The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie visited the Netherlands recently, where she talked about her essay ‘We should all be feminists’, Beyoncé and her feminist brother Kene.
The queen of feminism was a few days in the Netherlands and all the fans gathered to meet her. Famous columnists from diverse ethnic backgrounds, professors, activists and a couple of young African-Dutch women.
Understandable because she is very captivating and engaging. Her hair placed as a beehive on top of her head, a close-fitting dress in bright prints and stiletto boots. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (39) is tired from the jet lag and a packed programme, with an appearance on a national TV show at the end. But she gladly joins this meeting with the elite of Dutch feminism on the afternoon of Saturday October 15 in Amsterdam feminist study centre, Atria. Most attendees are black, which is a plus for her: “For me it is very affirmative on a deep level to be here with you.” In Atria everybody expresses love and respect for Adichie before they ask a question, interviewers included.
Her voice is dark, with a charming Nigerian accent; her observations are sharp, her anecdotes funny. When she occasionally shows her angry side, everyone laughs, because “many women often wonder how to deal with their anger”. “In Nigeria, I am ‘Madam Angry’. But why should girls be sweet? I was in a girls’ boarding school, so I know the truth. There is no way to make your point in a sweet way. Just give them your diatribe”, she urges her audience.
Then the ladies ask their guru to please share with them: How to make African women visible in the Netherlands? How to create equality in religious circles? How to get more black voices into the media?
Her three novels are bestsellers of high quality (Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Americanah (2013)) but the new book that’s just out in Dutch is a TEDEX lecture from 2013: “We Should All Be Feminists.” That talk has three million views on the Internet. Yet it remains refreshing to hear someone passionately advocate equality. Feminist has long been a negative word, but if anyone could make it fashionable, it’s Adichie.
She permanently seems to swing between anger over unequal treatment and optimism about progress. “I can be angry and laugh at the same time. That’s my personal kind of instability.” Adichie firmly believes that people can change. “There is a part Messiah complex in my feminism. We must work towards a just world.”
In Sweden, 100,000 16-year-old students were given a copy of the booklet each last year. “Poor children,” she likes to quip about it. She got good comments from the Swedish youth, she mentioned during an interview with Dutch newspaper Trouw, a day earlier in an Amsterdam hotel. “Some really liked the idea that boys should also be feminists.” And then there is Louis, her good friend from the Nigerian megacity, Lagos. He argues in the book that everything is just fine for women, but slowly starts seeing the light thanks to Adichie’s tenacity – for example, when a parking attendant thanks Louis for the tip which Adichie gives him: it is probably his, right?
How is Louis doing now?
Adichie laughs her infectious laugh. “I was just texting with him. He now works for the government and has two daughters. He is almost on board.” Another ally on the ship of justice. The writer has always been a feminist, even when she did not know the word, just like her great-grandmother. “As a student I heard it as a reproach. At home I looked it up in the dictionary and then I took ownership of it. Everyone should do that.”
“In Muslim countries, the sexuality of women is not supposed to exist. But in the West, women are condemned because they are sexual beings,” Adichie says. That’s why actress Jennifer Lawrence from The Hunger Games movies – after nude photos were hacked from her computer – started explaining that she does have a steady boyfriend. “Terrible. A woman doesn’t need to be accountable” for her sexuality, she pointed out, rather passionately. On the other hand, Adichie often-times starts interviews about feminism with the statement: “I love men.” Surely by now it should be obvious that a feminist is not a man hater? “It’s more explanative than defense. The whole purpose is to persuade others to break boundaries and to involve men there. Otherwise, nothing changes.”
In many Nigerian soap operas, the female role seems invariably associated with sex. “In reality, the position of women is better. In Nigeria, more women work than in the West, and they are often in higher positions. The only man who ever told me that he did not know whether he could work under a woman is a Dutchman. What exactly is that issue with part-time working women here?” That many Dutch women are satisfied with a three-day job is what Adichie calls a privilege. And is there a lot of pressure on women to marry, she asks, like in Africa? No, those days are over. “But a woman must have a partner. A woman alone is something terrible. Men talk about their own affairs, women talk about men. The conditioning is deep in every culture.”
Singer Beyoncé used in 2013 in the song “*** Flawless”, quotes from the feminism booklet of Adichie. It deeply disappointed her that all major media called her afterwards. As if books are not important. But the Nigerian, who lives partly in Maryland, will never criticise others who are struggling in their own way, like Beyoncé. Or like those women who are seeking feminist space within their religion, as in the Muslim north of Nigeria. “There are many kinds of feminism.” But some of these sorts of Feminism-Light, like the you find all over Nigeria, annoys her immensely. “It is bullshit. A woman that has a job must still run the household. Why? The household is not automatically linked to a vagina, is it?”
At the session with Dutch feminists, Adichie stresses the differences across contexts. Feminists in Africa have to fight against the traditions that are used to justify inequality: “A granddaughter inherits nothing of grandfather’s land because she’s a girl.” Black feminists in Europe suffer from exclusion. Otherwise, why is writer, Zadie Smith only ever interviewed by white men?
Who does Adichie thinks is the best male feminist? Its her brother, Kene (36). “He can be intensely combative, like last time when we looked at a speech by Hillary Clinton. Kene can see injustice and explain it very well. And he talks down his friends when they mess up.”
White Women With Black Braids
Hairdressers who do not know what to do with frizzy hair, whites who touch your hair without asking, schools that prohibit Afro’s. For many black women, hair has become politics. Hence, asks the lady with the most complicated hairdo in the audience: are white woman allowed to wear corn rows?
In the US, this is called “cultural appropriation”. It is, as everything to do with race, extremely sensitive. Each white American understands ‘black face’ painting is taboo. But where, in which case, is the limit; and who decides? There was a riot earlier this year about not being allowed to wear sombreros at a tequila party of students in Brunswick, Maine. Elsewhere sushi is skipped from the lunch menu: cultural appropriation!
Adichie says not to get excited over cultural appropriation. Earlier while living in Nigeria, she had never thought about black identity. Everyone was black. She was Igbo. She was Christian. Only when she started studying at 19 in the US was the identity ‘black’ “thrown at her”.
The award-winning white author, Lionel Shriver wore a sobrero to stimulate the discussion when she defended the freedom of fiction in September, at a literary festival in Brisbane, Australia. “As a writer, you need to stand in the shoes of others and put their hat on.” A young Muslim woman walked out in protest, a riot was born. Each and every author in the English-language media gave an opinion: can you write about other “classes” of people and how?
“Too easy and sneering,” Adichie assesses the lecture of Shriver. “Stories do not exist in a vacuum but in a power spectrum. So if a white is writing on a historical oppressed minority, whose members are not sufficiently able to tell their own stories yet, you can criticise it as a reader.” That Shriver in her latest novel gives the only black character dementia and puts her on a leash is a somewhat unfortunate choice. Adichie smiles. “Of course, it is possible for a white person to describe a black perspective well, as my friend Dave Eggers does in ‘What is the What?’”
In the interview with Trouw, Adichie continues this sombrero discussion: “You are not Mexican. It’s about the majority automatically usurping minority items.” Is the reporter a racist when she wears her sombrero – bought on a Mexican street corner – at a party? Why would English speakers decide on this? The Mexicans don’t worry about it. That American correctness is making us a little ‘eggy’, they say.
When Adichie signs her book Americanah (2013), in which she shows how to navigate in a very nuanced way from perspective to perspective, she draws a sombrero. And laughs. Another point for the guru there.
Sybilla Claus is a journalist with Dutch daily newspaper, Trouw, and has covered Africa for seven years.