Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a rare novelist to become a public intellectual
A special feature for one of the most prominent women in Africa and one of the most celebrated novelist in the world.
NOT LONG AGO, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stood in front of a small class of literature students at Cardozo high school in Washington, D.C. Over the last few years, Adichie’s books have appeared on thousands of required-reading lists — more or less every American student between 14 and 22 has been assigned her work.
While introducing her, Dr. Frazier O’Leary, the class’s soft-spoken teacher, mentioned that Adichie had visited at the school a few years before, and that between that visit and this one, Adichie had had a daughter, now 23 months old. Then he ceded the floor to Adichie. She stood before the 20-odd students, her fingertips on the podium, and swept her almond eyes around the room.
“So, what should we talk about?” she asked. In front of an audience, Adichie speaks with great precision, measuring every word, her Nigerian-British accent sounding to American ears both opulent and daunting.
No one raised their hand.
Adichie was wearing a T-shirt that read, in glittering letters, “We Should All Be Feminists,” and she carried a Christian Dior bag that bore the same message, both inspired by her 2012 TEDx Talk, which has been viewed over four million times. The students had been assigned to read Adichie’s essay based on the talk, and thus it was dispiriting when the first question came from a young man, originally from Ghana, who very politely asked how Adichie was balancing her work with the responsibilities of motherhood.
She looked down and smiled. She took her time, and then, with her chin still lowered, she raised her eyes to look kindly at the student.
“I’m going to answer your question,” she said, “but you have to promise me that the next time you meet a new father, you ask him how he’s balancing his work and the responsibilities of fatherhood.”
The young man shrugged. Adichie, who is 40, smiled warmly at him, but thereafter, the class, already intimidated and shy, grew only more so.
“Why don’t I read a bit?” she said finally, and she did.
AFTERWARD, ADICHIE and I sat at a restaurant in Columbia Heights. “He was quite sanguine, wasn’t he?” she said about the young man she’d carefully corrected. “Maybe he’s young enough that he hasn’t been indoctrinated into the cult of how and when to take offense. He can still look at the merits of an argument. Either that, or he was looking pleasantly at me and thinking, ‘Bitch, go away.’ ”
Adichie looks with a gimlet eye at American liberal doctrine, preferring open and frank debate to the narrow constraints of approved messaging. Though she is considered a global icon of feminism, she has, on occasion, displeased progressive sects when she’s expressed her beliefs about gender with candor and without using the latest terminology.
“It’s a cannibalistic ethos,” she says about the American left. “It swiftly, gleefully, brutally eats its own. There is such a quick assumption of ill will and an increasing sanctimony and humorlessness that can often seem inhumane. It’s almost as if the humanity of people gets lost and what matters is that you abide to every single rule in the handbook of American liberal orthodoxy.”
The day was not warm, but we ordered lemonade. Moments later, the waiter said they needed our table for a large party. We moved into a corner and the waiter forgot about us completely. Which seemed improbable, with Adichie’s glittering bag on the table serving as a kind of tabletop lighthouse.
“I’ll have you know,” she said, “that this bag was designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman creative director at Dior. A very interesting person. When she proposed the T-shirt, she sent me a handwritten note.”
I asked if Dior planned to make merchandise for every one of her books. Maybe a necklace that said “The Thing Around Your Neck”? A sconce that said “Half of a Yellow Sun”? Adichie laughed her distinctive laugh, which overtakes her whole torso but sounds like the giggle of a teenager. I should note here that I’ve known Adichie for about 10 years now, and she has always been startlingly easy to make laugh, and one of her very favorite subjects for ridicule is the exalted reputation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
She grew up in an upper-middle-class home, the fifth of six children. Her father was a professor at the University of Nigeria, her mother was the university’s registrar — the first woman to hold that post. Her parents expected Chimamanda to be a doctor, and for a year she studied medicine at university, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“When I said I wanted to write, they were very supportive, which was very unusual,” she said. “Nobody just leaves medical school, especially given it’s fiercely competitive to get in. But I had a sister who was a doctor, another who was a pharmacist, a brother who was an engineer. So my parents already had sensible children who would be able to make an actual living, and I think they felt comfortable sacrificing their one strange child.”
Adichie was just 26 when she published her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” in 2003. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Her second, 2006’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” was a shimmering work of historical fiction that reminded the world of the Biafran War and made it deeply personal; it won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (now called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) and garnered comparisons to one of her heroes, Chinua Achebe. The next year, she won a MacArthur grant and found time to finish a master’s degree in African studies at Yale. “The Thing Around Your Neck,” her first collection of stories, was published in 2009, followed by 2013’s “Americanah,” an intimate and accessible multigenerational story about family and immigration set in Nigeria and New Jersey. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and has become an enduring best seller. While the majority of her previous work had been tightly controlled and gravely serious, “Americanah” was loose and irreverent.
“I decided with that book that I was going to have fun, and if nobody read it, that would be fine,” she said. “I was free of the burden of research necessary for the other books. I was no longer the dutiful daughter of literature.”
In “Americanah,” the protagonist, a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, moves to New Jersey and is first confused and then amused by the cultural differences between African-Americans and Africans living in America. Ifemelu decides to explore the subject in a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Through the blog, Adichie was able to speak with disarming forthrightness about life as an African living in America: “I was tired of everyone saying that when you write about race in America, it has to be nuanced, it has to be subtle, it has to be this and that.”
The directness of the blog, I suggested, seemed to provide a bridge to her TEDx Talk, which became a book, which became a T-shirt and a bag.
“Yes and no,” she said. “But I’ll allow your thesis.” She laughed her laugh.
Now there is a follow-up called “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.” Asked by a friend, a new mother, for advice in making her daughter Chizalum a feminist, Adichie wrote another very (direct, lucid) work. Suggestion No. 1 reads, “Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood.” No. 8: “Teach her to reject likability. Her job is not to make herself likable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.” And No. 15: “Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference.”
The reaction to these manifestoes among a reading public longing for probity and directness has been profound. In a San Francisco auditorium last year, I witnessed Adichie step onto the stage in front of almost 3,000 people — the average age of the audience was about 20. She wore ankara-patterned pants and a white blouse and stood on four-inch heels, and the audience response was euphoric.
“It’s not that I told people something they don’t know, it’s just that I did it in language that was more accessible.” She looked around the restaurant. “But I don’t think we’re ever going to get our lemonade.”
ADICHIE AND HER HUSBAND, a physician, spend half of each year in Maryland, and the other half in Lagos, where they have a home and where her extended family lives.
In Nigeria, Adichie is considered a national icon, not only because her books have garnered such acclaim, but because quickly after her success she founded the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, a program where aspiring Nigerian writers spend a few weeks every year workshopping with Adichie and a coterie of international writers she brings to Lagos. She invited me to teach there in 2009, and I got the chance to meet her family and friends, all of whom were supportive, kind, funny, devoted — it was all sickeningly perfect.
One night, it became the obsession of one of the guest lecturers, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, to bring Adichie to one of Lagos’s seamier nightspots. He asked her where that would be. She had no idea. “I’m a nice middle-class girl,” she said, laughing. “I don’t know about such places.” She was serious, though. She did not know.
So we called Adichie’s childhood friend Chuma. He suggested Obalende, a district of Lagos known for its nightclubs and strip clubs. Chuma picked us up and drove us to a neighborhood where fish and plantains were fried on the street, where the air was swampy with weed. He chose a club with a slanted roof of corrugated steel and Fela bursting from the sound system. We sat outside on a humid night, Adichie game but wide-eyed. We were visited by a street musician who would not leave. Adichie requested Fela’s “Unknown Soldier” and he played it, and we stayed late, and most of us got tipsy — even Adichie; she had one drink — and at the end of the night, I was the only one fit to drive, which I did, which everyone thought very funny, especially when we were pulled over by a traffic cop, who wanted a bribe. I did what I always do in that situation, which was to act like the world’s dumbest tourist, and it worked. He let us go, and Adichie, in the back seat, laughed all the way home.
A FEW MONTHS after her appearance at Cardozo high school, Adichie was on a rooftop in downtown D.C. It was breezy and the sky threatened rain. She had agreed to attend a book release party celebrating a collection of essays called “Having to Tell Your Mother Is the Hardest Part,” written by D.C. public school students, with guidance from tutors from 826DC, a nonprofit youth writing organization with which I’m affiliated.
A tent had been set up, and cocktails were served, and a young African-American man stepped to the podium. He was delicately built for 15, wearing a mustard-colored button-down, a tie and thick-framed glasses.
“When I was 2 years old, my mom and dad passed away,” the boy, whose name was Edwyn, read. “I was in and out of foster homes and was never in really good care. The way I used to grieve was by not eating or by fighting, and I always got in trouble. I would get angry whenever someone said, ‘Yo mama.’ I felt like I wanted to hurt someone. I have gotten past that, and now, I want to take my meds so I can grow emotionally and become a better me. I decided to try group vigils where I can talk about my loss, but it has never helped. I refused to share until, one time, I broke down and shared everything.”
The audience on the rooftop stood spellbound. I looked over to Adichie. Her eyes were wet. Edwyn continued. In a group home, he said, he almost stabbed another boy. He almost flunked out of school. Finally, he was adopted by a loving family who moved him to Washington. “I was starting to mature,” he read. “I started to change. Now I’m in the 10th grade, writing about how I used to grieve, but I am happy with the family I am with.”
His essay ended like that, and he sat down with the unaffected attitude of a student who had just read a paper about meiosis or the Louisiana Purchase. Afterward, we approached Edwyn, who was now surrounded by admirers. He shook Adichie’s hand like a cocktail party veteran, telling her he’d heard a lot about her and was happy she was there.
“I thought you were very brave,” Adichie said evenly.
Word of Adichie’s presence on the roof began making its way through the attendees. Another student, a gregarious young woman named Monae, approached. “I didn’t know you were here!” she said. “You were the one in Beyoncé’s song!” (A few years ago, Beyoncé sampled parts of Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” talk in her 2013 song “Flawless.”)
“You have to read what I wrote!” Monae said, and gave Adichie a copy of “Having to Tell Your Mother Is the Hardest Part,” opened to a spread bearing her smiling face and her essay, titled “Queen.”
We made our way to a quiet part of the rooftop and watched the adults swarm the student-writers, getting their books signed.
“That is lovely,” Adichie said. “Just lovely.”
After the party, we said goodbye on the corner of Pennsylvania and 17th. Adichie’s parents were in town, visiting from Nigeria, and she had to get back to Maryland.
“That boy,” she said, and sighed. She was still thinking about Edwyn. “There was something so clean and pure and true about his writing, don’t you think? Increasingly I find that that’s the kind of thing I want to read.”
This story was first Published on NYT and is one of the seven covers of T Magazine’s Greats issue, on newsstands Oct. 22.