Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist and leading feminist, has recently come under fire for her controversial comments on trans women. In an interview with Channel 4, when Adichie was asked whether trans women were also women, she responded that her feeling was that “trans women were trans women” but their experiences weren’t the same as women because they grew up with the privileges given to men and later changed their sex.
This statement, understandably, didn’t sit well with many trans women and fired up a social media-and-op-ed storm. In the weeks that followed her interview, she has been called “transphobic” and a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or a TERF. Her views have been called disappointing and she’s been called upon to check her politics.
Later, she made news again for refusing to apologise for her remarks, calling out the American left for placing too much emphasis on using a certain kind of language. If she had said cis women are cis women and trans women are trans women she wouldn’t have made these headlines, she said.
In one sense, of course, she makes an important point. The recent emphasis on using a certain kind of language has sullied conversations and created a large gap between talk and action. But, in another, she’s explaining trans women’s experiences to them, in the way many men continue to explain women’s experiences to them – a phenomenon Adichie herself has spoken of before.
Must she know everything?
Adichie, of course, is a fine writer and thinker and her last novel, Americanah, explores race, feminism and migration in a profound way, in a manner that is relevant and important to the age. As a post-colonial Pakistani woman who has lived in America, I resonated with the writing and the nuanced portrayals of the characters, both Nigerian and American.
I also found her recently-published Dear Ijeawale, Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions help articulate my own vague thoughts as I journey through life as a woman. And, as a woman of colour, I am heartened to see a non-white woman emerge as a leading feminist voice and own the term.
But, must this writer be raised to the level of expert on all things women, including trans women, an experience she is not qualified to comment on? In the words of trans activist Raquel Willis, this is comparable to asking Lena Dunham, a prominent white American feminist famous for her show Girls, to comment on the experience of black women. And, must we put Adichie on a pedestal from which she is either our guru or our enemy? I think neither is necessary.
When writers are forced to become experts
It is true that in the post-social media world, writers need to be much more than just writers. They are one-person businesses which deliver public lectures and quotable opinions on everything currently in discussion, backed by a solid social media strategy and a well-curated public image. They must routinely write for the New York Times opinion section and send out retweetable tweets that have the potential to go viral.
Indeed, they’re asked to comment, more often than not, on politics and current affairs than they are on their craft. They’re expected, running counter to the historical perception of writers, to become public celebrities whose lives and opinions are subject to intense scrutiny. And casting authors as authorities on subjects not related to their work, and subjecting them to a constant back-and-forth of opinion-and-apology, often undermines and compromises their art.
This phenomenon of author-as-expert, and its clear failings, is demonstrated perfectly in the Channel 4 interview. The fact is that Adichie should never have been asked that question. She is not a trans woman, nor is she a trans activist. She is wholly unqualified to speak for, or about, trans women.
We, as a post-social media readership, must take at least partial responsibility for the fact that she was both asked, and was expected to respond to, this question.
In the conversation that followed her unfortunate remarks, I was more interested in the voices of trans women rather than Adichie’s explanations and clarifications. And, I’m inclined to believe that we, as a readership, are at fault for expecting her to give a beautifully crafted, politically appropriate 140-character response about trans women.
Adichie herself has talked about how uncomfortable she is with becoming the go-to person on all things feminism, even despite her other interests. There is a predictable sexism in this notion that, as a writer who is also a woman, she is best suited to be an expert on all women.
Of course, there’s also Beyoncé to blame for making her a pop-culture icon, synonymous with feminism, by featuring her in her 2014 video, Flawless.
Some have suggested we would have been less critical had a man issued an opinion on something that he has never experienced. This may be true, though it is changing. Men have historically been involved in creating legislation about women’s bodies, health and reproductive rights. And, even as a global community, we continue to accept this despite outrage. But as women, should we really be aspiring to attitudes that men have been annoying us with for centuries?
I cannot wait to read Adichie’s others books. But do I want her to act as a spokesperson for the experience of all women? I think that would be counterproductive to the feminist movement.
In fact, wouldn’t the world be a better place without people taking up the position of experts on issues that have multiple, diverse and wide-ranging outcomes? I think that would be a good way forward. Meanwhile, can we continue to speak about Adichie’s art?
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