Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Literature, Feminism, and Universality

July 11, 2024
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Season 4 | Episode 8

In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, host Makhtar Diop is in conversation with renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Celebrated for her award-winning books and impactful talks, Chimamanda delves into gender dynamics in African societies, the influence of colonial histories on women's narratives, and the crucial work of reframing African stories. From literature to feminism, this episode explores the rich complexity of African identity and storytelling through the lens of one of the continent’s leading literary voices. 

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Makhtar Diop: Hello, I'm Makhtar Diop, Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. This is Creative Development with IFC. Today my guest is acclaimed Nigerian author and thought leader Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chimamanda’s work has captivated people worldwide and ignited profound conversations on race, feminism and identity. She recently partnered with Africa Export Import Bank to create the CANEX prize for publishing in Africa. This prize aims to reward and encourage talent on the continent. Chimamanda is a pleasure to host you on my podcast. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Very happy to be here. Thank you for having me

Makhtar: Chimamanda it's such a huge pleasure to have you here. I read most of your books, I started with Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus, and after that Americanah, We Should All be Feminists. And the book about mourning . The one I didn't read is the latest one, your children’s book. But one of the things that I did when I read your books is also listening to the audio and reading at the same time. And the reason is that there is a voice and a rhythm in your writing. Tell me more about that. 

Chimamanda: That's actually nice to hear. Thank you. So I've been writing my whole life. And it's the thing that gives me meaning. And I really do believe that I was blessed with a gift. But I work hard at that gift. You know, I remember when I was in school, people would say how do you study? How come you're always coming first. And it doesn't look like you study but I studied. I think it was just maybe a bit easy for me. But I put in the work. And so in writing, I want to tell a story. But I want to tell it in a way that makes you feel immersed in the story. And you do that with language. And so I'm quite obsessive. When I'm writing, I don't do anything else. I'm hyper-focused. I edit over and over again. You know, my editor will say it's done. I'm like ‘no, one more revision’. So I'm just, I'm a bit crazy when I'm working.

Makhtar: But let me push you on that some more. For me, listening to your books brought me a lot, brought another dimension to what I was reading. The rhythm of the language resonates a lot with me as a West African. Because when we talk in our languages, there is a rhythm, a pace, which is different from the language in which you are translating your thought which is English or French.

Chimamanda: No, absolutely, I think my English is very much a Nigerian-English, actually very much an Igbo-influenced English. But even more so, I use Igbo words when I write because I'm writing about characters who speak two languages, as I do, sometimes in the same sentence, as many of us Africans do. I remember when I was writing Purple Hibiscus, and I really wanted to capture that, you know, sort of living seamlessly between two worlds - but not really, it's one world, because to say this would make it seem as though there's a division like a hard divide, but there isn't, you know, we're sort of speaking Igbo, speaking English, doing both.

And I remember actually having a bit of trouble with my very first editor who wanted me to take out a lot of the Igbo words, because she said Americans will never understand this. And I remember saying to her, I read books in which there's bits of French and bits of Spanish and I don't speak either language, but I kind of get it. So for me, it was about giving value to a language. I felt that Igbo was worthy. I felt like Igbo was just as good as Spanish or French. And I really like that. Because of that I think that there are also writers coming after me who now have the confidence to portray their worlds as they are, you know. We don't have to apologize. This is who we are. And I just don't apologize.

 Makhtar: Now this is fantastic. Because when you think about it some things that you do in your writing, you talking about the mix that we all are and you present always three categories of character from what I've read. People who symbolize one extreme, another who symbolizes another extreme, and someone who is the reality, which is a mix of these two extremes. Am I totally wrong?

Chimamanda: No, you're not actually! I haven't thought about it that way. So, I think for me when I create, I'm not thinking in terms of theme. And so sometimes I will get this kind of illumination of my own work from somebody else. And I think you know what, that's actually kind of true. So, yes, I mean, you're not totally wrong. A friend of mine said to me once, he said, you usually divide yourself into two. And one part is one character, and the other part is another character. And that also for me was…I hadn't thought about that. So in Half of a Yellow Sun, and the two sisters, my friend said to me, you're both of them! So you split yourself in two. But I think if there's anything that I stand for, it's the middle. I don't like extremes. I'm just thinking about it now. And I'm trying to think about who in Half of a Yellow Sun would be the middle person, I can see Kainene is one extreme, Olanna is one extreme. You should have told us that you're also a literary critic! 

Makhtar: I am not at all! But to go back to Americanah, the scene in a hairdressing salon is quite for me, one of the fascinating parts of the book. Something that you celebrate very much is beauty. And inherently, in our culture in West Africa, beauty is very important. Beauty, not only your appearance, but the way you carry yourself, the way you walk. So, beauty is a part of our tradition, to just make a compliment to another woman because she looks good, or another man will come and say I like your attire. And the tradition in my country is to take this and give that person as a sign of it. So, tell me about beauty in your literature.

Chimamanda: Well, obviously I love where I come from. I am a person who is in love with the continent of Africa. There's so much I admire about Africa and Africans, there's just so much beauty. And for me, in particular, being an Igbo woman. And growing up with my father, my mother, I think your appearance was almost a moral issue. So, for my mother, the biggest insult she would give to somebody was, ‘you know, they don't... they're not clean, they don't bathe every day’. That was like the biggest insult my mother gave. So, you're supposed to present yourself in the best possible way. And there's something about it that I think is also very respectful of other people. So that you want to bring your best to people. And so, when I write I mean, sometimes people will say to me, ‘Oh, it's important for you to show women in all the permutations. And I say Yes. But it's not even a political decision. I grew up surrounded by this idea of beauty of, you know, I’ll say it in Igbo. ‘You carry yourself well’, you know, and it's natural for me. So, I'm not really making a political statement, I'm just writing what I know, which is, we are a beautiful people, we appreciate it. So in Nigeria it's still really lovely to just be out on the street and some random woman just says, ‘Ah, where did you get this? I really like this your top”, you know, and it just brings about a kind of... it's just a lovely sense of ... I don't know... a kind of community that still exists, you know. It’s lovely and I really like that.

Makhtar: This is the same in other parts of West Africa and the continent. I just see in my mind a lot of pictures like that in Senegal.

Makhtar: But there is something about parents, you refer a lot to your parents. For me personally, it means a lot. What you are saying and the rapport that you have with your parents. On the one hand being yourself, being very strong in your own beliefs, but understanding that you belong to something which is much bigger, you're carrying something on your shoulders, which is more than just what you are today. Which is sometimes a very difficult concept to explain outside African society where people don't understand - they might say ‘you're an individual do whatever you want’ - but I am something more than that. 

Chimamanda: Yes, absolutely. 

Makhtar: And you refer a lot to your parents, and I refer a lot to my parents, and sometimes people are laughing at me about it. But I'm very proud of it.

Chimamanda: Can I just say that the people who laugh just don't know any better? I mean, because why would you laugh about something that's so, in my opinion, so sacred, so beautiful. I mean, obviously, I am who I am because of my parents. And also because of my grandparents. I have a strong sense of being you know, the granddaughter of Omeni, the daughter of Grace and James, and I carry that with me. So, there are times when, you know, I like to joke about how I can't do certain things because I'm still my father's daughter, you know, I have to think about carrying that. So, it's a kind of loving responsibility. You want to make them proud; you don't want to bring them shame. I think that's also really important. 

You want to celebrate them. I feel a sense of comfort being out in the world. So I've lived in the US and I travel a bit and I'm very comfortable in the world but that's because I know where I come from. That's because I'm Grace and James Adichie's daughter. My grandmother was Agnes, my great grandmother was Omeni. And I'm supposed to be her comeback because Igbo people believe in reincarnation. So often my father would call me Omeni. And I love that I love the idea that that my great grandmother, who was this fierce, wonderful woman has somehow been reincarnated in me. And it brings a kind of rootedness. It makes you able to... You know, I can face anything, because I have this, this band of ancestors behind me. 

Makhtar: Thats very powerful and personally touched me. Let me go back to feminism. What I see in your literature is that you talk about the resilience, the strength of women, I found a lot of this resilience in what you mentioned about these ancestors, these women which were very strong. And people forget, often that Queens were the head of some empires in Africa, people forget it. So, tell me the link between what you express as feminism today. And that affiliation that you have with our history.

Chimamanda: I think I've always said that there are different feminism's and that for me, my feminism is African, because I'm African. And really, it's just this belief that women are equally human. It's actually quite simple. And, you know, I think that my ancestors believed that as well. And I don't I don't like to romanticize our history, I don't want to suggest that, oh, everything was fine before the white man came because that's not true. But at the same time, there's a complexity that we had that somehow has been erased from, from us, collective idea of ourselves. So the way that we have learned to talk about ourselves, for me is not authentic. And so, I like to talk about my great grandmother, who I've already mentioned who she was, she was described as a headstrong woman. But that's because she stood her ground. That's because she was a feminist. That's because she felt that the parts of culture that diminished her, she wanted to resist. Her husband died quite young. And so his brothers wanted to sort of take over these things. And she said, No, and that was kind of unusual at the time. So she was labeled headstrong. But in the stories that we tell about our past, the women are all kind of really submissive, and they don't really have a voice. And, and that's not true. I love reading about pre-colonial Africa, I find it fascinating just how just wonderfully complex the worlds were. So, I remember reading this account of an English woman who was sort of touring through Igbo Land in the 1860s, 70s. And she was just shocked that women did so much because she'd come from this Victorian England where women just sat at home. And Igbo women were the traders in the market, Igbo women, and she just found it shocking. And because she found it shocking, she labeled it bad, because it did not match her own idea of what the world should be. So imagine this person then writing a book, and saying, oh, this terrible thing they do. And then people go to school and read that book, and they absorb these ideas. And that's how we start to think of ourselves in just really, in my opinion, dangerous ways because we learn to diminish who we are. So, there's a part of me that just wants to really resist that and to say, there's a lot about our history that we can take in and be proud of. Because, you know, it was beautiful.  

Makhtar: And you know, an example of that I sometimes give is ‘Mrs.’. Yes. Mrs. doesn't exist in my traditional culture. Women keep their name. And that just illustrates for me some of the things that sometimes were not identified as belonging to our society.

Chimamanda: I'm not a Mrs. I do have a wonderful husband, and children. But so in Nigeria, many people did not understand why I choose to keep my name. And so often some people would say to me, this is very bad, because you're not following Igbo culture. And then I would say, this is not even Igbo culture. I mean, you can choose to do whatever you want, but don't justify it using culture in a way that is not true. And we're teaching our children what is not true. Because actually, traditionally, in Igboland, people did not have surnames, children were identified by the names of their mothers, because often it was polygamous. So you know, my father, for example, would say to me that his grandfather was known as Mya Omeni. Omeni was his mother, and had my father not gone to school, he would have been known as Mwanem, son of his mother. And actually, in Igbo the word for sibling is my mother's child is one name, my mother's child. And so, you know, I think about these things. I think, ‘I wish we had more of an infusion of our real history, so that we actually know what it was like’. We don't have to follow it if you don't want it. But you know, I think we've lost that as well. And I really have been thinking about waste. I'm thinking about writing something about pre colonial Africa, for example, that will, you know, again, not romanticize, but just tell it like it was because there's so much that's beautiful. And you look at the history of Europe, for example, which many of us know, because we went to school, and a lot of it is still a kind of selective storytelling, you know. So the reason that we can think about the monarchies of Europe with a kind of respect is because they have been selective about what they told us, you know. I want to do that for West African history as well.

Makhtar: As a writer, are you concerned about some of these digital tools are used, and they can affect the willingness to read as interested in reading?  

Chimamanda: Yeah, I mean, technology is good. But I'm very wary about technology, particularly social media. Having children have screens too early. I think it you know, actually, I was reading a study about how it's rewiring our brains, our brains are being rewired by these things. And not necessarily in a good way. So attention spans are much shorter. People don't think as deeply as before. I think when you read, you understand things in a way that's very different from when you listen to them, or you watch them. And so I personally, for example, I want to be practical. So my daughter has screen time, but we're very, we're very clear about you're going to have 30 minutes and at the end of it, that's it, you go do something else. Because also I was talking to some friends who were very sort of Silicon Valley types, and none of them - the kids - none of them have screens. 

Makhtar: Did it influence your decision to write a children’s book?

Chimamanda: Oh, yes, my daughter. I wrote a children's book for my daughter. I wrote it for her. I was worried that she wasn't interested in reading, you know, so I was just thinking, my goodness, when I was four, I was reading, and my daughter had no interest. She wanted to go to the playground and climb things. And so I started thinking about writing a book for her. But now she reads, so I'm not worried anymore. But I think I still will write children's books because, you know, again, talking about what we're saying about just this African reality, I want children's books to show that just, you know, the grandfather, they go to the village at Christmas. They live in Lagos. They have two worlds where, yes, they speak English at home, but also Igbo. I really want to have that be ordinary.

Makthar: Let me talk also about fashion. Tell me a little bit about your relation with fashion? 

Chimamanda: Yes, I think my interest in fashion really is focused on Nigeria or maybe actually, I should say more broadly, Africa. So my mother was the most beautiful, most stylish woman in the world. And I think she was a bit disappointed with me, because I think she wanted me to be more stylish. So I don't think she liked that my hair was natural. I don't think she liked that I didn't like a lot of jewelry. But I think my mother's influence obviously was very strong. And I've always just enjoyed femininity, I've always enjoyed, you know, dressing up from time to time, I've enjoyed it. And I decided that it was important to kind of go public with it, if that makes sense. Because on the one hand, I know that I occupy the space in the world of an intellectual. And often when you're a woman who's in that space, you're not expected to like fashion. Because, again, I think this is a very misogynistic view, that if a woman likes fashion, then somehow she's shallow. But I think men are allowed to like sportscars, and they're not shallow. So I decided to kind of, you know, talk about it. And also, I wanted to support Nigerian fashion designers. They're just fantastic. So I started at some points to wear only Nigerian designers, and then I would sort of, you know, tell people who they were. And I found that it's not just about fashion, it then becomes about a kind of nationalism. But I don't mean hard nationalism, like soft nationalism, you know, promoting where you come from, celebrating where you come from. And at the same time, being happy with how I look. And there are obviously foreign brands that I respect, like Dior - the wonderful woman who's the creative director is a dear friend of mine. So, I sort of have done things with Dior. But in general, I prefer African designers partly because they just cut clothes that fit African women,

Makhtar: This idea that a woman who is elegant and takes care of herself. I saw too many professional people boxed wrongly because of that, which is, I think, fundamentally unfair, whereby if you are interested in fashion, you cannot be brainy, you cannot be smart. Tell us a little bit about what you're doing to change that image.

Chimamanda: I think just being myself and not, not pretending. And I have to tell you that when I started out writing, I was very careful. I kind of hid a bit of my fashion-love, because I wanted to be taken seriously. So, when I started thinking about talking about it - I don't want the young women coming after me to have to feel as I did in the early years that I had, you know, to wear boxy jackets, which I hated. But I felt like that's the way to be serious, you know. And like you said there are consequences for women. That's why it's even more important to talk about. There are real consequences for women, in many workplaces. If you sort of present yourself as a person who's interested in how she looks and people often and again, I think it's misogyny, people are blinded by that. So, they then are able to see that you have a brain that actually functions really well. So, they judge you on their appearance in a way that men just men don't get judged in that way. And, you know, so yeah, so talking about it is important to me, and also I love fashion, I'm not going to apologize for it. I love high heels. I love interesting shoes. Also strange things, I like strange things

Makhtar: I think that in another dimension, men are feeling also a bit of pressure, but for totally different reasons. Actually, the opposite. When men are doing things, which seems like artistic or being a position of power, they’re considered are not serious because they're doing something which is as a label as being not at the right status. 

Chimamanda: And I think particularly for men from our continent, because we sometimes can be very rigid about what we think is proper. Right? So, a big man such as yourself, is sort of supposed to always be like that. But I think it's wonderful if we have a holistic sense of people, you know, we have the big man who's very bright and brainy, but who also cares about reading and music and art - it's a lovely thing, I think, to see people as full people, you know, because also I think it inspires younger people, because then you start to see the humanity. It's not just that this is a big man who's the CEO of something. It's also that he's a person who appreciates art and I really believe that art is what makes us human, I really think it's the, I really believe that I mean, it's important for us to go out and make a living and you know, farm and all that. But it's art, I think that makes us, you know, really touches the thing in us that is human.

Makhtar: I couldn't agree more. And actually, if you think about it, at the generation of independence there was a lot of art. And I feel that somewhere, somehow, I’m a bit nostalgic of that ‘renaissance in Africa’. But I think that is something that will be helping in development. Because I do believe that economic development needs to be grounded on a social contract, which is fitting the realities, the story of a society and embracing modernity. If you don't have that social contract, which allow you to move development to a certain level, you will get to a certain level maybe of income per capita, but you will not be very developed as a country.

Chimamanda: Absolutely, which is why I'm going back to this idea of a holistic. It's so lovely to see so someone who's trained as an economist, who understand that it's not just about the numbers and figures it's about it's about a larger, there's a word you'd like to use ecosystem. It really is about that. And you know, when I talked about storytelling, storytelling is so important as well because the stories we tell will form an image of ourselves not just in our minds, but in the minds of other people. So, there's a reason why you know, I talk for example about the danger of a single story because so many people still think that Africa is that one thing because that's all they know, they haven't been exposed to other kinds of stories.

Makhtar: Chimamanda, it's a such a huge pleasure to have you. We are all extremely proud. The world is proud because I don't want you think its only Africa. The world is proud. The women who are reading what you're doing are inspired. Us men who are reading it are inspired. And thank you for being who you are.

Chimamanda: Thank you. Thank you for getting it.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.