The novelist has been accused of making equality mainstream: isn’t that the point?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was teaching a writing workshop as part of an annual schedule that sees her time divided between Nigeria and the US. For much of the year, Adichie lives in a town 30 minutes west of Baltimore, where her Nigerian-American husband works as a medic and the 39-year-old writes in the quiet of a suburban home. When Adichie is in Nigeria, where her parents and extended family still live, she has a house in the vast city she regards with the complicated love and condescension of the part-time expat.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Photograph: Stephen Voss for the Guardian)
It’s an ambivalence with which many Nigerians regard her, too; last year, the workshop ended in a question-and-answer session, during which a young man rose to ask the famous novelist a question. “I used to love you,” she recalls him saying. “I’ve read all your books. But since you started this whole feminism thing, and since you started to talk about this gay thing, I’m just not sure about you any more. How do you intend to keep the love of people like me?”
Half Of A Yellow Sun, Adichie’s second and most famous novel, about the Biafran war, has been made into a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. Her essay, We Should All Be Feminists, adapted from her 2013 TEDx talk, has remained on the bestseller lists, particularly in Sweden, where in 2015 it was distributed to every 16-year-old high-school student in the land. The talk was sampled by Beyoncé in her song Flawless. Adichie has become the face of Boots No7 makeup. And she has had a baby, a daughter, now 15 months old.
Adichie is still somewhat in the blast zone, not entirely caught up on sleep, but has published a short book, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, an extended version of a letter to a friend who, after having her own baby girl, asked Adichie’s advice on how to raise her to be feminist. I have had twin girls myself since our last meeting, so I am curious about her approach, not least because one of my two-year-olds currently identifies as Bob the Builder and the other as Penelope Pitstop. I would like to equip them to be themselves, while resisting whatever projections might be foisted upon them. We show each other baby photos and smile. “Welcome to the world of anxiety,” Adichie says.
Adichie, Photograph: Stephen Voss for the Guardian
The success of We Should All Be Feminists has made Adichie as prominent for her feminism as for her novels, to the extent that “now I get invited to every damned feminist thing in the whole world”. She has always been an agony aunt of sorts, “the unpaid therapist for my family and friends”, but having the feminist label attached has changed things, and not just among her intimates. “I was opened to a certain level of hostility that I hadn’t experienced before as a writer and public figure.”
This is partly why she has written the new book, to reclaim the word feminism from its abusers and misusers, a category within which she would include certain other progressives, and to lay down in plain, elegant English her beliefs about child-raising.