Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “It’s easy having disdain for a topic you know little about.”
Due to a delayed flight, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie arrived late but smiling at Book World 2021. There was a long queue winding from the Host publishers stand - many readers waited for an autograph of the author whose voice is being listened to worldwide. Later, at the alternative venue of Airship Gulliver, Adichie would address issues of race, the state of the society in the US and Nigeria, and also feminism. And, in an unexpected twist, she had some questions for the audience.
The writer, who hails from two homes - one in Nigeria, the other in the US - was very straightforward on the topic of American politics: "The story of Americanah unfolds in the midst of hopes for Obama's presidential election. These hopes were crushed by the one who came after him. I think many people saw Obama as some kind of a saviour who would set everything right. But this was not within his powers. For me, his terms in office served as an important symbol. Symbols hold a lot of substance for me. I think Biden has a chance of pushing through some changes, while in Obama's case many people simply focused on blocking whatever proposals he, as a black man, would put forward. I don't think Biden is perfect. But as for the one who came before him, it was like giving car keys to a toddler. Now at least there's an adult in the office. It isn't perfect, but he's an adult."
Adichie returned to issues of race several times during the debate. The first time she had felt as a black woman, she said, was after her arrival in the US. She herself had to do a lot of research on the American version of racism. "I think what America needs is for normal people to learn more about African American history. If you don't understand something, if you don't know it, it's very easy not to care or even to despise it. It is precisely this ignorance on the part of a great number of people that makes conversation about racial issues so difficult in the US," Adichie explained.
The Nigerian author also offered a look at the reality of African literature. She likened her country to a glorified ghetto. "When people read literature from Africa, more often than not it's to show that they are interested in the poor. They want to show their goodness. This never happens with Western literature," Adichie noted. She also described how, upon her arrival in the US, she realised that she had a random privilege. "I am a native speaker of English, which is currently the world's universal language. This brings many advantages. It makes me a part of the body of literature written in English. But I do realise that this really is just a coincidence - we had been colonised by the British. If I were born just a relatively short distance away, everything could have been different. On the other hand, it is one of the few privileges we have," concluded the author.
Next Adichie described the thorny path leading to the publication of her first book and, eventually, her worldwide acclaim. She recalled the refusal from one American publishing house, which took the form of the word NO! written in large letters across the entire title page of her manuscript. According to her own words, Americanah's breakthrough could partially be attributed to the fact that some of the narrative is set in the US.
Then the debate took a turn towards feminism. "What is it that we can do for little girls? We can become their mentors or join organisations that do commendable work. I do have a problem with the endless repetition of the phrase 'girl power'. We are telling girls to use their power, and if they do, immediately they face consequences. I personally feel more alone fighting sexism than I do fighting racism. When it comes to sexism, even people close to me are doubtful sometimes. They think I'm being oversensitive, that I exaggerate, they ask for evidence. This is never the case with racism," she described her personal experience. Adichie also said that in Nigeria her feminist stance often faces staunch opposition. Nonetheless, her books have made it to the list of compulsory school literature. "In Lagos the traffic is terrible and often merchandise is sold right in the middle of it. And some of these vendors sell my books, which is a real honour for me," says the Nigerian author with a smile.
And her question for the audience? Name three things that should change for women in the Czech Republic. What would your answer be?