Speaking of books

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks as well as she writes, maybe better

The Nigerian author is a compelling storyteller even on stage, and has said more extraodinary things in six years than most authors write in a lifetime.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for her work with the written word. She has published a book of poems, a play, and non-fiction, but she is best known for her novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Americanah (2013) and her collection of short stories, That Thing Around Your Neck (2009).

But the young Nigerian author is also one of the most accessible contemporary public intellectuals of our time, who has been giving compelling public lectures for years. Adichie’s public speaking first came into prominence with the TED talk about “the danger of a single story”, through which she talked about how storytelling intersects with power in order to create stereotypes about communities.

As a speaker, Adichie is a delight: she is articulate, and she is very funny. Typically, her talks include dozens of personal anecdotes that she then uses to illustrate a more general point. When the crowd responds to something hilarious or particularly profound, she pauses long enough for her audience to applaud, or to laugh with them, and then goes on to distil her wisdom into the simplest and most compassionate of tellings. This is difficult to achieve, but over the years, Adichie has managed to do it over and over again. Presenting – Adichie’s greatest hits:

The danger of a single story: 2009
Adichie talks about what she calls the “single story” – an idea about an individual or a community that comes to be widely recognised as the accepted “truth” about them. She exemplifies the danger with the writing she first did as a child, after having read only American and European books: “I realised that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.”

She goes on to explore the “patronising, well-meaning pity” that the single story can elicit, for the family of Nigerian domestic workers, for students from Africa who go to study in America, for immigrant Mexicans as represented by the mainstream US media.

Adichie argues that the single story is the consequence of power: we have multiple stories about the US because its political, social, and economic power leads to the production of these stories. After showing “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story”, Adichie, ever the idealist, talks about the healing potential of storytelling: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise.”

(Read the transcript here.)

We should all be feminists: 2012
There’s a lot in here that is dated. Adichie does not even once address or indeed acknowledge the existence of transgender people. The underlying assumption of this talk is that the gender binary – that is, the idea that there are only two kinds of people: men and women – is completely true. This is an assumption that is continuously contested by many transgender and feminist activists.

Still, there are just so many things in this talk about gender, the backlash against the word “feminist”, the policing of women’s lives, and contemporary Nigeria that hits close to home. Adichie talks about the first time she was called a feminist, at age 14, by a beloved friend whom she subsequently lost in the 2005 Sosoliso plane crash in Nigeria. “It was not a compliment,” she says, echoing the experience of millions of women who are shamed and punished for asserting their rights.

Through a series of examples, she demonstrates the need to reclaim the word “feminist”, and practice it in order to advocate for gender equality. Adichie talks about the importance of the intersection of oppression, like racism and sexism, instead of the silencing of one for the benefit of the other:  “I was once talking about gender and a man said to me, ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person's specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman. This same man, by the way, would often talk about his experience as a black man.”

(Read an excerpt here.)

Wellesley Commencement Address: 2015
Here we have Adichie once again speak about gender, which she says “is always about context and circumstance,” and the complex things it means to her. For example, she says she started to wear makeup in order to look older, because of an “unpleasant man” who did not take her seriously during a family gathering. There’s something wonderful about what it illustrates about her relationship with makeup, whose “...possibilities for temporary transformation” she has come to appreciate.

Adichie has often spoken about how her own desire to present herself a certain way, and societal expectations of women’s appearance have created many dilemmas for her over the years. As she tells the graduating students she is addressing: “Your standardised ideologies will not always fit your life. Because life is messy.”

She reminds them that graduating from Wellesley will give them privileges, to be recognised for what they are, and used to “minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get your hands dirty way.”

In this speech she also addresses the use of parts of her speech We should all be feminists being used in pop star Beyonce’s song Flawless: “I thought it was a very good thing that the word ‘feminist’ would be introduced to a new generation. But I was startled by how many people, many of whom were academics, saw something troubling, even menacing, in this.

It was as though feminism was supposed to be an elite little cult, with esoteric rites of membership. But it shouldn’t. Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms.”

(Read the transcript here.)

Girls Write Now Awards Speech: 2015

Adichie talks about how difficult it is to be a “truly truthful” teller of one’s own story, because of the fear of “offending people, and possible consequences”. Further, she talks about how difficult it is for writers, especially women writers, to dismiss the idea of “likeability”: “... you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likeable, that you're supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don't quite say, don't be too pushy, because you have to be likeable.”

And here’s what Adichie thinks of that:

“And I say that is bullshit. So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likeability. If you start thinking about being likeable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that's going to ruin your story, so forget about likeability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multi-faceted place that there's somebody who's going to like you; you don't need to twist yourself into shapes.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.