Her third novel, Americanah, a tri-continental love story, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun—centered on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967–1970—was made into a film. And she delivered her second TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which not only has been seen by more than one million people on YouTube but was sampled by Beyoncé in her song “***Flawless.” Coming full circle, the film rights for Americanah have been optioned as well.
Ms. has been avidly following her literary career since 2006, reprinting two of her short stories. Now, she’s not only one of the foremost writers of the day but a feminist role model, inspiring everyone from young girls to the world’s biggest pop star with such words as these from her TED talk:
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful.’ …Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
Ms.: Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think of myself as a storyteller, but I would not mind at all if someone were to think of me as a feminist writer. Sometimes I find myself pushing against labels, only because they can become prescriptive. But at the same time, I’m very feminist in the way I look at the world, and that worldview must somehow be part of my work.
Americanah relied on satire at times, especially through the main character Ifemelu, who starts a blog about race in America and blogs about everything from hair to interracial romance to the Obama election. What commentary are you trying to make about racial politics, about Internet culture?
There’s something about the blog form that I find interesting. There’s an urgency that blogs can have, which I enjoy very much. At the same time, it can easily become careless writing, and you often find ideas in blogs that are not really backed up with any kind of rigor. So in the novel, I wanted to introduce the blog as a way to write about race and to do so in a way that makes fun of it. Race is still a very important subject, but I wanted Ifemelu to be able to write about it in a way that would not have worked if she were writing a newspaper column. … [K]eeping a blog tells us something about the way we live our modern lives.
Do you believe this novel can create a bridge in understanding and complicating the black experience, which is still often characterized as a mostly African American experience?
I’m writing about what I know, but the idea of creating a kind of commonality is one that I like. I don’t think that African American culture began with the slave ship. I think for people of African descent, there’s a commonality in our histories and our experiences, but there are also different ways of being black. There’s a way that we talk about race that only imagines the experience as African American, which then becomes a single story. And if you’re black and coming to the U.S., there are certain things you’re expected to know, which you might not because you don’t know the history. But if my novel is being used to create bridges, and I have had conversations with others who say that’s happening, that certainly makes me very happy.
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.