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“We Must Do Better”: In Praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When I first discovered the existence of Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album this past December, I dissolved into a fit of grateful, relief-filled screams usually reserved for for grad school admissions letters. That is to say, I reacted like most people did. And when I saw the words, “Feat. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche,” I screamed again. (Never mind that her name is actually spelled “Adichie.”) By now, you’re likely familiar with the snippet of Adichie’s Ted Talk, “We Should all be Feminists,” that ‘Yonce sampled:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.’…Feminist: The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
This quote is far from the most interesting thing Adichie has said. To begin and end your explorations of Chimamanda with Beyoncé, I’d argue, is to miss out on some of the best work that contemporary literature has to offer—especially outside of the tired perspective of the white male American novelist. Adichie is a feminist writer, as her famous TED Talk confirms, but she also takes down cultural and social norms without catering to the expectations of “global” literature, educating readers swiftly and expecting a lot of us, guaranteeing that we come away with a different set of perspectives and opinions than when we first cracked open the spine of her book.
Adichie was born in 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria. The child of two Igbo intellectuals, she was raised in the academic environment of Nsukka’s University of Nigeria. At 19, she came to the States to complete her undergraduate degree, a move that would forge her previously overlooked Nigerian, or even African, personal identity. Adichie, who “didn’t consciously identify as African” until her arrival in the U.S., speaks of the embarrassing assumptions her uninformed but well-meaning classmates had about the “country” of Africa and its inhabitants—that everyone had AIDS; that machete-wielding tribal warfare was rampant; that it was up to white people to step in and save the day.
In one TED Talk, Adichie refers to these misconceptions and the “patronizing well-meaning pity” of her classmates as the consequence of the “dangers of the single story.” Americans tend to get a singular view of Africa: the poverty-stricken and dependent continent, barely changed from the one so contemptuously illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. These types of stories survive because they “emphasize how we are different, not how we are similar.” Once, the writer was told that one of her novels wasn’t “authentically African” because her characters were too “educated and middle class,” and “drove cars,” instead of “starving.”
Adichie calls herself a “Happy African Feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high heels for herself but not for men,” but her ethos as a thinker and writer is one where every definition can be refined and questioned. She recalls moments in Nigeria where, entering a hotel alone, she was assumed to be a sex worker; she questions why, when she enters a restaurant with a man, the waitstaff enthusiastically greets the man rather than her. She also wonders, as most of us have, when the word “feminist” became an especially dirty one, and why it seemed to be held in a particular kind of contempt by males. “Feminists,” a colleague reminded her growing up, “are women who are unhappy because they can’t find husbands.”
This sort of received ignorance on the subject of gender roles makes Adichie not bitter but fierce, and her critical lens never wavers. “We teach boys to be afraid of fear…weakness…and vulnerability,” she reminds us, which forces girls to forever “cater to the fragile egos of men.” She suggests that respect—that idea so seemingly crucial to maintaining a happy marriage—often only goes the way of the woman respecting, or obeying, the man.
As a result, many of Adichie’s female characters live alongside men without ever marrying them, despite the unsavory opinions of their families and friends. They engage in premarital sex and explore bodies with rabid curiosity. Her characters proudly flaunt their defiance, put education at the forefront of their lives, and rarely cater to the expectations of others. They are also vulnerable in a way that makes their strength not simply believable, but enviable. They feel conflicted in creating a cultural identity; they weigh the permanent consequences of pursuing romances, they are political dynamos and writers themselves. In short they are just as multifaceted as their real-life counterparts, so underrepresented in the larger and more homogenous realm of contemporary culture, where visible women are still mostly white, still mostly vehicles to further the actions or satisfy the needs of male protagonists.
Adichie writes for Nigerians first, a slant evident in the way she prioritizes but refuses to sensationalize immigrant life, civil war and Nigerian politics. But her work is so far-ranging socially that Western readers will find themselves recognized, even if (how novel!) decentralized. In fact, her work insists on a radically inclusive involvement of the reader. Yet Adichie would most likely scoff at the idea of a fad-based “globalization of literature.” If others are surprised or guilted or transformed by the experience of reading something other than the single story, that’s their business, and secondary to her own.
When I read Adichie’s work, I sometimes find myself guilty of just the kind of thought patterns of her non-Nigerian characters, and if Adichie has taught us anything, it’s to use this moment: to recognize that we are being manipulated by exoticized and even outwardly racist depictions of cultures outside of the “norm.” Do men feel this same pang of self-critical recognition of bigotry and guilt when they read about male privilege? Adichie would suggest that they do, and that in recognizing it, they play a part in changing it. What Beyoncé left out of “Flawless” was Adichie’s personal definition of the word feminist: “A feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it—we must do better.”
Firinn Asch is the pseudonym of a Southern-born, Manhattan-based writer. She is pursuing a Master’s in non-fiction with an interest in extreme religious communities and cults. When she’s not writing she can be found continuing her search for the best Bloody Mary in New York. You can follow her on twitter at@firinnasch or read her at firinnasch.tumblr.com to learn more.