EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (PART 2)
Read the concluding part of Olisa.TV’s Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu’s exclusive interview with Chimamanda Adichie below.
Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu: I want to go back to the natural hair controversy. There was social media uproar about a statement you had allegedly made about natural hair. It was reported that you said in an interview with a UK newspaper that Nigerian women who wear weaves have low self-esteem. I kind of feel, and I said it at that time, that there is this ‘waiting for Chimamanda to take a wrong step’ thing existing within the Nigerian intellectual class. I read the interview and saw that you clearly never said that.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: No, I never did.
By the way, to be clear, if that is what I thought, I would absolutely say so. But it is just such a simplistic and sophomoric idea. You can’t even remotely believe that if you have a sister like my wonderful sister Uche, one of the most self-confident women in the world and a keen fan of straight long weaves. I also said in that interview that while I prefer natural hair, I would buy straight hair wigs for my nieces if that was what they wanted, because life is short.
Anyway, I understand that somebody deliberately put out the headline ‘Chimamanda said women who wear weaves have low self-esteem’ and it was repeated over and over until it felt true. At first I could not understand all the noise, since the original interview was there for anybody to read and see that it was not what I said.
But I soon realized that many people WANTED it to be what I said. Because it would be an easy way to form a Society of the Outraged, and nobody would actually have to think about what I did say.
I was told about an ardent member of the Society of the Outraged who was asked to point out exactly where in the interview I had said what she was so outraged about. She then replied, ‘Read the interview again slowly!’ as if there was some magical clue to be unravelled by reading it slowly.
I don’t mind at all when people disagree with my opinion as long as it is truly my opinion. There are many people whose opinions I disagree with and I expect mine to be disagreed with as well. I actually quite like a good argument, but it is frustrating when people say you’ve said something that you haven’t said.
True. I find it interesting that there is this link between the natural hair controversy and the controversy about your referring to a former participant in your workshop as ‘one of my boys.’ So the last contact you had with this former workshop participant was because he had reportedly joined in re-tweeting the false quote about natural hair, and you heard about it, and contacted him to tell him you expected better from him. The quote itself came from a question about the Caine Prize and I would like to ask what your views are on the Caine Prize.
I want to say very clearly that I do not much care for the Caine Prize. When I was shortlisted for the prize years ago, I had a horrible personal experience with the first administrator of the prize, on which I based my short story Jumping Monkey Hill. He was sexist and lecherous. I still sometimes blame myself for not handling things better. I think women who have had similar experiences will recognize that sense of self-blame, when someone says something disgusting and offensive to you and instead of telling them off, you find yourself laughing along, because you are uncomfortable, and because a part of you still has this reluctant respect for an ‘older’ man.
He did not like the few times I challenged him (I wish I had done so more often but I was really young…), and he certainly did not like that I already had an agent in America, because it meant I didn’t really need anything from him.
He then later told all kinds of petty lies, which are presently still being told and retold in the Caine Prize network, and when I first heard of them, I thought: my goodness, there are some things that a man his age should be above doing. He is no longer with the Caine Prize, but I think there is a kind of self-righteous entitlement in the very DNA of the Caine Prize administration. So, while I think any writer who wants to enter should certainly do so, I am categorically not an enthusiast.
I must ask, how did you feel – personally – about the whole fall-out from that ‘boy’ controversy?
I was hurt at first, mostly because what started it was shocking in its utter falseness. And also because, once you put out an ugly falsehood, it is very hard to undo the damage. I heard different versions of the story – somebody told my aunt that I was shortlisted for a prize and because I did not win, I then insulted the winner by calling him ‘boy!’ I found that very funny in a dark sort of way. It shows how easily untrue stories, when they are told and re-told, can change and become even more untrue.
As I said earlier, there were people who genuinely bought into this person’s attention-seeking action and I don’t blame such people for attacking me.
But I also think some of the attacks had nothing to do with the ‘boy.’ It was an opportunity for people who already had pre-existing issues. There are people for whom another person’s success is like an itchy skin rash. Your success bothers them, and so they want to manage it for you. If you don’t wear your success in a way that keeps them comfortable, they respond with a vicious hostility. There are also people who dislike you because you do not dislike yourself. And so the ‘boy’ thing was an opportunity for such people.
What is your reaction to that kind of hostility? How do you deal with it?
When I’m not in a good mood, it just upsets me. When I’m in a good mood, I laugh about how many unhappy and unfulfilled people there are in the world who channel their misery outward.
Someone will say, for example, that you are successful because you don’t have too many pimples on your face or because you went to America or because the sky is blue, which may all well be true. But they always conveniently forget another possible reason, that maybe you are successful because you wrote a book that people actually want to read.
But, you know, negative talk comes with the territory. I would actually be worried if it didn’t happen to me. It happens to all public figures. Actually, I think it happens to everyone, whether public figures or not. The difference is one of degree.
Think of it like this: most people have at least one or two co-workers who don’t wish them well. It might be a co-worker who wants to prevent your next promotion, or a co-worker who is envious of your car or your flat or who resents the fact that the boss likes you. In my case, these co-workers are people I don’t actually know but would most likely dislike if I knew them. And I have to say that, in general, there are far more non-hostile responses than not. The world is really full of good people. It’s worth remembering that.
I read a response by James Eze that suggested that the journalist who conducted the interview in which you said ‘one of my boys’ also bears some responsibility for the fall-out.
The only person who bears responsibility is the person who wrote an ugly public piece knowing fully well that he was deliberately distorting things.
But I think the journalist could have done more.
The interview was long and so he edited it. The reason I said the Caine Prize was over-privileged was because he had talked for quite a bit about how he and his academic friends followed it and read each story and discussed it and what not, and my response was to challenge that kind of over-privileging of the prize. Which is a position I completely stand by. Because he edited out the part where he talks about all the attention he and his cohorts were giving the Caine prize, it read as though I had just said the Caine Prize was over-privileged, without the proper context.
I don’t think there was any malice in his editing. But I do think he could have responded when it became such an obsession for people. He could have released the whole interview. He could have clarified that I had not meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way, because he could certainly tell from the tone and context.
Also the bit in the interview where I said that I look in my email inbox for new African writing, which I’m told a number of people were quite exercised by, would have been clearer in context. Because I had told the interviewer that he and his group were over-privileging the Caine Prize, he then asked – “well where do you go to find new African writing?” His subtext seemed to be a kind of smug “if you don’t look at the exalted Caine Prize, which you really should, then where do you look?”
To be fair, it might not actually have been his subtext because I was also really tired and unrested and in the middle of something like a fourteen-city book tour. But anyway I gave that grumpy reply. Of course I don’t literally depend on my inbox to find new writing, but it was an irritable way of saying ‘I look anywhere but at the Caine Prize.’ Which is true. I think people read that response to mean that I think I am the final arbiter of African literature. I definitely don’t think that. I don’t even WANT to be the final arbiter. I do in fact get sent all kinds of stories and manuscripts and things. I actually don’t want people sending these to me.
Why do you think the interviewer didn’t take the initiative and clarify or release the full interview?
I guess because there was nothing to lose in doing nothing. Often when dealing with somebody who is a public figure, the journalistic ego is front and centre. Being unfairly critical is often conflated with being objective. So if you are unkind to a famous person, then you are more likely to be considered ‘objective.’ And if you are kind, then you might come under suspicion.
An interview with a journalist is invariably going to be edited. What the journalist chooses to include or exclude is much more about the journalist than it is about the subject. And so it becomes an exercise in a certain kind of power. There is a wonderful book about journalism by Janet Malcolm that is worth reading.
I suppose for him, the interviewer, it was a question not of what was ethically correct, because it is obvious that releasing the full interview was the right thing to do since his editing had led to a furore and possible misunderstanding (I say ‘possible’ because I am sure some die-hard members of the Society of the Outraged would still not think it made a difference). But for him it must have been: if I say nothing, I lose nothing, but if I go out of my way to clarify, then people might say I am ‘biased’ or ‘caving in to a famous person’ and my virtuous ego will be compromised.
One question comes to my mind now, and that is why didn’t you address it then with all these details? I am sure some people will still believe what they want, but there are others who would really have appreciated hearing your side of the story. Those of us who have had the privilege of attending your workshop, and thus got to know you on a one-on-one basis, pushed back at the media distortions because we knew what this person wrote was not true. But you remained silent.
I did consider addressing it then. But I decided not to. I have always disliked the idea of somebody else setting my agenda. This person certainly got the attention he was seeking, and my silence made it even easier for him, but I was just not going to allow him dictate what I would do. I did not want to disrupt what I was doing in my life in order to give interviews just because somebody had thrown a childish, misogynistic tantrum. I thought: I will talk about it only when I am ready to.
It also pushed me off a pedestal and I was grateful for that. A pedestal is a very difficult and suffocating thing. I do not want to be on one.
I kept silent also because I am quite an old-fashioned believer in what my people call ‘iji ofo.’ I can’t translate that well. It means something like karma. If somebody has shown deliberate ill-will to you, just hold on to your own lack of ill-will.
But the whole ‘boy’ thing also gave me something to laugh about. You have to laugh at life sometimes. Since then, each year at the workshop I announce the special Boys and Girls Club of Chimamanda and ask interested participants to sign up and I tell them that space is limited!
The word I heard used most often to refer to you when this controversy was going on was ‘arrogant.’ Some people said that if you were a male writer with all the accomplishments that you have, being the best-known and most widely read contemporary Nigerian writer, in fact contemporary African writer, who has organised the most important Nigerian writing workshop in recent years, who has gone out of her way to nurture talent and support new writers, that there would not have been the kind of outrage there was about your calling somebody you were a mentor to ‘one of my boys at the workshop.’
If you are female and you stand your ground and challenge and push back and boldly speak your mind, you are labelled arrogant. Difficult. Bossy. If you are male and have the same qualities, you are considered in a more positive light: Tough. Strong. A good leader. A lot of the outrage from both men and women was definitely shaped by my being female. But ‘arrogant’ is not a word that scares me. ‘Arrogant’ is not a word that will ever silence me. I have heard it many times.
It has been two years since the whole ‘boy’ controversy happened. Would you say that it has left a lasting impression on you?
Well, it’s not something I think about a lot, but it was clarifying for me, in the way that hurtful things can be clarifying.
It taught me that when you are a public person, only a few remarkable people will say in public the same things they say to you in private. Most people become double-faced. Even with some friends, your status as a public person comes in the way. They suddenly see you not just as their friend, but also as this commodity, and they have to gauge their own value as it relates to the commodity.
Being a commodity also means that people assume that you have somehow given up on your humanness, and they think of you on the basis of how ‘useful’ you can be.
I also learned that being a public person means that there will always be value in your slander. People are going to lie about you because there are potential benefits for them in doing so. Obviously it has made me wary. The wonderful Shonda Rhimes, when asked about this person she had helped who ended up being unreasonably ungracious to her, said that her philosophy after that was: No More Assholes. That sounds just about perfect to me.
I want to go back to something you said earlier in reference to the The Guardian publishing your article without your permission. You said that Big Journalism will use you, as a public person. I want to ask about your experiences with Nigerian journalism.
When I was younger, I used to believe everything I read about public figures. Now I know better. I have been misquoted so often and so many times by journalists and I see now why many public figures complain about being misrepresented. These days, I read stories about famous people with a lot of scepticism.
By the way, it is not just print journalism. There is a Nigerian news website known for political sensationalism. Some years ago, they asked my publisher for an interview with me, as part of my book tour. I said yes. Because my schedule was so tight, the interview could only be fit in after one of my book-signing events.
Before the interview started, I went to say hello and I sat around joking with them. They said ‘We have been asking to interview you for years and you keep saying no, but you say yes to BBC and CNN, so is it because we are not international that you keep turning us down?’
And I said ‘Okay o, if you don’t want to interview me again, I am going.’ And I got up and pretended to walk away. We were all laughing.
You know, it was the kind of joking around that you do when you are with ‘your own people.’ There was lots of nice camaraderie. I remember the camera person was from Zimbabwe and we talked about Zimbabwe and it was all pan-African bliss.
I did not know they were filming all this. The interview had not yet begun.
And so when the former participant at my workshop wrote the attack piece about me, and when the social media noise started, this Nigerian news website took that footage, edited it, mixed it up, created an entirely different context and put it up online as some sort of supposed comedy video about me being ‘arrogant’ and ‘difficult’. And they did NOT make it clear that they had manipulated the footage. This is a website that often crows about accountability from the government and yet they were unable to be ethically accountable in their work. Anyway I shrugged it off. Some things are not worth wasting emotional energy on.
Could their excuse be that it was comedy? It was a comedy show, as I recall.
I actually thought it was kind of funny. But you can’t just use a person’s image like that without making it clear that you have manipulated the footage and that things didn’t in fact happen that way. I don’t mind good humour at all. I don’t mind being made fun of. I have three brothers so it is something I grew up with, endless teasing and mockery. And I quite like that. I’m also very good at mocking and teasing. But this is different. This is an ostensible news organization. It is a question of intent. Do your viewers know you have manipulated this? No. Therefore it is a deception of your viewers and a defamation of the subject.
It seems clear that this website did it deliberately. Do you think all the other instances of your being misquoted have been deliberate on the part of the journalists?
No, not at all. Many of the instances of Nigerian misquotes are actually just a result of incompetence or carelessness. Actually the one example of deliberateness happened with a serious British newspaper, not a Nigerian one. It was during the height of the ‘Chibok girls’ news coverage.
I was being asked by various news outlets to give comments or write about Boko Haram and what not and I said no, because I had nothing to say and honestly I felt that there was a lot even we Nigerians didn’t really know about Boko Haram. This particular newspaper had asked for an interview that I turned down. And so they sent a journalist to a public event I did in Wales, and he asked me a question as though he was just a normal member of the audience. He then twisted my words out of shape, added something I never said, and created a headline. I was shocked. For some stupid reason, I would not have been as shocked if this had happened in Nigeria. I kept thinking: ‘but how can you just make up something that I never said?’ They took it down but the whole experience was jarring.
Journalism is a sacred and beautiful art when done well. But there is a lot about contemporary journalism that is disturbing. Sometimes journalists will goad you in the name of interviewing. And many of them implicitly believe that good news is not interesting. Scepticism is essential, but there is a kind of cynicism in some contemporary journalism that is stomach-churning.
You can also look at all this as a sign of great interest in your opinion on issues. It can be seen as a compliment, in a way, because the words don’t matter on their own, but they matter because they are attributed to you.
Well it would be nice if they used my actual words. You know, I often say that I have enough opinions that depart from the mainstream. Anybody who is keen to find something to disagree with just needs to look hard enough and they will certainly find it. They don’t need to make things up. Or distort what I have said.
What about cases where people have disagreed with what you actually said, without any distortions or inventions?
Probably the most vociferous responses to any opinion I have publicly shared came from the article I wrote after the so-called anti-gay law was passed. There were quite a number of people who said I had made them think differently. But by far many more were extremely hostile. People even called my family members. Tell her to shut up! Abomination! She used to be my role model but I will never buy her books again! She is writing this nonsense because white people give her prizes! That sort of thing. Even some of my family members were uncomfortable. The sense I got was they would just rather I keep quiet about gay issues.
But I would say exactly the same thing if I had to do it again. If my voice can get just one person to think differently then it is worth it, because it means there is one person who is likely to stand up for the justice of her fellow citizens.
Why do we respond with antagonism to what we do not entirely understand? Why can’t we say ‘okay this person loves in a way that is different from how I love and I may not entirely understand it but I do not believe it is a crime?’ It’s really that simple. And it’s very sad when people use ‘African culture’ to justify anti-gay discrimination.
Many African cultures are traditionally tolerant. In fact I think it’s the fundamental tolerance in the cultures of Africa that made colonialism so successful. We need to live and let live. We need to make space to accommodate what is different. Diversity is human. Throughout our history as human beings, there has never been a time when we were all the same.
What about criticism of your books? How do you deal with that?
I don’t read reviews. Just because it’s important to preserve a certain kind of head space. The good reviews can be just as distracting as the bad. I also don’t read articles about myself, because there is a certain kind of self-consciousness I want to try and avoid. I have a beloved small circle of family and very close friends who sometimes read certain things written about me, just so that we know, as my people say, ‘ndi anyi ga na-eze eze.’
I quite like hearing directly from readers at my events. I love stories of how people ‘found themselves’ in my work. In general, I like to hear what people really think, rather than what they think I want to hear.
Some criticism can be very interesting. One reader told me she had trouble with AMERICANAH because she felt that the ending betrayed the entire premise and voice of the novel, which is that the ending was about wish-fulfilment in a novel that was really about tearing down fantasies. I thought it was very thoughtful and fair criticism. But some criticism I don’t find interesting. Like a woman telling me that Ifemelu should have been grateful to have a man who loved her and Ifemelu should not have had all the success she had. That told me more about the reader than about the book.
It also often depends on the tone of the criticism. So much depends on tone and context. You can say the same thing in two different tones and get two entirely different reactions from me. For example, somebody told me that Americanah was not as good as Half of a Yellow Sun, which I could tell was obviously coming from a sincere place. I told her I respected her opinion, and that my own feeling was that it was like comparing a bicycle and a mango, but I was interested in her thoughts. Another person said the same thing to me in a spiteful tone, and my response was: well, guess who wrote Half of a Yellow Sun?
This anecdote has just reminded me of an article in which you were described as being essentially without guile. You have also often been described as ‘fearless.’ I believe these descriptions refer to your tendency to speak your mind without fear or favour.
My family and friends always tell me that my emotions are unusually obvious, which is not something I am conscious of. So, apparently, when I like, it is obvious that I like, and when I dislike, it is obvious that I dislike. My friend Michelle told me I have a kind of autism. I found that very funny, but it perhaps also has a ring of truth.
In general, I think it’s a waste of precious life to pretend. I don’t talk behind people. I say what I want to say in front of people. I don’t have patience for people who do not wish other people well. I dislike falseness. If we don’t care about each other, why bother fake-smiling with each other? When you are about to die, are you going to be thinking about how many frenemies you accumulated throughout your life or are you going to be thinking of how much in your life was truly meaningful?
I know you have been asked this often but how much of AMERICANAH is you?
A woman once asked me how I had dealt with my weight issues and at first I was puzzled and then I realized she had conflated me with Ifemelu. I have actually never had weight issues. I’m always amused when people meet me and say they are surprised by how tiny I am! I have not been bigger than a US size 8 most of my adult life. But I do feel strongly about the way the global idea of female beauty is so narrow. ‘Fat’ should never be used as a pejorative. Women should not be made to feel that they have to over-focus on their weight. If anything, both men and women should focus on being healthy, so that the question should be: whether you are fat or thin, can you comfortably run up a flight of stairs? I know slim people who cannot and overweight people who can.
Actually I have a lot of Blaine’s annoying healthy-food enthusiasms which my family and friends endlessly tease me about. It was easy for me to write about Blaine eating quinoa because I am a quinoa eater, while Ifemelu finds that sort of thing ridiculous. I can spend the rest of my life happily eating my own healthy-ish moimoi recipe and lentils and salads. I spend time online looking for pastry recipes that use almond flour instead of regular flour. It’s terrible.
I’m not a ‘foodie’ but I’ve always been a picky eater and I’m very interested in what Americans call ‘wellness.’ I am very keen on healthy simple nutritious foods. I am also a huge chocolate connoisseur and one of the latest ways that I have been wasting my writing time is by researching different cocoa beans online.
In AMERICANAH, Ifemelu says that having an American passport means that she has the choice to always go back to America. Do you feel the same way?
I don’t have an American passport. I have only a Nigerian passport and it is a choice I made. I love America; I think it’s the best country in which to be an immigrant. I also really admire that it is one country that holds on to its sense of its foundation as an idea. It is a second home to me. But for a long time, I didn’t even apply for a green card. I had this foolish self-righteous idea of “I want to suffer like my fellow Nigerians so that I can write truthfully about how humiliating it is to apply for a visa on a Nigerian passport.”
Until one day my friend who I thought was my fellow Freedom Fighter – ha! – told me he was going for his green card interview. I didn’t even know he had applied. He said – ‘it’s a travel document that makes life easier.’ Which is true. So I brought my head out of my foolish cloud and went and applied for a green card, and got it in this interesting category called Immigrant Of Extraordinary Ability. Very American. The sort of thing that sets America apart from other countries in the world really.
I still apply for visas but I don’t deal with as much bullshit as I used to before I had a green card. There is something very wrong about a world where a certain kind of value you are given as a human being depends on the passport you carry. I still haven’t decided if I want to get American citizenship.
Somebody who read your New York Times article about light commented that it sounded as if you had really moved back to Lagos and settled down but that you were not ‘visible’ on the social scene.
I spend much more of my time in Nigeria now. In Lagos. Sometimes I go to my hometown in Anambra but not so much since my beloved Uncle passed away, although I usually go home at Christmas. But my ideal dream house has not been built. It will be in Enugu, and I will have a huge Frangipani tree in the back, and a riotous garden of roses and hibiscus in the front.
I am very much a stay home person. So I guess that’s why people think that I live just in the U.S. and don’t realise that I live in Nigeria much of the time.
I’m one of those people who, when I do go out, I have a lovely time. And I like to entertain friends from time to time, but in general I am a stay at home person. If the world were divided into people who need to go out and people who don’t need to go out, I am firmly in the latter group.
I think that by the time I am 60, if I live to be 60, I will be a slightly right-wing recluse reading Muriel Spark and muttering to myself in my dark study in Enugu. A vision I find quite appealing.
I’d like to ask you about another controversy, and I have to say that calling it a ‘controversy’ is again because you are a celebrity, or a ‘public person’ as you say. It was not a controversy in actual fact. You gave an interview to a Nigerian newspaper where you told the journalist not to call you by the title of MRS.
Yes, a Nigerian journalist decided to give me a name because he felt it SHOULD be my name.
How can I tell you what my name is, and then you unilaterally decide what my name should be?
Whether or not I am married, I have told you that my name is Ms. Chimamanda Adichie. You then decide to create a name for me, and not only do you call me MRS but you give me another surname and you use that as my name in a newspaper article. Your newspaper article spreads far and wide. Before I know it, other people are calling me by that name.
This journalist who gave you a new name, as you put it, did so after discovering that you have been married for some years. He found out your husband’s name and then created the new name for you. I have noticed that you don’t talk publicly about your personal life. There is really nothing out there that can be directly attributed to you about your husband or marriage. Is there a reason for this?
I choose not to talk publicly about my personal life.
I recall that the newspaper subsequently issued a retraction and an apology.
My manager made a formal complaint to the editor of the newspaper, as well as to the journalist.
The next thing I know, the journalist wrote another article that completely garbled what I said, so the headline became ‘Chimamanda wants to be called Miss.’
I remember that I even spelled MS out to him, because some Nigerians pronounce it as the two separate letters but I pronounce it as ‘Miz’ and so I made a clear distinction for him.
My basic point was that every adult woman should have the freedom to choose to be called Ms. or Mrs. I actually think it just makes more sense for every adult woman, whether married or not, to be called MS just as every adult man is called MR, as a starting point, and a woman who wants to change that can do so.
To be fair, quite a few people apparently responded to the so-called controversy by saying that even here in Nigeria there are many examples of women who chose to keep their own names, especially those who have become successful using that name.
For me, it is not at all about being successful. I like my name. I am attached to my name. It is part of my identity. I have always known I would keep my name, whether or not I was successful. The title MRS should simply be a choice that women can make or not make.
I have never seen the title MRS as a source of pride. I do not understand why it should be a source of pride as it apparently is to many women.
Marriage can be a lovely thing or it can be an unlovely thing but it is not an accomplishment. Birthing a child is an accomplishment. Birthing an idea is an accomplishment. Building something or creating something or raising a good human being or contributing to making the world better in some way is an accomplishment. But marriage is not. Sadly, it is women who are raised to view marriage as an accomplishment. Men are not raised that way, and that already sets up a terrible imbalance.
The journalist’s action was disrespectful and an act of provocation. The sad thing is that he really didn’t get what was so wrong about his decision to give me a new name. He was even trying to explain to me why my name should be MRS something. He kept saying it was our ‘African culture’ and that it was what we have been doing ‘since time immemorial.’
I have observed that this idea of ‘African culture’ is something you are very interested in challenging. There is a memorable line from your TED talk: culture does not make people, people make culture.
It is true that conventionally most Nigerian women take their husband’s surnames – and it puzzles me that more people don’t question that act of erasure, of giving up a name you have had your entire life.
But it is not an ancient African practice at all (and by the way, there are parts of the world where women do NOT take their husband’s surnames as norm).
A lot of what we call ancient African cultural practices are really Victorian Christian practices. Christianity and colonialism created a lot of what we now call ‘authentic culture’. Take this example of surnames.
Igbo people didn’t even have surnames until the 1910s. As in many other societies, people just had one name. Many surnames were invented as a response to colonialism. So people just took the name of their father or grandfather or even the title of somebody in their family.
Nwafor and Nwoye are very common names where I come from. Before Christianity, Igbo culture was polygamous. And often, in a polygamous household with many children, a child would be distinguished by the mother and not the father, since there was just one father and various possible mothers.
I know a person in my grandfather’s generation called Nwoye Nwamgba, and Nwamgba was his mother. Because in the same household, there might be a Nwoye Mgbafor, Mgbafor being another wife. Some of those people are still alive and even though they now have legal surnames, they are still referred to with their mothers’ names.
Here’s another example. In my part of Igboland, women were traditionally buried in the homes where they were born and not in the homes of the men they married.
My great-grandmother – the last person in my family before our conversion to Christianity – was from Ifite-Ukpo but married a man from Abba. When she died, she was taken back to Ifite-Ukpo and buried there. The traditional Igbo view is that a wife is a temporary gift to the man’s family, and she is there primarily to have children. But her birth home is where she really belongs and where she has a real say.
Of course this is far from perfect – for example, children were solely part of the man’s family and a woman had little rights to her own children. Igbo culture was terribly patriarchal but it was more complex and less rigid than it is now with Christianity. This idea that a woman should become completely submerged in her husband is actually NOT a traditional idea of Igbo people.
It is instead a traditional British idea. Igbo women and Yoruba women in 1850 actually had more social and political rights than English women.
My point is that since cultures evolve and since what we do today in the name of culture is not at all what happened a hundred years ago, then everything is open for negotiation. Everything is changeable. The basis for the change should then be: how do we evolve in a way to ensure the least discrimination and the most dignity for everyone?
I love the language, the folklore, the wisdom, the myths of Igbo culture. There is so much I love. But there are many things I don’t love. ‘Just accept it as the way it is’ is not an acceptable answer to me. The answer is to work towards changing it from within.
Do you have any concrete ideas about how to achieve this cultural change from within?
Education. The problem is that we know very little of our pre-colonial history. False popular images and the religion-induced demonization of our past have taken over our imagination. So we think our history is what we see in Nollywood’s so-called historical films. I wish Nollywood would actually do some proper research and portray precolonial life as it was, because Nollywood can be a powerful teaching tool. It shouldn’t just be about drawing chalk designs on people’s bodies and having medicine men turn people into snakes.
I wish somebody would make a film about the female king of Nsukka and the female co-king of Onitsha called the omu. They all existed. History is about the stories that were selected and told and retold. But there are other stories. We need to find them and tell them.
Your Creative writing workshop is in its tenth year and has seen some of the most notable writers of what many are calling the social media generation happy to state that they are Farafina Workshop Alumni in their resumes. What does the future look like?
I’m very pleased and very proud of the workshop. I want to do more. I have been thinking of a nonfiction and journalism workshop. I think we are doing very well now with writing our own fiction but nonfiction has a long way to go.
Your passion for education is well known, and this goes beyond your creative writing workshops. You have said in the past that you have no interest in a political position but I am wondering if something could change your mind. For instance, if you were asked to become Minister of Education, is it something you would consider?
I never say never. But it is very unlikely. Nigeria is a really tough place to be in a position of political leadership and to make the slightest difference you have to be able to give three hundred percent. And you have to be able to compromise on things you don’t believe in, which would be very hard for me to do. Because I am primarily a writer, because my greatest loves are to read and write, because I value silence and solitude, I don’t think I would do my best as a political person. There are many people who would do it much better than I could. But I would love to be an adviser of some sort, because I do care deeply about education.
I read somewhere that you turned down a merit award from the Nigerian government, and you also turned down an MBE honour from the British government.
There are some things you turn down and you don’t do it publicly because that isn’t the point. So I really don’t want to talk about the things that I have turned down.
I want to ask you about style. You were featured in the recent style issue of NEW YORK magazine alongside the designer Carolina Hererra. Something you said in the interview is that your rule is ‘Never admire quietly.’
(Editor’s note- New York Magazine feature here)
Yes. I was being asked what people most compliment me about and I said I give more compliments than I get. Which is true. I never admire quietly. If I admire something about somebody, I always make a point of telling them so.
You are now considered a style icon. You wrote an essay titled WHY CAN’T SMART WOMEN LIKE FASHION? Which has been widely republished. Your headwrap for a long time was your style statement. What is it like to be a writer who is also known for her style? Do you have what is called a ‘stylist?’
(Editor’s note: this month Chimamanda is featured in Vogue magazine’s Today I’m Wearing. Click here to view.)
Stylist kwa? No, I make all my choices myself. I’ve always been interested in style. I like buying fabric in the market. The other day I went to Balogun with a friend to buy fabric and a woman said to me, ‘you look like Chimamanda,’ and I said ‘yes, people tell me that.’ Ha! I like to design my own clothes. I do these really atrocious sketches in a notebook, and I even colour them with crayons. I find it quite calming.
By the way, I love headwraps but I really wear them mostly when my hair is a disaster and when I don’t have the energy to do anything about my hair.
Anyway, I wrote that piece because it was a response to the idea that in the west a woman who wants to be taken seriously cannot be perceived as being interested in her appearance. I thought this was such an un-feminist idea. But I’m really not unusual. There are many contemporary women writers who write well and dress well. Like Zadie Smith and Elif Shafak and Yvonne Owuor and Chika Unigwe and Tayari Jones and Kiran Desai and Ahdaf Soueif and many others. Two older-generation writers I love, Flora Nwapa and Mary McCarthy, had great style.
Are there other female public figures who are not writers but whose style you like?
I think the actress Aissa Maiga and the singer Adele are great beauties. I admire the style of women like Aisha Oyebode, Solange Knowles, Marion Cotillard, Olivia Palermo, and Michelle Obama.
Since you have become an internationally recognized voice for feminism, are there women who inspire you as a feminist?
Of course. There are many women I know who are not public figures but who have taught me much more about feminism than any book could. My sister from another mother, Uju Egonu, and my cousin Nneka Adichie Okeke are huge inspiration sources. I admire Jessye Norman and Viola Davis and Toni Morrison, because they occupy their space in the world without apology. I admire Josephine Anenih. I once heard her speak about gender, and for a Nigerian woman of her generation, she was so unusually blunt and progressive that her words lifted my spirit. I admire Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker and Hillary Clinton. There are many Nigerian women who inspire me, not because I know them personally, but because of the space they occupy in the world, like Joe Odumakin and Ayo Obe.
So many friends inspire me with their strength and their ability to live the life they want and not the life they are supposed to want, like Jackie Kay, Bose Afolabi and Yewande Sadiku.
There are so many others. I am generally admiring of women who like themselves and who wish other women well and who do their part in working for a more just world.
What about men?
Most of the men I admire and am inspired by are not public figures. But there are many and they belie the idea that to be feminist is to believe that there are no good men in the world. There certainly are many good men in the world. I greatly admire the late Thomas Sankara who as president of Burkina Faso spoke out about gender equality.
What are you reading now? Do you have any reading rituals while writing?
I read a number of books at the same time, depending on my mood. I’m reading Professor Kenneth Dike’s remarkable book called Trade and Politics In The Niger Delta. The title doesn’t capture how fascinating it is, and it makes you realize how academia has changed. Academics of his time were not so jargon-drenched and ‘specialised.’ He is one of the many Nigerian heroes we should better celebrate. I’m reading a biography called Sons Of Wichita by Daniel Schulman, which is a biography of the extremely wealthy Koch brothers and their influence on American politics. I’m also reading two lovely novels, A Month In The Country by JL Carr and Final Payments by Mary Gordon. I usually read poetry when I am writing fiction. I dip in and out. I don’t much care for the kind of poetry as ‘puzzle to be decoded,’ I’m much more drawn to a sort of lush dense poetry and I read it as language to be relished, to have wash over me. Derek Walcott is a long-time favorite. I have just fallen in love with the poetry of Eamon Grennan.
Let’s go back to the subject of hair. Your novel AMERICANAH is often described as being about hair, among other things. It was of course during an interview while promoting AMERICANAH that you were misquoted as saying that Nigerian women who wear weaves lack self-esteem.
AMERICANAH is really not as much about hair as people who haven’t read it think it is. Anyway, I think hair is an important subject that goes beyond aesthetics and I wanted to start a conversation about black women’s hair. But it was never about blaming individual women. It was about challenging our society’s narrow definition of mainstream beauty. Our society gives women limited options. I think there are many women who would like to wear their hair in a short afro or in cornrows with no attachments or in twists, but they can’t because there are social consequences. Their boss at work will say they don’t look professional. Or their mother will say they look ‘rough.’ Or somebody will say that men won’t find them attractive.
You said you wanted to start a conversation about black women’s hair. Why black women in particular?
Actually I am interested in women’s hair in general. White women’s hair is also politicised, and when a white woman starts to go grey and chooses not to colour her hair, for example, there are assumptions made because she is not the mainstream norm – and she would probably never get a job as a television news anchor. Asian and Hispanic women also have issues of hair choices going beyond the mere aesthetic. But why do I focus on Black women in particular? Because I am a Black woman. Because Black women are the only women on the planet who permanently change their hair into something that looks as far removed as possible from what God put on their heads. Because Black women are the only women on the planet who actively acquire the hair of women from other parts of the world. Because Black women are the only women for whom it requires some form of an ‘effort’ to consider their natural hair as equal an option to anything else.
People get tied up in semantic knots about ‘what is natural?’ For me, the answer is simple: it is a question of texture. It is not about whether you add attachments or not. It is a question of texture. What kind of texture gets value? What kind of texture does not get value? I think we are generally raised to devalue our natural hair. We say it’s rough, ugly, that sort of thing. We laugh at our hair when normal relaxers can’t straighten it. All these are value judgments about texture.
What, if anything, is the ultimate goal of this conversation that you wanted to start – and have indeed started – about black women’s hair?
My goal is a dream. The dream is that natural kinky black hair – and the various associated styles – will have the same value as any other kind of hair.
I’m inspired by photographs from the 1960s. There is a particular photograph of my mother and her friends, three university women, at a cocktail party in Nsukka. One of them was wearing a big glamorous wig, one had her hair threaded in isi owu, and one had her hair in a short afro. That is the world I dream about – where these different styles are seen as equal choices.
When I recently threaded my hair in isi owu, I was told that I was ‘making a statement.’ Actually I wasn’t. I did it because I think isi owu is architectural and beautiful. Sadly, it is very difficult to find anyone who can thread hair well. The few people who can are generally contemptuous of it. Only forty years ago, isi owu was a Nigerian hairstyle that could be worn to a cocktail party and NOT as costume. My question is: what happened?
What do you think is responsible for this shift?
Globalisation, maybe. And globalisation is a function of power, so that a small and powerful section of the world determines what the rest of the world considers aspirational.
Since you were deliberately misquoted on the subject of weaves, I want to ask exactly what your position or thoughts are on that subject. I am not an expert but I assume that ‘weaves’ means extensions that are sewn into women’s hair.
I admire certain weaves when they are done well. I like Michelle Obama’s weave choices, for example. I also admire textured weaves that mimic black women’s hair. I do not find silky, shiny, over-long weaves attractive at all. Especially a certain kind that reminds me of American reality shows. Which also happens to be the kind that is popular in Nigeria.
I used to wear only silky straight-hair weaves when I was younger, and I used to put a lot of energy into over-straightening the front bits of my hair to get it to blend with the weave – and to this day, those front bits of my hair don’t grow properly. There are things you do because everybody is doing them and then one day you start questioning and you discover how completely your aesthetics can change, and how something you once admired is now uninteresting to you. I have no interest in such things as ‘Brazilian’ and ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Peruvian’ hair. I actually find it odd that there is such a lack of irony in the way Nigerians casually talk of buying the hair of women from other parts of the world.
Hair can be a source of stress, and sometimes women want a break from having to deal with their hair, which is completely understandable. But kinky-textured weave sales are miniscule compared to silky hair weave sales. Again, it is a question of texture.
In general, women wearing their own hair in whatever form – short, long, natural, relaxed – is more attractive to me. It’s much easier to fail with a weave than with your own hair. A disaster that grows on your head will always look better than a disaster that is stuck to your head. And trust me, I speak from experience, having had a number of weaves in the past that made me look like mmonwu.
I came across some comments about women with natural hair feeling superior to women who do not have natural hair. What do you think of that?
It is true that some women are quite righteous about having natural hair but those women make up a tiny minority of a minority. More importantly, natural hair does not have the power of mainstream social acceptance. So it is like a poor person feeling superior in an extremely capitalist society. For many of the women, their superior attitude is really protective armour. It’s their cover for having to deal with annoying comments at the hair salon or aunties harassing them to go and ‘do something’ about their hair or the gateman at work calling their dreads ‘dada’ or a friend saying they are ‘brave’ to want to wear their own hair for their wedding or a stranger saying ‘natural hair is not for everybody but it fits you’ as though natural hair is some kind of exotic choice rather than what God put on our heads.
I used to be quite defensive, I sometimes still am, because even in my family I don’t get much enthusiastic support for my hair choices: my refusal to use a relaxer, my lack of interest in long weaves. Even in my village – just in case we assume this to be an urban thing – I am often asked when I will ‘do my hair well.’ For them, ‘do my hair well’ means to ‘fix hair,’ which means a weave. A recent comment I got at a Lagos salon was, ‘Aunty, how can you be doing your hair like secondary school girl.’ This is because I increasingly like to get cornrows with no attachments. (I like kinky attachments but sometimes they make me hot and irritated and wearing just my hair feels so light and refreshing and it is blissful to have full access to my scalp, especially when I am working out.)
When I take out my cornrows and wear my hair free, somebody will invariably say – “imagine how fine it will be when you perm it,’ as though the possibility of real beauty comes only with a relaxer. Or someone will over-praise my hair in a way that doth protest too much, as though my hair is some kind of quaint costume.
So it can be exhausting to have to constantly be on guard, to make yourself not seem terribly abnormal. Because the truth is that you very much want to be normal and you want your hair to be seen as normal and if someone tells you ‘I like your hair,’ you want to feel that it is the same ‘I like your hair’ that they would tell a person with a long weave, and not the ‘I like your hair’ that is reserved for some sort of dancer in one of those costumey cultural dance troupes.
I think that the natural-haired women who are self-righteous about hair are coming from that place. I am not trying to excuse their attitude, I am merely trying to put it in context. (A lot of the extreme Naturalistas terrify me, by the way, the sort of women who wash their hair with special clay and never comb it and harass other women for wearing afro wigs.)
So my goal with the hair conversation is this: to bring natural hair to the table as an equal partner. Maybe I should ask the lovely Beyonce to please wear isi owu on her next major concert. That might suddenly make isi owu attractive to some of our people. My point is that what is desirable, what is given aesthetic value, never falls from the sky. We remake and make these things. Remember that just forty years ago, stylish University women in Nigeria wore isi owu to cocktail parties and it was considered as equal an option as a wig.
I know of women who have ‘gone natural’ or are encouraged to ‘go natural’ because of you.
That’s nice to know. I have to say that the idea of natural hair as inherently inferior is changing, very slowly, but it is changing. Natural hair is becoming an option, but I wish it didn’t have the stereotype of ‘returnee hairstyle.’ Or the stereotype of being ‘alternative’ or ‘artsy.’ I would love to see mainstream banks, for example, let their female staff know that it is okay to wear their hair the way God made it. In many hair salons in Nigeria, the hairdressers know what to do with weaves but have no idea how to take proper care of real hair, whether natural or relaxed. I hope that starts to change too. So we can have fewer bald temples in the country.
The Nigeria Centenary Facebook page recently polled young people on International Youth Day and you were voted as the favourite role model for Nigerian youths. What words of advice would you share with young Nigerians if you were asked to?
Ask questions. Never pretend to know what you don’t know, otherwise you will never learn. Read books. Do things properly. Do not write formal emails in text language where ‘you’ is one letter of the alphabet. Don’t be fake. You are more interesting as you truly are. Don’t measure yourself using another person’s yardstick. Be curious about the world. Be kind. Don’t be quick to judge, think carefully about things before you pass judgment. Try and learn something new every day. Don’t decide not to try something because you are afraid you will fail. Every successful person has failed at something. Think of it like this: you might fall down but if you fall down you can stand up and try again.
You’re very specific when you say ‘Do not write formal emails in text language where ‘you’ is one letter of the alphabet.’ Is that something you have personally observed?
Yes. There is a general acceptance of mediocrity in Nigerian life today. An ‘anyhow’ attitude. A fashion designer, for example, will say I am ‘difficult’ because I insist that the tailoring on a dress not be crooked. It is not talent we lack. Nigerians are the most intelligent and most enterprising people I know. But there is a general attention to detail, a sedulousness, that we now lack culturally. I know this sounds like a leap but I think the wave of religiosity in the 1980s contributed to it. We now have a culture of everything being explained by the ‘spiritual.’ So you don’t study and you pass your exams because you prayed. It reduces the ethic of serious and sustained hard work, the ethic of critical thinking and the ethic of delayed gratification.
“Show don’t tell’ is a classic rule of fiction writing and I think it should equally apply to Nigerian religiosity. Imagine a Two Week Challenge where people do not say the word ‘God’ but they show “God’ through their actions. If you viciously gossip about other people, forget that your driver is human, cheat at business, steal, plot somebody’s downfall and then turn around and say ‘We Thank God,’ then no, you are not showing, you are merely telling.
I understand you kept away from the process of adapting Half Of A Yellow Sun into a movie. I read where you described it as ‘not wanting to be there when your baby is cut up.’ Are you going to be there when the AMERICANAH baby is cut up? I understand that Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyewole will star in the film and that Brad Pitt is one of the producers.
Yes, I think I might be closer this time, hovering around the cutting-up table.
What are your thoughts on the adaptation of books to films? Do you watch films?
I generally prefer books to films. But yes, I watch films. I just saw Boyhood, which I liked very much. I adored SELMA; it made me cry. More generally I am drawn to European films. Not art house films o. Two films I watched recently that I loved: Flame and Citron, which is Danish and a German film called Barbara with Nina Hoss.
Some of my favourite films are The Lives Of Others, City of God, The Secret In Their Eyes, Babette’s Feast, The Battle of Algiers. I think I’m drawn to similar things in film and fiction: the ability to tell a real human story in a specific political context. I have some strange likes. I’m drawn to European films about the Holocaust, for example. So the standing joke in my family is that when I say ‘lets watch a movie,’ nobody wants to. Because I will invariably choose something subtitled and dark. I also like British television shows like Broadchurch and Downton Abbey.
Do you have a life philosophy? Do you have a guiding principle that you try to live by?
It’s a common cliché. Life is short. I really do try to live by this. I don’t mean short in the Hobbesian and brutish sense, but short in the sense that it is precious and fragile, and none of us know how long we are here for. So it’s important to make choices in your life keeping that in mind.
Do you have a favourite quote?
My favourite quotes change often, but lately it has been this from a Phillip Larkin poem: What will survive of us is love.