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.”



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