“To give people the opportunity to tell their stories in their own language,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the crowd Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony, “is to give them their dignity.”
The award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions spoke at the Hilton Foundation’s annual event in Los Angeles about the topic of her viral TED Talk: the danger of a single story.
Adichie is familiar with many of them as the Nigerian-born daughter of refugees—someone who, as a young girl, remembers sitting in the car while it drove past neighborhoods and feeling a distinct “ache” for all of the stories she could never tell.
In one that she recounted for the audience, an American professor told her that her work wasn’t “authentically African” because she depicted middle-class life in Africa. “This is how to create a single story,” she explained from the stage. “Show people as just one thing, over and over again, until they become that thing.”
In another, her well-intentioned male friend boasted about giving Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, to his female friends—but resisted the notion of reading it himself. “We know statistically that men read men and women read men and women,” Adichie reminded the room. “It is time to change that and move to higher ground.”
Adichie was a fitting speaker for the afternoon, in which the Greek refugee services organization METAdrasi—Action for Migration and Development, founded in 2009 by Lora Poppa to help provide basic humanitarian services to the estimated 80,000 refugees and migrants currently living on the shores of Greece, received the 2019 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
“Nobody is ever just a refugee,” Adichie told the symposium attendees. “Nobody is ever just anything. Nobody has a single story.” No movement does, either, which Adichie opened up to Ms. about backstage after her address.
“I was talking to a young woman who said to me that she doesn’t like to participate in Twitter debates about feminism,” Adichie remembered, “because she feels that she might say the wrong thing and she’s afraid to be ostracized—and it just broke my heart because she’s, you know, she’s young, early twenties, she’s sort of trying to figure things out and she feels like she can’t talk.”
That conversation with a young Nigerian woman, who was living in the UK at the time, brought to the fore some of the disconnects Adichie has felt in the feminist movement herself. “I think maybe it’s just a question of hearing one another,” Adichie observed. “We don’t really hear one another. I sometimes feel a little alienated from a certain kind of modern ‘woke’ feminism, because I think a it’s almost become a ‘gotcha’ feminism, and I feel like we don’t really hear one another. I feel that there is a lot about the movement that has become, I don’t know, that almost lacks compassion.”
Adichie also called for even more #MeToo stories, especially from working-class women. “I’d like to see more stories of working class women and sexual harassment,” she declared backstage, “because it’s rampant, and it happens, but I feel as though it’s not yet taken the position that it needs to in the #MeToo movement. But it’s not to say that the stories of middle class and upper middle class women don’t matter, because they do. It’s simply to say that I think we need to broaden it out more, particularly in terms of class. I just really think that we need to hear the #MeToo stories of women who are not privileged.”
To make that possible, Adichie called on feminists organizing events around #MeToo and issues of workplace harassment and discrimination to specifically encourage working-class women to tell their stories—and to put them at the center of organizing efforts. “If there’s a panel on #MeToo,” she said, “whoever is organizing that panel, I think there is a moral responsibility to not only find the sort of usual suspects, but to find the less predictable.”
Of course, encouraging the most vulnerable women to speak up also means encouraging women to break free from the cultural baggage that has silenced their stories for centuries. Adichie offered up a succinct explanation of her own courageous acts of speaking out to speed along the process: “As you get older,” she assured, “you’re looking at your bag of fucks to give, and it’s empty, so you just say what she would say.”
Adichie, who grew up climbing trees with her brother, remembers vividly that when she began developing and got her period, at just age 11, her socialization as a girl was presented as a series of limitations. “Everything changed,” she confessed. “Suddenly I couldn’t, you know, I was ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what this whole thing was about, and then I got my period, and my mother was like, you’re now a woman. I was 11. I didn’t even know what that means. Everything that was fun was no longer allowed. And this is also what I was being told: You need to go to the kitchen and be there when the cooking is done so you can learn to cook because you’re going to cook for your husband.”
Those moments set Adichie’s own feminism into motion. “I did experience femaleness very early on as as just limitations,” she remembered, “and all the things that you were told you could not do.” But she also has come now to a new place—one in which she is defying norms for herself and as an act of service to other women around the world. Adichie is resisting the notion of a single story by telling her own as loudly as possible.
“I’m 42, and I do think it gets easier for women as we get older,” she said, thinking back on her bag of fucks. “That’s for me. That’s been my discovery, that you become more comfortable in your own skin and you just didn’t have it. Your story more, you genuinely really, that bag is empty, you do not have any more fucks to give—but when you’re in your early twenties, it’s harder. You’re trying to figure things out. People’s opinions matter more to you. It’s harder. I do worry about the emotional health of young women, the mental and emotional health of young women. But I’m at a place where I can take it.”
Jonathan Chang contributed reporting.