Legendary Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie headlined the third annual Abantu Book Festival in Soweto this weekend. The acclaimed writer is the author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, and We Should All Be Feminists. She was in discussion with award-winning author Pumla Dineo Gqola at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Mofolo Central.
Audience members packed into the venue and even though she was an hour late, the excitement was palpable. Fans formed a snaking queue to get their books autographed with one tweeting that Adichie is the “Beyoncé of the literary world”.
When the session finally began Adichie did not disappoint. She talked apartheid and Michelle Obama, feminism and fiction.
The writer found herself in hot water after an interview with Channel 4 in 2017 where she said the experiences of transgender women are different from those women born female.
“I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of 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 as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are,” she said at the time.
The backlash was severe, with many accusing her of transphobia although she later defended her comments saying she had “nothing to apologies for”. In March 2017 she attempted to clarify her comment with a Facebook post: “Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that ‘cis’ is not an organic part of my vocabulary. And would probably not be understood by a majority of people. Because saying ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ acknowledges that there is a distinction between women born female and women who transition, without elevating one or the other, which was my point. I have and will continue to stand up for the rights of transgender people. Not merely because of the violence they experience but because they are equal human beings deserving to be what they are”.
On Friday, at the festival, she spoke about her position and views once again, insisting that people have different experiences. “Female bodied people have [different] experiences to those who are not. People who are not female bodied just have not shared those experiences…To acknowledge that does not mean to prioritise one experience over the other,” she said.
Gqola asked Adichie about her interviews with Hilary Clinton and most recently Michelle Obama. In April 2018 Adichie spoke to Clinton about her book What Happened, about being a ‘likeable’ politician, censorship and Trump. And just last week the author spoke to Obama about her book, Becoming Michelle Obama, how the former first lady grew up and the untimely death of her father. But Adichie again faced criticism for not asking the high ranking former first ladies the tough questions.
“I admire Hillary [Clinton] deeply and I am not going to ask her to take responsibility for what a man did…I was there to speak to Michelle Obama about her book, not about the drone strikes in Syria,” she said.
Adichie described her feminism as “populist, storytelling feminism” and was not at all perturbed when a celebrity like Beyoncé used the word ‘feminism’, hoping that it would lead to more young people engaging with it. She also talked about her own relationship with feminist discourse, practising it well before she really knew what it was.
“To be a feminist in a place like Nigeria is difficult. I’ve been known to have fierce conversations with the Igbo uncles in my village because there are some things that fundamentally don’t make sense. There are some things I just won’t do…. My feminism is rooted in my great grandmother who was headstrong,” she said.
Adichie insists that she does not care for feminist academic texts but for “the textured lives of feminist characters. Maybe that’s because I’m a storyteller”. She also praised Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, author of House of Stones, “Novuyo is a wonderful writer, she came to our workshop and disgraced all of us Nigerians,” she said.
Adichie is the author of Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Broadband prize for fiction. She has also published numerous short stories, essays and poems. She divides her time between Nigeria and the US, where she is pursuing graduate work in the African Studies program at Yale University.
ACTIVATE! Change Drivers and The Journalist will continue to keep you posted on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. If you were not able to join the festival this year, there is always next year. In the meantime, stay updated by following us on social media. All images courtesy of Mmuso Mafisa and Abantu Book Festival.