Her 2012 TEDx talk We Should All Be Feminists counts more than four million views on YouTube. It was adapted into a New York Times bestseller, and turned into a slogan touted by Christian Dior in its spring 2017 collection. Now, her latest book is being hailed as a “feminist blueprint” for how to raise a feminist daughter.
Is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the feminist icon of the 21st century?
Ask anyone familiar with the author and you’ll get a resolute, collective yes. But Adichie herself? She has a rather different answer. “No, I am not,” she says. “I have become a voice of modern feminism, I’ll concede that, even though it wasn’t at all intended. But I am not an icon, nor a leading figure of any kind. I just speak my mind.”
But she speaks it with an eloquence and purpose that has made her work reverberate across countries and diverse audiences. Which makes her, if not an icon, certainly one of the most remarkable women in contemporary culture today.
“I am, simply, a writer,” she insists. “And a person who, for her entire life, has felt very strongly about how women are treated in the world.”
Born in 1977 in eastern Nigeria, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a university town, the fifth of six children. Despite the predominantly patriarchal nature of Nigerian culture, her household was a progressive one: her father was a professor of statistics and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Nigeria; her mother was the university’s first female registrar. They were open, kind parents, Adichie says, “who allowed me to follow my own path.”
That path led her to drop out of medical school in Nigeria a year and a half after enrolling and, at 19, pack her bags and move to the States on a scholarship, where she pursued her ambitions as a writer. Today, Adichie and her family live between Lagos and Baltimore, Maryland, and consider both countries home.
Adichie was 26 when she published her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her second book, 2006’s Half of a Yellow Sun—set during the Biafran War in Nigeria— was also critically acclaimed, picking up a number of international prizes. In 2008 she won a MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called “Genius Grant,” given annually to between 20 and 30 “extraordinary” individuals working in any field—and in 2013, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Americanah, a modern love story set between America and Nigeria. The common thread to all her writing? Her uncompromising heroines—some of the most engrossing characters in recent fiction.
During those same years, Adichie became well known for her public speaking on issues spanning race, gender and equality. Her 2009 TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, which warned against seeing the world from a single perspective, went viral—it currently counts 12 million views on the TED website. Her next talk, We Should All Be Feminists, addressed a feminism beyond race or class. It took on a life of its own, and projected the author into celebrity territory. Beyoncé even sampled the speech in her 2013 song Flawless. After the huge success of her talk , Adichie wrote a book of the same title which turned into a call to arms for a generation of young feminists—so much so that in 2015, every 16-year-old high school student in Sweden was given a copy as a mandatory read. Adichie has received a fair share of criticism for the book, particularly from some of her Nigerian readership, which doesn’t quite know how to grapple with her role as a feminist as well as a writer. “Which is frustrating, but I have come to terms with it,” she says. “People need to understand that we can be many things at the same time.”
As for the success of the book, “I don’t think I was telling women what they don’t know,” Adichie says. “My thoughts and anger are shared by many, and I think my words just articulated those feelings.”
She is, she admits, still very angry today. “Gender inequality is very much an unresolved issue in many places in the world,” she says. “From the States, where you have a room full of men making decisions about women’s bodies and casual misogyny that is just routine; to Italy, where a worrying number of women are killed by former partners, or are often victims of acid attacks.”
Does she foresee any change? “Oh, I hope so,” she sighs. “There has been some progress over the last few years, at least here [in America], but so much has yet to be done. Starting from changing people’s cultural mindsets on how they think of women, and what they expect of them.”
Which is where her latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, comes into play. Written as a letter to a friend who asked Adichie’s advice on how to raise her baby girl as a feminist, the 63-page volume sets a series of basic but essential guidelines about everything from how to parent (“Do it together”) to using the right language (“‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”) to challenging traditional gender roles (“Never speak of marriage as an achievement”). “Her job is not to make herself likable,” Adichie writes, “her job is to be her full self.”
Such assertions have become particularly personal for Adichie since the birth of her first daughter, now 20 months old. “I wrote Dear Ijeawele before I became a mother myself, but I now feel even more strongly about it,” she says. “Motherhood is a glorious thing, and it has given me a new perspective on the subject. But it has also reinforced my belief that we should allow women to be more than ‘mother,’ or ‘wife.’ That’s what I mean when I say I want my child to ‘be a full person.”’
Adichie tells me of a fairly well-known woman who recently had a baby, and, wanting some time for herself to go and get her hair done, left the infant with her caregiver. When her in-laws found out, they were horrified. “It’s a small thing, but it’s very telling of the core problem so many of us face: the idea that, once you’re a mother, you’re not supposed to care about yourself; that you’re no longer a person. I loathe that judgmental approach.”
Having her daughter hasn’t changed much of Adichie’s approach to work—“besides the sleep deprivation,” she laughs. If anything, it has made her hungrier for tangible change. “I want my daughter to never apologise for who she is, for her opinions; for simply occupying space in this world. I want her to feel like she fully matters. I want her to be kind. And I want the world she’ll live in to make all of this possible.”
It’s something Adichie can strive towards with her feminist discourse, perhaps. “Yes and no,” she says. “I am a feminist, it’s part of who I am. But I am not here to create a feminist ‘manual’ of any kind.
"I believe that kind of feminism—the one that sets and abides by narrow criteria of what makes a feminist—alienates a lot of ordinary women that are just trying to get by. No real change can come from that.”
“I didn’t become a feminist because I read a book,” she explains. “I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, because I simply watched the world and the gender injustice that comes with it. So yes, my writing might help voice perspectives other women share, and challenge common assumptions in the process. But for a shift to really take place—for women to actually be allowed by society to contribute how they rightfully should—‘feminism’ needs to become an all-inclusive concept embraced by different classes and genders. It’s something we have to strive for.”
Adichie herself fully personifies the defiance she proposes. Over the past year, the author became the face of British retailer Boots’ No7 beauty brand, pushing back the idea that intellect and makeup can’t go hand in hand. “I am so tired of people saying that if you’re part of the literati and a real feminist then you shouldn’t care for frivolous things,” she says. “It’s just plain misogynistic, and all the more frustrating when it comes from other women.” She has also made her style a talking point. During Paris Fashion Week last September, she sat front row as guest of honour at the Dior show—the perfect perch from which to see models strutting down the runway, sporting T-shirts that bore the line: We Should All Be Feminists. The design was an ode to the power of her work, but it also firmly placed her on the Olympus of fashion’s power players. Celebrities and influencers from Rihanna to Jennifer Lawrence and Chiara Ferragni have all been spotted flaunting the tees, as have style-savvy women around the globe.
But the collaboration was also disparaged, with some pundits hailing it as proof of the commercialisation of modern feminism—the tees sell for US$710. “Critics will always be there, but I am not interested in winning any popularity contest,” says Adichie. “I love the T-shirts, and I love that Maria Grazia [Chiuri, Dior’s new creative director] decided to use my words as a ‘slogan,’ so to speak. She’s genuine and real and interesting, so when she came to me with the idea, I had no qualms giving my permission.
“Yes, they’re expensive by most women’s standards, but what I find interesting is the response they’ve been met with—starting with the plethora of knockoffs on sale on eBay, which both Maria Grazia and I find wonderful. The most appealing aspect of it is how people have embraced and shown off a message and a word, ‘feminist,’ that’s still so problematic for many,” she explains.
Recently, Adichie started a new style project, Wear Nigerian, to support designers from her native country. She’s decided to wear mostly Nigerian brands for public appearances, and enrolled the help of her nieces Chisom and Amaka to run an Instagram page displaying her outfits. “It’s a lot of fun,” she laughs. “And fascinating, too. I am discovering so many new Nigerian brands. Not everything I order has been of the highest quality, but I enjoy wearing the clothes.”
“This is who I am,” she says. “A person who likes lipstick and cares about her appearance, and a person who wants to fight for gender equality and write about race and politics and what it means to be a woman. Nobody can tell me otherwise."
Image: Wani Ulatunde
First appeared in the July 2017 issue of Hong Kong Tatler ONLINE ARTICLE
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