young man’s question, but she rather liked his bravery and honesty in asking it. She replied in the same spirit. “Keep your love,” Adichie said. “Because, sadly, while I love to be loved, I will not accept your love if it comes with these conditions.”
Having a baby has made Adichie think differently about her own parents, particularly her mother. Grace Adichie, who had six children and worked her way up from being a university administrator to the registrar, taught her daughter to love fashion as well as books, and was a “very cool mum” whom she idolised as a child. Nonetheless, and in the manner of most snotty young adults, young Chimamanda went through a phase of being “very superior” to her mother. Now, the novelist looks at her daughter and gulps
Adichie recently came across her own kindergarten reports. “My father keeps them all. You know what the teacher wrote? ‘She is brilliant, but she refuses to do any work when she’s annoyed.’ I was five years old.” She laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. My husband couldn’t believe it. I must have been an annoying child.”
It’s not as if she comes from a family of radicals. “My parents are not like that. They’re conventional, reasonable, responsible, good, kind people. I’m the crazy. But their love and support made that crazy thrive.”
Unlike Adichie, who was raised exclusively in Nigeria, her daughter will be raised in two cultures and subject to slightly diverging social expectations. Already, Adichie says with a laugh, friends and relatives from home are concerned that her mothering is insufficiently stern.
“A friend was just visiting and she said to me, ‘Your parenting is not very Nigerian.’ In Nigeria – and, I think, in many cultures – you control children. And I feel like, my daughter is 15 months, she doesn’t have a sense of consequences. And I enjoy watching her. So she tears a page of a book? Whatever. She throws my shoes down. So? It’s fun. I love that she’s quite strong-willed.” The joke between Adichie and her husband – whom, to her intense annoyance, their daughter looks much more like – is that her character cleaves to the maternal side. “He says to me, ‘Well, at least we know where she got her personality from.’ She’s quite fierce.”
In the new book, Adichie’s advice is not only to provide children with alternatives – to empower boys and girls to understand there is no single way to be – but also to understand that the only universal in this world is difference. In terms of the evolution of feminism, these are not new lessons, but that is rather Adichie’s point. She is not writing for other feminist writers, and shows some frustration at what she sees as the solipsism of much feminist debate.
That morning, on the way to see her, I had read a review of a new book by Jessa Crispin, entitled Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, a critique of everything that is wrong with feminism today. If one can get over the eye-rolling aspect of books by feminists decrying the feminism of other feminists for degrading the word feminist by being insufficiently feminist, the book does raise questions about where one should be focusing one’s efforts.
The proposition is that feminism has become so mainstream as to be an empty marketing tool, a mere slogan on a bag or a T-shirt. Without being named, Adichie is implicated in this critique, given that last year she collaborated with Christian Dior on a T-shirt bearing the line We Should All Be Feminists; depending on one’s view, this is either a perfect example of pointless sloganeering or a brilliant piece of preaching to the unconverted
“I’m already irritated,” Adichie says. “This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed. I think academic feminism is interesting in that it can give a language to things, but I’m not terribly interested in debating terms. I want people’s marriages to change for the better. I want women to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.”
Still, one can see a theoretical obscenity about the Dior collaboration: the words of a movement that should be concerned with helping low-income women, used to promote and make money for a wealthy company. On the other hand: what is the damage?
“Yes: what’s the damage?” Adichie says. “I would even argue about the ‘theoretically obscene’. There’s a kind of self-righteousness to the ultra-left that is hard for me to stomach. Its approach to poverty can sometimes border on condescension. I often think that people who write a lot about poverty need to go and spend more time with poor people. I think about Nigerian women who can hardly afford anything but who love fashion. They have no money, but they work it.”
Adichie mentions a TV soap opera that used to run in Nigeria called The Rich Also Cry, “a terrible drama series”, she says, “that was very popular. But sometimes I think about that title. So, the creative director of Christian Dior is obviously a woman of some privilege. But does it then mean that she doesn’t have gender-based problems in her life? Because she does. Does it mean she doesn’t have this magnificent rage about gender injustice? Because she does. Wanting to use that slogan – was it going to make the world a better place? No. But I think there’s a level of consciousness-raising and a level of subversion that I like.”
She doesn’t believe it was a cynical marketing ploy? “No. Sorry. Feminism is not that hot. I can tell you I would sell more books in Nigeria if I stopped and said I’m no longer a feminist. I would have a stronger following, I would make more money. So when people say, ‘Oh, feminism’s a marketing ploy’, it makes me laugh.”
The bigger issue here is one of range. Adichie’s irritation with aspects of what she thinks of as “professional feminism” is that it runs counter to her ideas as a writer: that people contain multitudes. She is a brilliant novelist and a serious thinker, and she is also someone who makes no apology for her own trivial interests. “Life doesn’t always follow ideology,” she says. “You might believe in certain things and life gets in and things just become messy. You know? I think that’s the space that fiction, and having a bit more of an imaginative approach, makes. And that the feminist speaking circuit doesn’t really make room for.”
There is much in the new book about double standards, including those governing the images of motherhood and fatherhood. “I think we need to stop giving men cookies for doing what they should do,” she says, and goes on to explain that her husband, who needs less sleep than her, tends to get up in the night to tend to the baby. “On the one hand, I realise that my husband is unusual; on the other, I feel resentful when he’s overpraised by my family and friends. He’s like Jesus.”
He probably senses she’s about to go off the deep end, I suggest, and Adichie smiles to acknowledge how impossible she is. “I did all the physical work to produce her! There’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’ve constructed what it means to be female in the world.”
This is something she writes about in a lovely passage of the new book about hair. As a child, Adichie and her sisters and every other girl she knew were routinely tortured with a metal comb to subdue their hair, something her brothers were spared. “I’m glad I wrote that,” Adichie says. “We had just come back from Lagos and my sister, God bless her, had already had a talk with me about my daughter’s hair. She said, ‘You need to do something about it.’ With my family, there’s an eye-roll and a here-we-go-again with her, and she said to me, ‘Do you want me to send you a set of combs?’ And I was like, ‘No, thank you.’ And I know it’s going to keep happening. But, no, I’m not going to conform in that way. I’m not going to have my child go through pain because society expects a certain neatness. It happened to me, it’s not going to happen to her. And I’m ready to have all the battles I need to have.”
The original letter on which Dear Ijeawele is based has been shared on Facebook, and while Adichie was in Lagos, a woman who’d read it approached her in a shop and said, “‘Here’s my daughter, look at her hair.’ She had very loose cornrows that were not neat according to Nigerians. And she said, ‘You inspired that. My daughter is happier, I’m happier.’ And do you know, it was the highlight of my month.”
This is not just a question of image. It is also about time. Women have less time than men, in almost every arena, because their responsibilities to look or act a certain way are more onerous.
It is one of Adichie’s bugbears that as someone who loves fashion, she is by default not taken seriously. When Boots approached her to be the face of its No7 makeup range, she said yes, because she thought it might be fun; in the end, she says, it became vaguely alarming. “I have no regrets, but you wake up one day and think, what the hell have I done? There were too many of these pictures everywhere.” Her point, however, is that “it’s not that I’m a feminist and made a strategic choice to speak about makeup and fashion. It’s that I was raised by Grace Adichie in a culture in which you care about how you look. It’s a part of me I once hid, because I felt that I had to to be serious. Now, I’m just being who I am.”
Recently, Adichie’s identity has been tested in new ways. I wonder if she is less affected by President Trump than an American, on the basis that she is less invested in the American story. Quite the opposite, she says. “Because there’s a part of me that needs a country I can think of as being one that largely works. Which is not a luxury that Nigeria can have.” She laughs.
“Someone said to me, ‘Now that this is happening in the US, do you think of moving back to Nigeria?’ And I thought, no, because it’s not any better there. I admire America. I don’t think of myself as American – I’m not. So it’s not mine. But I admire it, and so there’s a sense that this thing I built in my head, it’s been destroyed.”
There is also, she says, something familiar about it all. “American democracy has never been tested. You might have disagreed ideologically with George W Bush, but he still kind of followed the rules. Here, it feels like Nigeria. It really does. It’s that feeling of political uncertainty that I’m very familiar with, but not a feeling I like. It’s ugly. But even worse, because America is so powerful, and so much at the centre of the world, these things have consequences for everyone. Nigeria doesn’t have that kind of reach, so our problems remain our problems.”
In January, Adichie and her husband joined the Women’s March in DC. “It was fleeting, and symbolic,” she says, “but it gave me the smallest slice of hope. There are all of these people who seem to realise that America has changed by electing an unhinged person. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that’s very sceptical of too much sentimentality. I hope it translates into people organising and going out to vote.”
Long before talk about piercing the filter bubble, Adichie instinctively subscribed to rightwing blogs and newsletters. She was an early watcher of Fox News, until it became “too unhinged and ridiculous”. But she has carried on, because “I’m interested in ideological concerns and how people differ, and how we should build a society. What’s a welfare state? People who have less, are we responsible for them? I think we are. And I think I can make a selfish case, which is apparently what appeals to people on the right. People on the left say we should do it because we should be kind. And people on the right think, ‘Excuse me?’ But if you say to them, ‘If these people don’t get healthcare, they will go to the ER and your tax dollars will pay for it’, suddenly they sit up.”
As a result of her reading, “rightwing ideology is not something I think is evil”, she says. “Some. A bit. But, in general, I don’t. I have friends who are good, kind people who are on the right. But Donald Trump is an exception. It’s not an objection to a conservative, because I don’t even think he’s a conservative. My objection is an objection to chaos. Each time I turn on the news, I’m holding my breath.”
Trump’s erosion of language is one of the most frightening things about him, but even progressives, Adichie says, can be sloppy on this front. In response to her new book, a reporter emailed her the question: “Why not humanism?” (instead of feminism). To which, she says, “I thought, what part of the fucking book did this person not read?”
It’s like the people who go around saying All Lives Matter, I say, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Right, which I find deeply offensive and very dishonest. Because we have to name something in order to fix it, which is why I insist on the word feminist or feminism.”
This, she says, in spite of the fact that many of her friends, particularly black women, “resist that word, because the history of feminism has been very white and has assumed ‘women’ meant ‘white women’. Political discussion in this country still does that. They’ll say, ‘Women voted for…’ and then, ‘Black people voted for…’ And I think: I’m black and a woman, so where do I fit in here?”
As a result, “Many of my friends who are not white will say, ‘I’m an intersectional feminist’, or ‘I’m a womanist’. And I have trouble with that word, because it has undertones of femininity as this mystical goddess-mother thing, which makes me uncomfortable. So we need a word. And my hope is we use ‘feminism’ often enough that it starts to lose all the stigma and becomes this inclusive, diverse thing.”
This is her goal and her defence, although she still doesn’t see why she needs one. Her understanding of feminism is intertwined with her understanding that we all want to be more than one thing. And anyway, she repeats, “Can people please stop telling me that feminism is hot? Because it’s not.” Adichie looks magnificently annoyed. “Honestly.”
‘Beware feminism lite’: an extract from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s letter-turned-book, Dear Ijeawele
Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by it. You don’t even have to love your job; you can merely love the confidence and self-fulfilment that come with doing and earning. Please reject the idea that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive. Our mothers worked full-time while we were growing up, and we turned out well – at least you did; the jury is still out on me.
In these coming weeks of early motherhood, be kind to yourself. Ask for help. Expect to be helped. There is no such thing as a Superwoman. Parenting is about practice – and love.
Give yourself room to fail. A new mother does not necessarily know how to calm a crying baby. Read books, look things up on the internet, ask older parents, or just use trial and error. But, above all, take time for yourself. Nurture your own needs.
I have no interest in the debate about women “doing it all”, because it is a debate that assumes that caregiving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea that I strongly reject. Domestic work and caregiving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can “do it all”, but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.
Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite; the idea of conditional female equality. Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of men and women, or you do not.
Teach your daughter to question language. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter “princess”. The word is loaded with assumptions, of a girl’s delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her. This friend prefers “angel” and “star”. So decide the things you will not say to your child. You know that Igbo joke, used to tease girls who are being childish – “What are you doing? Don’t you know you are old enough to find a husband?” I used to say that often. But now I choose not to. I say, “You are old enough to find a job.” Because I do not believe that marriage is something we should teach young girls to aspire to.
Try not to use words like “misogyny” and “patriarchy”. We feminists can sometimes be too jargony. Teach her that if you criticise X in women but do not criticise X in men, you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like anger, ambition, loudness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness.
Do you remember how we laughed and laughed at an atrociously written piece about me some years ago? The writer had accused me of being “angry”, as though “being angry” were something to be ashamed of. Of course I am angry. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. But I recently came to the realisation that I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism. Because in my anger about sexism, I often feel lonely. Because I love, and live among, many people who easily acknowledge race injustice but not gender injustice.
Teach your daughter to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans. Men who, when discussing rape, will say something like, “If it were my daughter or wife or sister.” Yet such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime as a brother or son in order to feel empathy.
Teach her, too, to question the idea of women as a special species. I once heard an American politician, in his bid to show his support for women, speak of how women should be “revered” and “championed” – a sentiment that is all too common. Tell her that women don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings.
• This is a condensed and edited extract from Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published on Tuesday by Fourth Estate at £10. To order a copy for £8.50, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
This article was amended on 4 March 2017. It originally referred to Lagos as Nigeria’s capital. This has now been corrected.