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Thoughts on African Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Isabel Aninat
Abogada PUC, LL.M Columbia University. Investigadora del Centro de Estudios Públicos. Á - N.2

The novels and essays of Adichie, the famous Nigerian writer, showcase a distinct feminist worldview. Her African experience and her noncomformist tendency to reflect produce a feminism characterized by how it values diversity, humor, and tolerance. With an international readership that’s steadily rising, Adichie fights not just Western stereotypes about African life, but also against her own culture’s social prejudices.

During his Nobel Prize speech, Mario Vargas Llosa praises literature for its capacity to build bridges between different people, uniting them regardless of borders, moving around what keeps them apart—languages, beliefs, habits, and customs. Literature, he says, lets us create a brotherhood inside of diversity.

The novels and short stories of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977), tend to those bridges. Her works come from both a feminine and an African worldview, but most especially, from a worldview that merges the two. Inarguably, these are not isolated or static phenomena. Female protagonists forge paths into unknown worlds: other towns and other continents—traditionally male-dominated milieus. At the same time, the situations themselves evolve. They are stories of twentieth and twenty-first-century Nigeria, a place in flux politically, economically, and culturally.

Adichie, whose novels have won international awards, achieved world fame for her essay “We Should All Be Feminists”, which was made into a TED Talk in 2012, and then integrated into Beyoncé’s 2013 song “Flawless”, the music video for which has nearly 80 million views on YouTube. Therein, Beyoncé sings: I know when you were little girls/ You dreamt of being in my world/ Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/ Respect that, bow down bitches/ I took some time to live my life/ But don’t think I’m just his little wife/ Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted/ This my shit, bow down bitches. Pop-feminism at its most resplendent.

Through anecdotes and humor, this feminist essay depicts the injustices women face from childhood on. The way in which men and women are taught differently in regards to love, work, and socialization. Building a universalist bridge across Nigeria and the whole world that unites local predicaments. She talks about how from a young age women have been taught to be quiet, to not say what they think, and to turn affectedness into an artform. The problem with gender, Adichie says, is how it imposes expectations.

This affectedness impacts sexuality as well. Adichie talks about the differences between the sex lives of men and women. Girls are taught that they can’t be sexual beings in the same same way as boys. For girls, virginity is something to be valued, but not for boys. As such, the search for sexual identity is not lived in the same way. This differentiation is not unique to Nigeria. In 2017, there was a poll in Chile about sexuality, and the contrast between men and women in self-reported sexual partners is stark: an average of 8.4 for men, and 3.2 for women. In Chile, just as in other countries, men tend to exaggerate the number, while women tend to understate it. That happens because of the differences men and women tend to have when it comes to memory, but also because of the way in which sex is asked about in polls.[1]

Feminist: Terrorist

In her essay, Adichie recounts the first time she was labeled a feminist, at the age of 14. She realized it wasn’t a compliment, and that the tone of it was similar to the tone used when accussing someone of being a terrorist. Years later, by then a writer, someone suggested to her that she not identify as a feminist, since feminists were unhappy women who couldn’t find husbands. From then on she identified as a “Happy Feminist”. But she then had to revise the label, updating it to “Happy African Feminist”, as she had been warned that feminism was anti-African, since it came from Western works. When she was informed that being a feminist meant she hated men, she amended her label further to, “Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not for Men”.

Adichie’s short stories and novels prove that being a feminist needn’t have any negative connotation—it’s about justice. In her books, chauvinism rears its head in a variety of different circumstances. There are women, young and old, that are abused by specific men, but there are also those who suffer maltreatment under the broader scope of chauvinistic cultures and environments. In Purple Hibiscus (2003), Kambili’s mother is a victim of her violently abusive husband. A fanatical Catholic, who on more then one occasion beats his wife with enough severity to induce a miscarriage; he also burns the feet of his children with boiling water. But the same man is given public recognition for his defense of human rights. A complex character, a disturbing contradiction. The mother does not even have a name. Kambili, a young teenager who is also a victim of this violence, learns of the existence of a respectful and affectionate environment through her aunt Ifeoma.

In Half of a Yellow Sun (2003), Olanna and Kainene, twin sisters, come from a privileged background, but their parents use them as bargaining chips (in the case of Olanna, because of her physical beauty) or are treated as men (in the case of Kainene, because of her business acumen). At the behest of her parents, Olanna must tolerate the advances of Chief Okonji for as long as it takes for a business contract to be finalized. Kainene, meanwhile, is put in charge of the family business. Her father boasts to potential clients that having two daughters was not a stroke of bad luck, as Kainene is so talented that she is worth two men.

“Even once I was a writer, someone suggested to me that I not identify as a feminist, since feminists were unhappy women who couldn’t find husbands.”

Adichie’s novels have male protagonists, but it’s the women who stand out. Each one of them, in their own way, manages to move beyond their station in life and forge their own path. Kambili by moving from one town to another; Olanna and Kainene, through the changes wrought by war. In Americanah (2013), the female protagonist, Ifemelu, finds herself by moving to the United States. And it is not a coincidence that in these three novels, education, specifically higher education, is something each of the four female protagonists have in common. Kambili is a prodigal student at her school, Olanna moves to a new city to become a professor of sociology, and Kainene finishes her studies before diving into the world of business. Ifemelu’s saga is a love story, but on top of that it is a story about a young woman who wants to go to school, and manages to study first in Philadelphia and then, thanks to a scholarship, in Princeton. There are also secondary characters who are professional women, and who inspire and motivate the protagonists: Aunt Ifeoma in Purple Hibiscus and Aunt Uju in Americanah. Upon learning about the death of the mother of her childhood sweetheart (Obinze), Ifemelu—now a university professor—writes that she was the only adult who ever cared about her opinions.

In the Hair Salons

But Adichie’s novels aren’t just about gender. They’re more complex than that. They aren’t just “feminist novels”, although gender is certainly a theme that unifies them. Of course, it’s not the first time a journey to find one’s self has been told from a woman’s perspective. What makes Adichie’s work interesting is the literary tension between the ubiquitous and the unique, her ability to wed the universal quest for self-actualization with specific cultural trappings.

In another TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, Adichie addresses the necessity of diversity in fiction. She was a reader of English literature from a young age, and although those books showed her new worlds and expanded her horizons, she never managed to fully identify with the characters and experiences in them. They were blonde-haired and blue-eyed protagonists who ate apples, played in the snow, and talked about the weather. It was only with African novels that she realized lives like her own could exist in the world of literature.

Perhaps that’s why Americanah not only opens with worries about hair and hairdos, but revisits those concerns repeatedly as the story unfolds. The same is true of The Thing Around Your Neck, her collection of short stories. Hair salons are where Africa’s destiny is discussed; the act of braiding is something like a ritual; the sharp pains that come with hair-straightening chemicals; the decision to go natural and let your afro grow out, aware of the prejudices that doing so will bring. Together, all those things constitute a significant part of Nigerian women’s lives, but none are depicted in the European stories that Adichie read in her childhood.

Interestingly, Adichie’s books have been criticized specifically for not being authentically African. As she tells it in her talk, an American professor criticized her work because its characters were too much like him—an educated middle-class man. Many of her characters are members of Nigeria’s emerging middle-class: they don’t live in extreme poverty and aren’t facing starvation. It seems that the problem Adichie discussed in the context of English literature, that of there being just “a single story”, is present in novels about Africa as well. There is a desire that they all take in place in dramatic situations: wars, genocides, famines, and failed states; as if these were the only possibilities in Africa. This is the only way the continent can fit into the West’s stereotype, which thrives off of the faraway existence of starvation, terror, and barbarism to reaffirm its global prestige.

Adichie says that the danger of a “single story” is that it creates stereotypes, and the problem of stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They turn a single story into the only story.

Tina Fey, the American actress and comedian, says that the team behind Saturday Night Live has the practice of getting all the writers together in one place with the whole staff. There they pitch their ideas, and which pitches make it on the show is decided by how successful each is in that setting (success being measured by laughter). As more women were brought on, the team realized that the women were laughing at jokes that men didn’t find funny. There had never been any kind of censorship or institutional restraint of women, but it was hard to make male writers laugh with skits about menstruation. It was diversity that led to expanded horizons, and from there, expanded audiences.

“Hair salons are where Africa’s destiny is discussed; the act of braiding is something like a ritual; the sharp pains that come with hair-straightening chemicals; the decision to go natural and let your afro grow out, aware of the prejudices that doing so will bring.”

Adichie’s novels make me think along the same lines, and pay attention to the diversity of the novels we read. Maybe in some cases we can readily identify with the characters. In others, we discover worlds, food, haircuts, and experiences completely different from our own. It is through the combination of the two that we come to understand that there are many similar situations, but that we don’t all experience them the same way. Because of jargon, because of culture, because of language, because of gender. Literature unmoors our prejudices and then dazzles us with the complexities that come with being human.

Mario Vargas Llosa—who failed to mention any female authors in the literary references he made during his Nobel speech—said that, “We would be worse off without the good books that we read: more conformist, less restless and unsubmissive; and the critical spirit, that motor of progress, wouldn’t even exist”. To read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and short stories confirms as much.

[1] Ver González, R. (2017). «Sexo, mentiras y encuestas». Available at