in conversation

In Conversation: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The novelist on being a “feminist icon,” Philip Roth’s humanist misogyny, and the sadness in Melania Trump.

Photo: Photograph by Mamadi Doumbouya for Vulture
Photo: Photograph by Mamadi Doumbouya for Vulture

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the rare contemporary novelist to have earned celebrity status as a result of both her art and her politics, to the diminishment of neither. Her award-winning, best-selling novels, Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, combine graceful storytelling with real moral heft; that latter quality also radiates throughout her nonfiction works, We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (the latter newly published in paperback). “I want to tell the truth,” says Adichie, talking at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. “That’s where my storytelling comes from. My feminism comes from somewhere else: acute dissatisfaction.”

Adichie, 40, is in New York for a brief visit before heading back to the home outside of Baltimore where she, her husband, and their little girl live when they’re not in her native Nigeria. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to tell stories,” says Adichie. “Sadly, I also don’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling people what I think about the world.”

Dear Ijeawele is addressed to a girl — and you have a daughter of your own — but I’m curious: Do you have thoughts about raising boys? In some ways that task seems more fraught task than raising girls. Especially because of how easily young men can be drawn to the old misogynies and hierarchies.
I think about that a lot. If I had a boy, one of the things I would do is not just say it’s okay to be vulnerable, but also to expect him to respect vulnerability. Actually, shaming him into vulnerability is a good idea, because there’s so much about the way that masculinity is constructed that’s about shame. What if we switch that shame around? Instead of shaming boys for being vulnerable, why don’t we shame them for not being vulnerable? I kind of feel — I was going to say I feel sorry for men, but I don’t want to say that.

That’s a bridge too far!
[Laughs.] Yes.

Has #MeToo changed gender and power dynamics in meaningful ways?
I hope it does, but it hasn’t. What I like about #MeToo is the idea that now women’s stories have the possibility of being believed, which is almost revolutionary. Now a woman can tell her story and she might still get castigated, but there’s the possibility that she gets public support and that there are consequences for whoever harassed or assaulted her. That’s not happened before. But the shape of the narratives around #MeToo can still be troubling.

How so?
It’s the idea that a woman doesn’t deserve sympathy unless she’s “good.” I’m sorry to get into race, but it’s similar to what happens with black men, where in this country it seems that they are not deserving of sympathy unless they are pure. If a young boy is murdered because he was going off to buy Skittles but we learn that he smoked marijuana, then that somehow makes him not deserving of sympathy. He shouldn’t have to be perfect to deserve sympathy and that applies to women as well. And, also, the way women are cast as innocent or blameless or helpless undercuts the idea of female agency. Often we’ll say things like, “She was coerced into going to the guy’s apartment.”

As if a woman who wasn’t coerced is somehow culpable if something bad happens.
Maybe she went to that apartment thinking that she liked the guy. That doesn’t mean she was counting on being assaulted. It bothers me sometimes, for example, when women who’ve gone through these things — we see them on TV and they’re nearly always crying. It’s like a performance that makes me uncomfortable; it’s trying to fit a certain narrative of what a good woman is. All that is part of a large system of valuing maleness — not just maleness but the patriarchy. That’s a word I was avoiding, but I don’t want to say maleness because the judgment that women get can come from men and women. I’ve heard from many women who say things about victims like, “Why was she wearing a short skirt?” My point is that a woman doesn’t have to be perfect to be deserving of justice.

You wrote Dear Ijeawele before you had your daughter. Is there any advice in the book that, now that you have a child, feels like it’ll be harder to follow through on?
Yes, I wrote that [Dear Ijeawele] when I wasn’t a mother and it’s easier to write about a hypothetical child than to write about a real one. The child that book was addressed to is sort of an idea of a child. But having my own — you don’t realize how difficult it is day-to-day to combat negative ideas. Sometimes when you’re raising a child it’s like the universe is in conspiracy against you. You go to the toy store looking for something not necessarily “girly” and you’re overwhelmed by the pink and the dolls. Even the prayers my daughter got from family members: They’re like, “We hope she finds a good husband.” I’m optimistic that those kinds of things will change but I think about how women are socialized — even the most resistant women still get things under our skin.

How do we know when a given cultural attitude tips over from benign to malignant? I’m thinking of my 3-year-old daughter, who’s just starting to pick up on things like beauty standards and the different behavioral expectations for boys and girls. I sometimes find it hard to know which received attitudes need intervention.
We don’t know. Here I am, a self-professed card-carrying feminist, and I don’t know. But it’s important not to overdo things; I don’t want to be that crazy feminist mother. I think human beings are hardwired to want to be valued and appearance is part of that. So my answer to your question is, “I don’t know.”

You’re arguably better known for being a feminist than you are for being a novelist. Does it matter to you if feminism is the main lens through which people read your fiction?
I don’t want to be read ideologically because my fiction isn’t ideological. If it were then all my women characters would be empowered. They’re not. In general, I don’t like reading fiction that is very ideologically consistent and where everybody does the right thing all the time. Life isn’t like that and fiction has to be about the real texture of life. Sometimes I’ll speak at schools and the students have been introduced to me as a feminist and they’ll ask questions like, “What is the feminist take on your character?” I don’t know the bloody feminist take on my character! I don’t know because that’s not where the impulse to write the character came from.

A character of yours that I’ve been thinking about is Ugwu from Half of a Yellow Sun. He’s sympathetic throughout the book, and then toward the end he participates in a gang rape. The whole idea of expressing sympathy for someone who commits sexual assault has become so taboo. I realize that book was written a decade ago, but can you talk about the difficulty of writing that scene and that character?
I know your question is not “would I write the same thing now” but I’m going to invent that question and say the answer would be yes. That was a very difficult scene to write. Ugwu was the soul of the novel but it was important for me that he was in that scene because that was true. I’d done so much research when I wrote that book and what I found deeply haunting was Biafran soldiers raping Biafran women — because that spoke to the damage war does. So again, it’s about truth telling. But I still come away from Half of a Yellow Sun thinking that Ugwu is a good person. Had Ugwu not been in a war, I don’t think he would be a person who commits rape. But this whole process of talking about sexual assault now is interesting. There are times I feel uncomfortable with the blanket condemnation that happens, which is why #MeToo maybe has to be a case-by-case thing.

Are there any real-life examples you’re thinking of?
I better not give a specific example, but what I say to myself — through my discomfort — is that not every movement can afford nuance. It’s sad, but I think it’s true, and we’ll get to a point where we can afford it.

Why can’t movements afford nuance?
With the #MeToo movement, it’s still so young and fragile that I understand the impulse to say that the perpetrators on the other side of it are completely evil. And if you acknowledge nuance you run the risk of the movement falling apart. I understand that, but I’m also person who believes in redemption — to a certain extent. Some people I don’t think are redeemable.

I understand if you don’t want to talk about specific examples of men who have being accused of sexual impropriety, but when novelists or other artists have been subject to those kinds of accusations, does that change your thinking about their work?
It’s very complicated. There are some decidedly un-feminist people whose work I like. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t.

Would Philip Roth fall into that decidedly un-feminist category?
Somebody was telling me recently that they felt bad for liking Philip Roth. That bothered me. There was a humanity in Philip Roth’s work that is often overlooked when we talk about his misogyny. I read his women and roll my eyes but there is a truth there, because there are many men like his men. Misogyny is a reality in the world. Maybe there are people who want Philip Roth’s misogynists to die at the end of the novel so that they’ll know misogyny is bad. But that would be a little easy, wouldn’t it? The world is complex. People are not perfect. This goes back to how there are things about contemporary discourse that makes me uncomfortable.

We’re not particularly good at dealing with nuance these days.
I think in some ways nuance is dead. But you know something else that’s dead? I feel like in liberal-left circles, increasingly you can’t even say that you don’t know why something is wrong. I’ll talk to students and somebody will say something is terrible and everyone else will be nodding along; I’m thinking that half of them don’t know why that thing is terrible. They’re just afraid to ask and have other people think they’re terrible too.

I realize you only have direct experience with half of this equation, but what do you think are the differences between male and female literary celebrity?
Now, let me think about the time when I was a famous male writer.

It’s a relatively little-known period in your career.
Yes, it is. But do I have any useful thoughts on this difference? I don’t know. Well, that’s not true. Actually I do; it would be a cop-out not to share them. There are many things that a famous male writer can do without worrying about the risk of not being taken seriously — if you’re interested in fashion, for example. Very often women writers have to tread much more carefully because their grip on being considered as serious — which has nothing to do with how the world is — is more tenuous.

Can you give me an example?
When a woman says something controversial, she’s much more likely to be criticized about her personality and even about how she looks. Not that men don’t get that, but women get it more quickly and more often. And to be specific to writing, a man can write about a subject like marriage and immediately it can be seen as an insightful take on society. But a woman writes about marriage and it’s seen as this smaller, more intimate thing. We’ve gone past the point where women are directly criticized for their subject matter, but the language used about their writing hasn’t really changed. When men and women write about similar things, what the women write is often cast in less lofty terms.

One of your TED Talks is about the need for a multiplicity of stories and storytellers, which is also about the need for empathy. But what are the limits of empathy and storytelling? There’s that impulse toward “understanding” of people on the left that turns Hillbilly Elegy or whatever into a best seller, but doesn’t empathy need reciprocity in order to fully breathe? I don’t get the sense that a bunch of people on the right, for instance, are making good-faith efforts to understand why the left is so up in arms.
The right doesn’t care about the left. The right knows how to be a tribe, but the left doesn’t.

I’ve heard you use that phrase before and I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.
Well, the right will protect its own in ways that are ridiculous. There are people, who I think know better, who defend their president knowing that their president is wrong. But they do it for the group and what they see as the larger good. The left seems unable to do that.

Isn’t it a good thing to resist the impulse to blindly defend something?
Not all the time. Now we’re talking politics. Now we’re talking strategy. You need to think about what you want to achieve. The only way we can create the world we want is if we deal with the world as it is. Right now, for example, just reading about who might run for the Democrats, I’m constantly struck by how people on the left are like “oh no, she took money from so-and-so.” We sometimes have to ignore the faults of a person who is likely to push something progressive forward. If we eat our own, as the left often does, we risk giving up positions of power.

Maybe I’m politically naïve, but doesn’t tribalism snuff out multiple perspectives in damaging ways?
Yeah, but there are some things for which we shouldn’t consider multiple points of view. I don’t want to hear multiple perspectives on the question of human dignity. There’s one perspective: Every human being in the world deserves dignity. Or separating children from their parents: that’s inhumane. There are positions that the left should never compromise on. Anyway, what was your original question?

The limits of empathy.
There’s a few too many of these Let Us Understand the Trump Voter pieces in the left-leaning press in the U.S.

At the expense of understanding other subjects?
There’s the narrow idea that “working class” means white people in rural America. Around America there are working-class black and brown people. I would like somebody to do a piece on what they’re thinking. Because they have many of the same concerns as working-class white people and apparently they didn’t vote in large numbers for Trump. So let’s hear from them. Or maybe we should have more pieces humanizing people who cross the U.S. border. Let’s actually talk on a human level about being separated from your children. I don’t need to read another 25 pieces about why people would support a president like Trump. I understand that. There are other things to talk about.

In 2016, you wrote that great short story about Melania Trump. Has your thinking about her psychology changed since then?
There’s a sense in which her characterization in the story still holds true for me. There’s something I feel about her and it lives in the same emotional space as compassion and pity — and that feeling has increased. Actually, when I wrote that story I thought it was about Trump’s daughter [Ivanka]. I saw the story as making a case for how he [President Trump] is unstable but is surrounded by people who are stable and reasonable, such as his daughter and his wife. There was also a very feminist take to the story’s premise, which was that the women around him know what they’re dealing with. There’s a kind of knowingness in dealing with somebody they care about but understand is crazy. I’ve since changed my mind about his daughter.

She doesn’t seem reasonable like we thought she might — not at all. For a character, you need something ambiguous to work with and Ivanka doesn’t have that for me anymore.

It’s amazing, though, that Melania can still be such a cipher even with all the attention she gets.
Yes, but one wonders. I look at pictures of her and I see great sadness. I don’t want anyone to be sad, but the idea that she might be sad about her situation is almost comforting because it reminds you that there’s still some sort of humane presence in the private space of the White House.

I find myself having such ungenerous feelings about the president and First Lady’s personal life. It’s like, he might be president but least he’s not happy at home. It’s such mean-spirited thing to feel, but I can’t help it.
[Laughs.] I know what you’re talking about. I do.

This is related only insofar as it’s about you and your tangential relationship with an extremely famous woman: What effect did Beyoncé have on your career?
It meant that some people who never would have heard of me now know about me. But I don’t know that those people necessarily went out and bought my books. Honestly, I’m not terribly cool about popular culture. I’m not very big on music. I listen to Nina Simone and Nigerian highlife from the 1960s. I wish I had some interesting thing to say about the Beyoncé experience, but no, I just sort of think it’s good because some young people who heard that song [“***Flawless”] might start thinking about feminism.

You’ve talked before about how it wasn’t until you came to America that you thought about yourself as “black,” because you’d never been identified by the color of your skin while you were in Nigeria. My understanding is that coming here and finding yourself slotted into that category was a frustrating experience. But were there were positives to it? What was gained?
When I said that I didn’t mean it negatively. But I remember when I first came to the U.S., my sister was in Brooklyn so I spent the summer with her. And when I was there an African-American man called me “sister.” I’d been in the U.S. only a few weeks, but I already knew that “sister” meant blackness and that blackness was loaded with negatives. I remember saying to the man, “Don’t call me your sister.” Almost 20 years later, I’m ashamed of having done that. If blackness in America were benign, I wouldn’t have had a problem with being called “sister.” I had internalized negative stereotypes. But my need to understand those stereotypes made me start reading African-American history, and now I take a lot of pride in that history. There’s a lot of grace and resilience with black American stories. So to answer your question, for me there are many positives. I’m quite happily black. But I also make a distinction: to be African is different from being African-American. We’re both black, but we’re distinct ethnic groups — America labels us both “black”: You walk into a fancy store, you look like me, and there are people who think, why are you here?

In your New Yorker profile you said that one day you’d tell your daughter what it means to be black. Do you know what you’ll say?
No, I don’t. I want to protect her from everything. I know I can’t.

I want to return to the subject of empathy and representation. Actually, sorry, this is relevant: Have you seen Black Panther?
I can’t tell you that.

Why not?
[Laughs.] Because I’d lose my black card! I need to see it. I just haven’t had time.

Ah, okay. My question was related to that movie, but let’s try anyway. When Black Panther came out it was seen as a victory for representation. But is representation enough as a political end? The cynic in me sometimes wonders if a bunch of white guys in a boardroom somewhere can look at the all money Black Panther made and feel like that lets them off the hook for there still being all white guys in the boardroom.
I don’t think people who celebrate Black Panther think representation is enough. Representation is a start, but I want a black person to be writing the checks. I don’t know how you get into the secret society of people who actually write checks but that’s where black women and men need to get to, and white women, and Chinese women. How wonderful it would be if in that meeting of the executives you had white men, Chinese men, Indian men, black men, white women, black women, Sri Lankan women. The stories that would come out of that would be fantastic because if someone brought up cultural bullshit, there’d be someone there who could call it bullshit. So to get back to your question, yes, I like that Black Panther exists. But it makes me sad that it’s 2018 and the reaction to that movie speaks to how novel its existence is. It shouldn’t be so novel.

Does America today still offer the sense of opportunity that it did for some of your Nigerian characters in Americanah? Has Trumpism reduced that sense of possibility?
Actually there’s a large number of Nigerians who admire Trump because he represents a certain kind of African big man. Also, for Christian Nigeria, Trump is fixing all the bad things they believe Obama did, one of which is gay marriage. So for many people, America’s standing hasn’t changed. And for intellectuals and people who are left-leaning politically, there’s a kind of wicked glee [about Trump’s rise], because they think now America can’t lecture us about good governance. It’s a glee that’s very easy to understand, because Americans are very good at coming to tell you how to do something properly.

You said earlier that you don’t think of yourself as an ideological writer, but what made you feel comfortable being a public advocate for feminism? Were you always interested in being a public intellectual in the same way that I assume you always wanted to be a writer?
When I started, all I wanted was to write books that somebody would read. I didn’t plan to become this “feminist icon,” which is something I feel uncomfortable with. People say, “This is what you’re known for.” But that’s not what I know myself for.

Why are people so quick to tag you as a feminist rather than a novelist?
Feminism is an easy hook. In a way, literature is more diverse, and maybe it’s easier for people to peg me as a feminist icon than a novelist. But I’ve always been interested in politics. The burning thing of how do we make things better is what makes me keep talking about feminism. And I have to tell you: doing that is not always good for my art. I’m trying to better balance my time. But talking about feminism comes from passion. I really believe we can make the world better.

Were you worried about what having a child would mean for your art?
Yes. I used to think I wouldn’t be a good mother because I was so dedicated to my art. I said to myself, I have nephews and nieces who I adore, and I helped raise them, so those will be my children. That’s what I thought for a long time, because I felt that I couldn’t be true to both my art and my child.

What changed?
Getting older. I like to joke and say that you’re ready [to have a child] when your body isn’t ready, and when your body is ready, you’re not mentally ready. I guess you have the best eggs when you’re, like, 22, but at 22 you don’t even know yourself. Then when you’re 38 and know yourself, your eggs are not the best quality. Anyway, we’ll talk about eggs another time. But my baby happened, and it’s important to talk honestly about this, because having her changed a lot. Having a child gets in the way of writing. It does. You can’t own your time the way you used to. But the other thing that motherhood does — and I kind of feel sorry for men that they can’t have this — is open up a new emotional plane that can feed your art.

Do you have a current idea for a new novel?
Yes, but maybe not.

That’s a coy answer.
I might be doing some research for it. Maybe not.

I guess we’ll have to see how that next novel — whatever it may be — turns out to know if your ideas about motherhood and creativity hold true.
He said with a veiled threat. I really do think motherhood feeds art. How that will be executed is another question. But having access to the emotional plane that comes with birthing a child: I can see the world through her eyes and notice things that I wouldn’t have noticed without her. I’ve lost out on time, but I’ve gained quite richly in other ways. At least that’s the theory I’m working with now.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Annotations by Matt Stieb.

Production Credits: Styling by Rebecca Ramsey. Dress by Dries Van Noten.

*The original version of this article incorrectly referred to the novel Dear Ijeawele as Letters to Ijeawele.

Written first as an email to a friend, Dear Ijeawele is a 15-point rubric on how to raise a feminist daughter, with nuanced entries like, “In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints.” Adichie and her husband, fellow Nigerian and physician Dr. Ivara Esege, have a 2-year-old daughter together. At a TEDx Talk in London in 2012, Adichie presented an inclusive definition for a feminist: “a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.’” The talk had viral success outside the literary world with almost 5 million views, and, when expanded into a book, became a Times best seller. A sprawling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the interconnected story of a group of Nigerians (and one Englishman) whose lives are upended in various ways by the country’s 1967–1970 civil war. Chief among those characters is the houseboy Ugwu, who eventually finds himself fighting in the aforementioned war on the side of the Biafrans. With the reckoning of #MeToo and the death of the author in May, the perceived misogyny in Roth’s work has emerged as a contentious subject. In an essay grappling with the loss of her friend, Zadie Smith wrote that “he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid. But, unlike many writers, he did not aspire to perfect vision. He knew that to be an impossibility.” Adichie’s first TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” from 2009, was another viral success. From a stage in Oxford, she discussed the importance of listening to all cultures and voices, and how limiting ourselves to one narrative is the root of prejudice: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,” she said, “but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” As of 2013, people of color accounted for 37 percent of the American working class; by 2032, they will make up the majority of the working class. In January 2016, the New York Times Book Review commissioned Adichie to write a short story on the election. The result, “The Arrangements,” investigates Melania Trump’s internal life, and begins with a riff on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “Melania said she would buy the flowers herself.” In 2013, Beyoncé sampled Adichie on the interlude of “***Flawless,” pulling from We Should All Be Feminists: “We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.” Pioneered in Ghana, the West African dance music highlife features bright guitar lines and horns played over a clave rhythm. Nigerian highlife musicians, including Victor Olaiya and Dr Sir Warrior, often include traditional Igbo instruments, like the udu pot drum and ekwu slit drum. After a brief attempt at studying medicine, Adichie moved to America for college when she was 19, graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001. Like the protagonist of Americanah, she has also spent time in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. “Someday she will talk to her about what it means to be black, but not yet,” wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in a recent Adichie profile in The New Yorker. “She wants her daughter to be in a place where race as she has encountered it in America does not exist.” What other novelist is quoted in the rarefied air of a Beyoncé single and has their work quoted on a Dior T-shirt?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Being a ‘Feminist Icon’