Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came into her own in 2003 when she wrote the widely-successful Purple Hibiscus. The MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient has since gone on to write Half of a Yellow Sun (that has since been adopted into a movie), Americanah, Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Manifesto, and The Thing Around Your Neck. The highly-acclaimed Nigerian author has many other achievements including her TED Talks on The Danger of A Single Story and We Should All Be Feminists. Described in The Times Literary Supplement as the most prominent of a procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors (who) is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature, her works range from novels to short stories to nonfiction. Chiemelie Ezeobi, who recently sat down with the THISDAY Newspaper Woman of the Decade writes that issues surrounding feminism, sexism, training the male child, and the pressure in writing were laid bare on the table
Does your success in any way put pressure on you?
Not really, I have a lot of pressure but it is on myself, I have always been like that. In primary school if I got 97 per cent, I was upset because I wanted to get a 100. As a writer, I do a lot of editing. My editing for Half of a Yellow Sun in particular, I wasn’t ready to let go, I wanted it to be perfect. I kept editing and at some point, my editor said to me Chimamanda this is it, you’re done. You have been done with this book for six months, you’re done. I think it is because there is a part of me that knows that there is no such thing as perfection, but I am still always looking for it.
Americanah’s adaptation into a television program is already in the works, what contribution did you make in them?
No, very much because the way it works is that you don’t really have much of a say. What I did was that I had a choice in who I sell rights to, and who I gave the rights to.
So much attention is focused on the girl-child and nothing is done about the male child. Are you in any way going to do that?
I really want to talk to boys more, I really do, because I think it can not just be girls we have to talk about boys too. Because it’s the same boys that will grow and meet up the girls. And also gender benefits boys and men yes, because the expectations for boys and men are also difficult.
From the time they are two years old, they are told you can not cry, you have to be strong, you have to provide. It is not easy so I think it is important for us to change that, to start to tell people who are raising boys, apart from mothers; let them cry, they don’t always have to provide, if he doesn’t want to do a manly thing leave him alone.
Because it is what you teach the child that the child grows up with, and I really think that many boys were not taught, they don’t know how to communicate, nobody told them how to, so they get married and the women are like he doesn’t tell me he loves me. The man is like but erhm, I bought rice, the woman is like it is not rice I want. Nobody told him from the time he was five years old , he doesn’t know how to do it. So I’m interested really in talking to boys more and more, because I’m used to talking to girls.
On social media, anytime the issue of feminism comes up, you always trend, whether you are involved or not. Can you break down for people that don’t understand, what does feminism actually mean, because there is a twisted knowledge of what feminism actually means Feminism in a very simple definition is the belief that women and men should have equal opportunity in every sphere of life. But really, the reason that it is misunderstood is that it always depends on the context. I think there are some people who don’t want women to be equal, that’s for sure. There are people who do, but don’t understand feminism.
But does that bother you?
Yeah, it bothers me because I want to change their mind and I want to go and convince them. Which is why I’m always open to having a conversation. I like to have a good argument as long as the argument is in good faith and respectful. Because I think sometimes people don’t know somethings. What I say to people is to think about it in terms of justice. We are black people, we know that, maybe not in Nigeria, but in other countries, black people experience racism.
When a black man says I experienced racism, I know he doesn’t want somebody to tell him, go and sit down you don’t know what you’re talking about, there is no racism. So I think, when women still experience sexism we should also listen to them, I think women are often not listened to. Nobody wants to Lord it over anybody, I don’t believe, for example that women are somewhat angels, they are not. Women are just normal, women can do good and do bad, men can do good and do bad.
My point is, we should not say, because you’re a woman you cannot be governor, because you are a woman you cannot continue working if you marry, because you’re a woman you must know how to cook. I say this all the time, the knowledge of cooking doesn’t come from the vagina, everybody learns it and anybody can learn it. There are some women who got married, very intelligent, very industrious, but their husbands says you cannot work. They stay at home, they are unhappy, frustrated, they could have brought in earnings but they are not bringing in.
What are we losing as a society and as a country when we hold these women back, the women who might have run for political office. How do we know that Nigeria would not be better if they had run? So for me, it’s a question of giving everybody equal opportunity, don’t hold people back based on the gender that they are. That’s what it is for me.
In your quest to educate boys, do you think motherhood in this modern time would be very challenging for the mothers because they are the ones who will raise the boys and if they don’t have such knowledge like you have shared with us, do you think it’s going to be a big challenge for them?
I know women learn very quickly, I believe that raising a child takes both the man and the woman. Part of the problem we have with boys, is that the fathers were not present, fathers need to be present. I went with my brother to take his daughter to see the doctor, he was the only man there, all the other children were brought by their mothers. The doctor came out and said look at this man, you people should tell your husbands to do what he is doing.
Fathers have to be present honestly, which is why I say to women when you’re going to get married, check well, make sure he is the kind of person who will be present. He should know where his children’s clothes are, he should know what they like to eat, because I think that when a son in particular has a good father present he makes a difference, a good father of course(laughs).
I couldn’t help but notice in your list of personalities that have helped pushed Africa out there, you only mentioned two significant men, Mandela and Thomas Sankara, I was wondering what happened to the modern men we have today, are they not meeting up to standard?
My father is a good man, he is a decent, simple man who raised his children right. My father never did that nonsense of ‘you are a girl’, all his children got equal opportunity and that’s why, because I have such a good relationship with my father and my brothers, I’m comfortable with men. My feminism is not a feminism that says ‘I hate men’. I don’t hate men, I have examples of good men, so I know it is possible. So, if you had to ask me I would say my father.
I admire Barack Obama, because he represents a good example of what a good father and husband should be. But honestly if you ask me in Nigeria, I don’t know, I have to look very hard. I can tell you the men but they are all literary men like JP Clark. I adore Prof. Soyinka, he is also an example of a man who lives his life the way he wants to live his life.
I look up to him, I actually look up to him, because I think in many ways Chinua Achebe is the writer who gave me permission to write, Wole Soyinka is the writer, I think who I’m more like. He is a man who speaks his mind and says what he wants and that’s the way I am. I will not tell you what you want to hear so you will like me. No, I wouldn’t do that, I will tell you what I think, if you like me, I am happy and if you don’t, it is okay by me.
You know you’ve always criticised political leaders. Can you speak on the import of religion in politics?
I think it’s important that religion should speak the truth to power, we cannot align ourselves with power when power is oppressing people, it’s just not right.
And for me I always keep saying to people if you’re calling yourself a Christian, look at that man Jesus, what Jesus stood for. This is a person who would go to the temple and drive people out, this is somebody who society told ‘ you cannot be talking to tax collectors’, he goes and talks to them, ‘you can not give women this kind of honour,’ he goes and gives women the honour’. I don’t want to go into that because it annoys me, because it’s not right.
Your TED Talks, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, what did you have in mind when you were compiling it?
I had the audience, I gave that talk to an audience that is focused on Africa, so it’s a TED Talks based on Africa. So I really had an African audience in mind, which is why I wanted to make it very personal and very relatable. And I was thinking about those Africans who would be sitting and be like, ‘ hmmmm, feminism! which one is she saying’. So I was taking to people who I felt would not ‘want to hear it’.
When did you know you wanted to write?
I have always known I wanted to write, when I was four years old I knew. Some people are born and they know, some people they have to find it, I was just lucky I knew.
So do you experience moments of self-doubt?
Yes, I wish I didn’t.
So how did you get out of it?
No, I do. when I teach writing, I say to young people that it doesn’t matter how successful you become, there are moments when you are sitting down in front of your computer and you think that what you have written is rubbish. You wonder whether you can do it and I think it’s always hard to deal with but I think it’s part of the process. If you don’t doubt yourself, then you must be very stupid. So yes, I get bouts of self doubts all the time. I was looking at Half of a Yellow Sun the other day and I thought, I wrote this book. I was like, really!!!