She was opened to a certain level of hostility

Emma Brockes interviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a week ago for the Guardian.

Last year, at a writing workshop she was teaching in Lagos,

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?”

Of people who are not sure about this whole feminism thing and this gay thing? Perhaps she has no such intention.

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.

What are selves in the absence of other people’s projections? It’s a tricky business trying to have some sort of “genuine” or “authentic” self when the self doesn’t really mean anything in isolation.

But some projections are much much worse than others.

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.

A depressingly large proportion of progressives are hostile to feminism now.

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.

Even when many progressives think your full self is…problematic.


Later they talk about Trump – Adichie lives in the US and Nigeria.

“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.”

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.”

That would be good.

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