On Tuesday, June 15, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published a three-part essay on her website titled “It Is Obscene”. The essay started with personal anecdotes about two unnamed former students, who had criticised her openly for her comment on trans women in 2017, while also using her fame for their personal gain.

It went on to address the larger lack of nuance and compassion in discourses on social media, an issue Adichie has spoken of before in her criticism of cancel culture. While many have lauded Adichie’s essay for an apt representation of “woke” culture on social media, the motivation for this essay was also largely personal. Specifically, it was a public acknowledgement of her controversy with ex-student Akwaeka Emezi, who has been critical of Adichie’s views on trans women.

Adichie has long been known for her advocacy for feminism, as well as the need for more African voices in literature. She conducts an annual writing workshop for young African authors in Lagos, Nigeria, where she helps them with their writing and encourages their voices to be heard, sometimes by publishing the best stories on an e-magazine.

Adichie’s stand

Akwaeka Emezi – a young non-binary author of Nigerian-Tamil origin – was one of the writers in Adichie’s workshops a few years ago. Since then, they have gone on to become a prominent author and trans-rights advocate, publicly calling out Adichie for comments made on trans women in an interview in 2017.

In the BBC interview, Adichie was asked about feminism in relation to trans women, and whether they’re the same as people who are assigned female at birth. Adichie had said, “Trans women are trans women. I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

Many, including Emezi, believed that Adichie’s comments classified trans women as not “real women” – an argument that trans women often face in their fight for recognition and equality. Adichie also went on to endorse author JK Rowling’s controversial article on trans women and gender-sex differentiation, calling it a “perfectly reasonable” piece and Rowling, a “progressive woman who stands for diversity”.

This added to trans right activists’ perception of Adichie as transphobic, with many calling her a TERF – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist. Emezi, in a long Twitter thread, spoke about what they perceived as Adichie’s transphobic behaviour, and her alleged dismissal of trans people’s concerns as “noise”. They also mentioned that earlier, Adichie had written an introduction for their story, a fact that Adichie referred to in her essay.

The feud

Adichie later apologised for her comments, explaining that she believed gender was a social construct, and the social experiences of trans women and people assigned female at birth were different. Adichie also said in her essay that she had had a personal relationship with her student, whom she did not name, and helped them with their initial work. She mentioned that her student knew that she supports the rights of trans people, and has been “fiercely supportive of difference in general.”

However, the student in question continued to call her a “murderer” on social media, and had “asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me”. Adichie went on to describe how her student used her name on the cover of their new book, without her permission. Emezi had earlier written about the incident on Twitter, after the release of their book Freshwater, which Adichie refused to be mentioned in.

In her essay, Adichie said that her student perpetrated false narratives accusing Adichie of sabotaging their career, one that spread widely among others. She also mentioned how the hate she received on Twitter even went to the extent where trolls trivialised her parents’ death in the pandemic, calling it “punishment for her transphobia”.

‘Toxic culture’

Adichie then segued into discussing the perpetuation of a toxic culture on social media, with people who are “choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion”. She discussed how there is no room to learn, grow or change one’s opinions – and how that creates a hostile environment for anyone genuinely confused and interested to learn.

She spoke against the constant scrutiny one is under on social media, allowing no room for mistakes, which resonated with a deeper distaste for “cancel culture: among many social media patrons. Adichie categorised young people today as having a “hunger to take and take and take”, with no amount of kindness or understanding. According to her, two young students from her workshop had used her fame and then criticised her publicly – with no care for her personal feelings.

While Adichie did not expand more on her views on trans women, choosing instead to focus on the unforgiving culture of social media, it is worth noting how her stance ties into the broader debates within feminism. Her critics believe that Adichie speaks like many gender-critical feminists who believe one’s biological sex should dictate the legal definition of gender, over their gender identity.

These feminists believe that with the diminishing importance of biological sex, the centuries of oppression and discrimination faced by women who are “born women” is eroded. Therefore, while they may stand for the rights of trans women, they see the latter as clearly distinct and believe their experiences and their legal definitions should not coincide with those of “real women”.

Whether Adichie agrees with gender-critical feminists or not, her comments do seem to justify a form of feminism that excludes trans women and their experiences by treating them as “different”, dismissive of their identity and intersectionality in general. It is this form of exclusionary feminism that Emezi and other trans-rights advocates spoke out against.

Adichie has been one of the most powerful feminist voices of Africa in the last century, and according to Emezi, she continues to be “untouchable” to many people. In an Instagram video posted on Wednesday, Emezi talked about how the power that Adichie holds might protect her, but the queer and trans writers she “targeted” are exposed to harassment by a wide range of people.

Abstract or personal?

It is necessary, therefore, to understand where Adichie was coming from. Even as she criticised the larger polarising nature of social media, her personal conflict with Emezi and the ensuing fallout cannot be ignored while understanding the essay. While Adichie herself refuses to join Twitter, she still chose to publicly respond to Emezi’s comments and the hate she received from trolls.

Her tirade against the flimsy “ideological orthodoxy” of social media and its obscenity is ironic when understood with the full context of the essay. Adichie might have no ill-intentions or malice against Emezi, as she stated in the essay. However, she herself fails to live up to the standard of kindness and emotional intelligence that she expects of young people on social media. By going public with her personal concerns about Emezi (something she accused Emezi of doing first) she too participated in the relentless “obsession with the prevailing ideology”.

Adichie’s critique of the social media discourse of young people categorises it as a “simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy”. Again, the irony lies in the fact that Adichie’s own essay uses an abstract argument against the culture of outrage on social media to address a much more complex, personal sense of betrayal she felt with another author. This blurring of lines between the personal and the abstract is exactly what she accuses the current generation of doing – through their political discourse, and through their attacks on her personal life and family.

There might well be truth in every word Adichie has said in her essay. However, the greatest takeaway from the essay cannot simply be that there is a lack of nuance and empathy on social media today. Her words about social media sanctimony were preceded by her own self-righteous statements against being targeted for her views on trans women, views that have political ramifications.

It has to be understood that Adichie’s entire essay emanated from a personal feud. While reading this essay, one would want to keep in mind the nuance and complexity that Adichie speaks of in the last part and understand the context before making judgements and “parroting” what she says. In Adichie’s own words, one must be aware of the “dangers of a single story”.