Our Feminism: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie X Phidelia
Influence /ɪnflʊəns/ — noun: The capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself. An Interview.
Who: The Nigerian author, poet and speaker is a feminist hero to Gen Zs around the world. In part made popular from her TED Talk and subsequent book, We Should All Be Feminists, and Beyoncé’s sampling on her song “Fearless,” Ms. Adichie’s feminism is one Gen Z can get behind — complex, undisciplined and intersectional.
Why: For most Gen Zs around the world, Chimamanda is defined by her feminism. We Should All Be Feminists speaks to all girl/gnc Gen Zs and offers them an accessible feminist foundation that feels rel- evant to their world. Of course, for many Gen Zs, she is revered as an author and a poet. Particularly for girls/gncs in her native Nigeria.
Humans, especially in adolescence, are very impressionable beings. We listen to people, we read books, and we pick up ideas from them. These ideas sometimes go on to shape our lives and become the very foundation our beliefs are built upon. I know, because this is how I have gone through life — learning and unlearning, by reading, and listening, and questioning.
I first encountered feminism in the African novels I read while growing up. It was always so subtle, never actually named, just this thing flitting around. I didn’t know what, but I knew there was something about these strong willed female characters that I always fell in love with. I knew I wanted to be like them.
One day, in 2012, I watched Ms. Adichie’s TEDx talk “We Should all be Feminists,” and there it was — everything that had been hidden in the novels I had read, out in the open, named: Feminism.
Like so many girls around the world, Ms. Adichie’s TEDx talk became the starting point for my journey into becoming a feminist. Her words became the doorway through which I entered into a world where I knew that I didn’t have to conform to a patriarchal gender system. A world where I didn’t have to do certain things simply because I was a girl.
Below is my conversation with Ms Adichie on her influence on young women around the world.
Phidelia: All over the world, there’s an awakening among young women — revolution if you will. Young women are discovering feminism, discovering their voices and their strengths. Your TEDx talk, We Should all be Feminists, played a role in this for me and several other girls I know. I never knew what feminism really was about until I watched that video. It pushed me to research and learn. Your influence on young women spreads across continents and breaks language barriers. What does it mean to you that a 17-year-old girl in Norway and a 15-year-old girl in Nigeria can both quote you as their biggest inspiration?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: When I gave that TEDx talk, I hoped to start a conversation, I hoped to spark an awareness, but I didn’t think it would be anything big. I knew feminism was very much a ‘bad’ word, especially to Africans — and the TEDx audience was mostly African. I expected hostility and resistance, but I was also determined to speak honestly about something I really cared about. Something that deeply bothered me. Something I felt we needed to begin to change. My philosophy is that if I speak my truth I am more likely to sleep well at night. And so it really makes me happy to know that my words have mattered, and it makes me happier that young women are asking their own questions, and most of all deciding that they matter equally. I have also been struck by the similarities in the experiences of women around the world. That said, I would not call it a revolution, because there is still so much to be done, because there is still so much reflexive hostility worldwide to the idea of full human equality for women and men.
P: You’re seen as a leading voice globally. Because of this, almost everything you say, write or do is amplified. How does this impact on your personal life and relationships?
CNA: It is often very strange. I’m trying not to let it make me skittish, but I think I’ve taken on a little more wariness about people, which doesn’t come naturally to me. I have a small and solid circle of family and friends whom I love and rely on, and feel endlessly grateful for. Because sometimes it can feel disorienting to know that people are attributing false motivations to you, deliberately misunderstanding you, etc., and even more disorienting to be a person whose natural instinct is to respond, to fight back, but to know that the sensible thing to do is not to.
People who love sensationalized outrage are not looking for reasoned debate. And so having the stable support of family and friends is lovely. At the same time, being this global voice is, in a sense, a huge compliment, and I am sometimes grateful to be able to speak about what I care about. Sometimes, though, I find myself thinking ‘haba, this thing I said is not that serious, but okay.’ On the not so great side, I’ve lost some friends — or rather, people I thought were friends.
Being a public voice clarifies human relationships, for better or worse. You see how little people are willing to give and how much they are keen to take, you learn of the raw power of envy, you learn that your humanity is easily overlooked, but you also discover the depth of love and loyalty and support. And the loveliest thing for me is to see the pride in my father’s eyes. I am very much a daddy’s girl. My father is the kindest, wisest, funniest, most humane person I know. He is moderately conservative but he was very supportive of a public position I took once, and it made me see a new and even more admirable side to him.
P: Is there anything you have said or written, which was either misconstrued or misunderstood, which you now regret?
CNA: Not really. There are things I wish I had clarified, or things I wish I had said more about. I’ve often been annoyed by how journalists have edited my words and shaped them, in ways I thought were deliberately misleading, but that is the nature of the beast. A major example was the ‘Chimamanda criticized Beyonce’s feminism.’ Which was completely not true but led to a lot of noise that I chose not to engage with when it was happening. I think well-meaning people read closely and contextually and people who want to shout just do and there’s really little one can change about that dynamic.
P: When the Kenyan publication, Kwani? marked its 10th anniversary in Nairobi, the warehouse which was hired was filled to the brim with hundreds of women waiting to see you, despite it raining heavily that day. What did that event mean to you — seeing all those young women gathered to meet you?
CNA: I felt very emotional. Close to tears. My manager was teasing me about it, and telling me it was good for me. There was something about being there in Kenya, about being among fellow Africans, about being part of this tradition of Africans recognizing their own, that just really moved me.
P: In 2015, TIME magazine named you one of its 100 most influential people in the world. You have also been described by some publications as Africa’s most influential woman. Does this put any pressure on you?
CNA: No, because it’s something nice to have in my bio but it’s not something that has any real consequence in my everyday life. The pressure I have is self-made, it is the pressure of my creativity, the pressure to create, the need to write, the desperation when I am unable to.
P: Over the years, we have seen your influence expand. Apart from the literary scene, you have quite the influence in the beauty and fashion industries, from being named the face of Boots No7 beauty range to the words from your TED talk being featured on Dior T-shirts. Do you find the commercialization of feminism to be problematic or see these corporate outlets as a way to further spread your message?
CNA: The ‘commercialization of feminism’ is not a discourse I find interesting. What does it mean? That feminism is a movement of ascetics? That it must necessarily be anti-capitalist? There are many places in the world where the practical answer to women’s inability to achieve their full potential is to give them easy access to capital to start their businesses.
Maria Grazia Chiuri had read all my work long before she became the creative director at Dior. And so I was happy when she asked to use my words. She feels strongly about the need for women to be allowed to be their full human selves, as do I. There are young people who are making their own WSABF T-shirts on eBay because they are drawn to the message. Words cannot change the world but words can bring awareness and can spark change. As for Boots, I happen to like makeup. So it was an interesting thing to do. Boots wanted to sell the idea of makeup being something women put on AND then do other things. I also liked having the opportunity to tell them about the ‘off’ undertones in some of their foundation shades for dark-skinned women.
But the most important thing is this: feminism is not a bestseller. We need to remember that. Putting ‘feminist’ on something is not a guarantee of sales. Feminism still invites an enormous amount of hostility and backlash. So it feels dishonest to talk of using ‘feminist’ to sell things as though feminism were like sex. I think the message of feminism must be made mainstream. It must be made ordinary and it is in making it ordinary, making it known everywhere, that wide-scale awareness and change can happen.
P: We live in a world that constantly reinforces the message that young women should aspire to a certain ideal of femininity and beauty. While this is slowly changing, it is still our reality. Many struggle with the idea that they can be strong, outspoken feminists while also embracing their femininity. You have resisted this “either/or” binary. How can they resist these restrictive social influences
CNA: It starts with re-defining femininity. There are dangerous stereotypes attached to the concept of femininity that need to be discarded. Wearing a pretty dress does not mean that you then have only to be seen and not heard. But choosing NOT to be feminine is as valid a choice as being feminine. I think it’s important to understand that beauty is not a single thing. Beauty comes in different shapes and colors and hair types. What I find most beautiful in a woman is confidence, which I define as a woman who likes herself enough to like others. And from confidence will come the right choice for each woman, whether to do the makeup and high heels or whether not to. I respect both.
P: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
CNA: The wonderful and brilliant Jackie Kay once told me that I was uncomfortable when being complimented and that I would often undercut the compliment with sarcasm. Stop doing that, she said, and since then I have made an effort to stop. It also made me realize how gendered that was, the discomfort with taking ownership of one’s accomplishments. Now, I am determined to own my joys and my achievements with pride and honesty, and my philosophy with other people, especially women, is Never Admire Quietly. If I admire something about a woman, I make sure to tell her.