Women Haters, Mediocre Men Dominate Nigeria’s Political Space — Chimamanda


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Image via Vanguard

World-renowned writer, Chimamanda Adichie, in this exclusive conversation with Sunday Vanguard, discusses politics, belief system, identity and, of course, her obsession with feminism. This chat, which also covers other subjects, is an informative exploration through the mind of one of Africa’s greatest writers.

Aside racism, if it counts in this case, what has been your greatest challenge as an internationally recognised, award-winning African creative writer based in the US?

When my first novel was published, American readers often said they were surprised by how relatable the Nigerian characters were. An early challenge for me was getting readers to see that African stories are valid as literature as any other stories. Not that Africa is the same as anywhere else, because obviously, every place is unique, but that African stories are human stories in the way that literature is about human stories. I grew up reading books from all over the world and I was able to identify with characters from Russia to India.

Globalisation fosters cultural imperialism such that Nigerian youths do not wish to be identified with their origins but would rather be associated with the trends of the Western nations. Your books portray strong ties to African culture especially Igbo, even, in Americanah where the protagonist grew up in the West. How do you think the love for African roots can be re-established or sustained among the youths? 

My protagonist in Americanah did not grow up in the West. I think parents and guardians have a major role to play. You can’t speak only English to your children, act as if everything traditional is evil, not teach them to be proud of their history, and then turn around and complain that they are now ‘globalized.’ By the way, there is no such thing as a globalised identity; even the most cosmopolitan people have a core sense of identity. I consider myself a person who is very comfortable in the world and I love many diverse places in the world but it is because of my sense of self. It is my comfort in my skin as an Igbo woman, a Nigerian, an African, that makes this possible. My daughter speaks Igbo and I find it curious how many fellow Igbo and fellow Nigerians are shocked by this. I want to raise her bilingual as I was also raised bilingual. To give a child the language of her people is a gift that will serve her for the rest of her life. It gives her a sense of who she is. And it’s doable because we all did it. Most Nigerians of my generation are bilingual, so why can’t our children be?

Females all over the world are beginning to speak, recognise and take a stance on their places in the society yet this is being abused by some. What are the core differences between feminism and misandry? 

 Every movement has its extremist side. Look at history, the fight for independence in different countries always had a militant side but we don’t usually say that the militant side represents the movement. I often feel that this question of feminism being misandry is a question of bad faith. It is also used as a way of closing down important conversations. Feminism is about justice. Any thinking person who observes the world and is honest knows that women have historically been excluded, reduced, oppressed in different ways. Feminism is about trying to right that wrong. If a person is pointing out ways in which men have benefited socially or politically in ways that women have not, it does not mean that person hates men. If a person talks about the alarming rate of male violence against women, it is not hating men; it is simply stating facts, facts that we should all want to change. Women may be speaking up more but that doesn’t mean that the cultural, systemic, religious and traditional norms that reduce women have changed. I believe men are part of the solution. Men have to be feminists as well. Men have to speak up about this injustice.

This is a follow-up. Can you also point out the differences between feminism and chivalry?

Chivalry is really a form of noblesse oblige. It is the idea that men treat women well, help them, etc, because men are more powerful. But the problem is that if you think of a group of people as people you help it means you will never think of them as your equals or even as people who can be in a position higher than you. Most men who think of themselves as chivalrous are the same who cannot imagine a female president or who don’t want a female boss or who believe that women become powerful only be sleeping with men. Of course, being protective of the women in your private life is perfectly fine and very different from viewing women in general as people you have to protect. We should protect people who need protection. Some women need protection. Some men also need protection. 

You are being featured in the National Geographic Magazine Landmark: Portraits of Power alongside other great women like Oprah Winfrey, and Melinda Gates among others. Is your being a symbol of power a result of the impact of your writing or feminism stance? 

It is everything I represent. My fiction writing gave me a platform that I chose to use to speak about what I care about. One of the things I care about is feminism. But it is not the only thing I care about. In my experience, my greatest fans are those who have read all my books and I deeply appreciate them. 

Buchi Emecheta, the most successful female black writer in the UK refused to be tagged a feminist even though the bulk of her works has the theme of woman, gender role-play and inequality. Being a feminist icon and an internationally recognised African female writer, what is your take on this? 

Ms. Emecheta was an icon and a great inspiration for me. The Joys of Motherhood is a novel everyone should read. She rejected the word feminist because at the time it was a politically loaded word that often referred to the concerns of middle-class white women and excluded many black women. I have chosen to use the word feminist based on the dictionary definition, because we need to reclaim that word and because we need a word to rally around in order to address sexism. By those standards, Ms. Emecheta was definitely a feminist. She stood for equality for women. 

What is your view on the portrayal of women in Nigerian politics and what are your suggestions as regards this?

 It is important for women to be seen as equally capable and as equal actors in the political space. Nigerian politics is about access, patronage and money. Unfortunately, because women have traditionally not been allowed into these spaces, it is hard for women to compete, hard for them to get ‘godfathers’ and hard for them to be taken seriously. Which is why the few women who actually run for powerful offices have to be exceptional, have to work much harder, and have to deal with a lot more backlash, while mediocre men can sail through on the wings of a godfather and on the assumption that being male means you should be a leader. I do not support the idea of a ‘women’s wing’ of political parties because it suggests that women are slightly lower on the totem pole of ability, and it casts women as people who occupy supportive roles rather than those who should compete for real power. Political parties have to support women more in real positions of power, not token positions. But the fundamental problem is how we think of women in this culture. There are still too many men and women who do not believe that women are capable of being good political leaders. So women are not groomed or encouraged to become politicians. A relative once told me that a woman cannot be governor in Nigeria. I asked why and he simply said, ‘because she’s a woman.’ But we should be asking: who is qualified? Who will not steal state money? Who will use security vote wisely? Who will care about education and healthcare? Whose policies will focus on human beings rather than the personal egos of the politician? We need to be more open-minded in our conception of political leadership. 

Women who seek power

 Studies have shown that people, both men and women, do not like women who seek power. If you observe carefully, women who seek power are scrutinized more, criticized more and their ability is doubted more. They are also often assumed not to be competent. Somebody told me some time ago that Bianca Ojukwu was not ‘qualified’ to run for Senate because she was merely the wife of a leader. Mrs. Ojukwu is an intelligent lawyer. I asked this person what qualification the men he supported had. Many of those men were barely literate. The point is that we as citizens have to constantly question our assumptions and identify our blind spots and the places where we do not think critically. 

You are an avid supporter of LGBTQ which is a practice that is being frowned upon in Africa. How do you still maintain your African/homophobic audience? 

I believe in ‘live and let live.’ I also know that not all Africans are homophobic. African societies have had gay people for centuries. If we look back at our childhoods, there was always the girl or boy who we knew was ‘different’ but we took it in stride. The problem now is that it has become politicised. We have decided to fight political battles invented by western evangelicals. Ask yourself when exactly homophobia became such a big issue in Africa. Gay people cause no harm and Nigerians say they should be killed. But we have leaders who steal and lie, who do not pay elderly pensioners, and we don’t say they should be killed, even though these leaders are responsible for the deaths of fellow citizens. To be clear I don’t support violence and don’t think anybody should be killed but I am making a point about our prejudice and misplaced priorities. How exactly does our society benefit from harassing and attacking gay people? How can we say that a fellow citizen should be killed when that citizen has equal rights as we do and has done nothing to harm anyone? If your religion says you should avoid something then please avoid it for yourself, and do not force others to live by your faith. I am sure Christians don’t want to be made to abide by Sharia and Muslims don’t want to say the Lord’s Prayer. Ancient African societies were accepting of diversity. Let’s live and let live. 

Are you considering depicting LGBTQ in any of your upcoming books? 

People are people. Gay people are people. Please read my short story ‘Apollo’ in the New Yorker. Also, read ‘The Shivering’ in my collection The Thing Around Your Neck. 

With your busy schedule, how do you balance living in two countries? 

I feel very grateful that I can live in both Nigeria and the US and so I don’t mind the challenges involved in achieving a balance. I don’t think I would be fully happy if I had to live exclusively in either place. I am private about my private life, especially because my work as a writer requires being so public. At home, I love to spend time with family and friends. I love quality time with loved ones. I love laughter, conversation and healthy food. I am not very keen on going out. My life in the US and Nigeria is focused on that.