Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on living and teaching feminism
Adichie's small book, entitled Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, is based on an advice letter she wrote to a friend on how to raise her daughter as a feminist
Soon after a long-time friend of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave birth to a girl, she innocently asked the award-winning author for advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie didn't take the request lightly, responding with a 9,000-word letter that outlined 15 usable pieces of advice. Those ideas – including "Never speak of marriage as an achievement" – have now been adapted into a small book: Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.
Adichie, whose previous works include Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, spoke to The Globe and Mail about how, despite the practical title of her book, living and teaching feminism is full of complexities.
This generation spends a lot of time debating who is and who is not a feminist, especially when it comes to public figures. You say in this book, "Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not."
Based on my definition, which is the dictionary definition, my thing is you either believe men and women are equal or you don't. I think all the time spent debating all of this – who is and who is not a feminist – is not very useful. I think the premise of it is that feminism is some sort of exclusive group and you somehow earn and train and the gatekeepers determine who is and who isn't.
There's another book recently out – Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist. She takes issue with how the radical edges of modern feminism have been filed down. She says, "We keep losing women to participation in the system, instead of where they should be, which is insubordination." What do you make of that?
There's a lot that's wrong with that. The first thing is the idea of women as a monolithic group, which I don't agree with. Women experience gender because they're women but there's diversity within that group of women. I think it's legitimate to question the way the world works. I think that despite the legitimate concerns about hedge funds, I do think it's important that women be in hedge funds. The world works in this way, it's an imperfect way, but women have to be part of it because women make up half the world. I think that feminist theory is important because it labels things, it identifies things, it sometimes makes us aware of things we're blind to. But my approach is a grittier, more practical, more real-world oriented approach.
In this book you take issue with the fact that Hillary Clinton lists "wife" as the first descriptor in her Twitter biography, whereas Bill Clinton lists "founder." I don't think you're on Twitter but if you were, do you think "wife" would make it into your bio?
No. If I were on Twitter, I would be on Twitter because I'm a writer and because I've become this public voice. Not because I'm somebody's wife. The thing with Hillary Clinton was I found it kind of sad and surprising.
Because it wasn't her choice? It was a pressure she felt to define herself?
It just said so much to me about what the political expectations of a woman seeking power are. If a woman is seeking political power, she has to kind of temper it with certain details of domesticity. I don't know how many men who just use "husband" as the first descriptor. I think it's often set up that the wife is the junior partner and there's a problem there.
What was some of the anti-feminist thinking you heard as a kid growing up in Nigeria that has been hardest to shake in adulthood?
I think the major idea is aspiring to marriage. I think when I was growing up, even as a child – this is why I like to say I was a feminist before I knew the word feminist – all these very gendered ideas, I questioned them. As a child, they felt odd to me. When a girl would be told, "You'd better do that properly" or "You'd better behave yourself or you won't find a good husband." There were all these little cues: Reduce yourself, flatten yourself, don't be loud – if you are going to be loud, be loud in a way that is strategic.
Recently, somebody was saying something about a doctor, about a surgeon. And I automatically said 'he' and it turned out the surgeon was a woman. Our world is still a world of male power so we choose a male pronoun. I thought that I needed to give myself a little slap.
Because you're so often identified as an author and a feminist, do you feel a pressure to create characters who are grappling with some of these topics you like to talk about in your non-fiction?
No. I'm a woman living in the world and I'm very alert to gender and so obviously I know that even though my fiction isn't entirely conscious, the way that I look at the world informs my fiction. But I don't want my characters to illustrate my political beliefs because then those characters aren't real people. I think that life is very messy and I think it's the role of fiction to show how messy life is. I think it's important to show women making the sort of choices I wish women didn't make.
This book began as a letter you wrote to your friend years ago, before you became a mother yourself. How has the experience of motherhood changed your views on feminism?
It's made me so much more desperate for a gender-equal world to happen right now because I want her to live in a world that's kinder to women. … There's this hopeful, remarkable, incredible love that's come into my life and it just makes me want the world to be better. What I want to do is raise her to be alert and aware. I want to teach her to be intellectually curious to be able to question. If my daughter at 19 says "you know what, mummy? I'm now a very conservative person and I'm anti-choice for women," I will be heartbroken but I will know that I have done my best. I guess my point being that I want to do my best.
I want her to be a person who is kind and thoughtful and I also want her to be very alert to injustice.
This interview has been edited and condensed.