Authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Zadie Smith Talk About Feminism, Race & Writing

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For those not already in the know, the New York Library has a great conversation series they put on called ‘Between The Lines’ where they interview authors who write on a range of topics that are relevant, thought-provoking and discussion-worthy.

This conversation we want to share isn’t necessarily new, but very noteworthy. It is a conversation between New York University Senior Faculty Member and author Zadie Smith and best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is also known for influencing Beyonce’s feminist ideals with her amazing TED Talk, and her books ‘Americanah’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ are essential reading for all women.

These two award-winning authors sat down for a conversation back in March 2014, but the New York Public Library have made the full podcast available to share and stream so it was a good excuse to focus on the topics they covered, as they aren’t limited to a specific time frame.

Chimamanda discussed race, feminism, identity and how these influenced her writing style. A common theme in all of Chimamanda’s books is the presence of a strong female protagonist who is written unapologetically with flaws and complexities. This stemmed from her experience reading certain romance novels where women were not given much agency to decide their destiny.

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“It took me a while to realize I really didn’t like the Mills and Boon format, where the man decides. It’s sort of the destiny of the relationship is in the hands of the man. And it’s okay as well if they meet and don’t like each other, then he grabs her at some point and she melts. You know that idea that a woman can’t own her sexuality, can’t own her choices? So this is the anti-Mills and Boon in many ways. The women in my world don’t have to wait because they’re women,” she said.

Chimamanda says writing female characters who have a voice and aren’t afraid to use it, such as in ‘Americanah’ which she reads an excerpt from, is not an unique idea to her, but normal.

“For me I am writing about women who are familiar, and [that’s] not to say that all the women I know are strong and have their shit together, but to say that the idea of a woman simply being strong not to prove anything or to be unusual is normal to me,” she said.

If we’re honest, the majority of us could look at the women in our lives and probably say the same. Zadie says this type of women is something that is quite revolutionary because of the choices they are allowed to make for themselves, especially in relationships.

“The women in your books make sexual choices which I think is unusual in a lot of women’s fiction in America, the idea that sex is not something that is a trade or a debate, but actually something you take passionately because you want it, it’s a serious part of a relationship,” she said.

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Moving on to the issue of race, if you read ‘Americanah’ it will really challenge and provoke everything you know about this topic even through her fictional characters. Set in Nigeria, her characters have an entirely different set of struggles there than when they move to America. For the first time they realize they are “black” and that racism is a “thing”, is in the US, but not back in Africa. This theme throughout the books stems directly from Chimamanda’s experience with race.

“When I came to the US I started thinking about race in a way that I never had in Nigeria. If I had been born in South Africa, Tanzania, or Kenya it would be different, because in those countries there is awareness of race as a ‘thing’,” she said referencing the countries that the British Empire played a huge part in, as opposed to Nigeria where they didn’t stay long and directly change the course of their history.

Then she moved on to the topic of identity and how, once she learned about the race issue in America, realized that it was integrated into a sense of self in a big way. One of the ways that she learned quickly was seeing the different types of reactions to everyday phrases that meant different things to black people from West Africa, than it is African-Americans.

“Coming from Nigeria it’s quite different. In Nigeria people will say “sister” [to one another] but they don’t mean it racially. So I think the understand that it’s racial [in America] is a little confusing to us. Maybe it would be different if I grew up in South Africa but for me I’m very happy to be black. But there are many many non-American blacks for whom being “black” is not an identity they are willing to take on,” she said.

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But when specifically talking about racism in America, Chimamanda is shocked that given what happened in America’s history, that there are people willing to deny or brush it off.

“I think there’s a willful denial of history. I keep thinking ‘how can white people not get it if you know the history of America?’ You’re not supposed to talk about race, for school admissions race shouldn’t be part of it, and I’m thinking ‘it was just 40 years ago that everything was about race’, so how are we going to solve it without race being part of it? I find that very interesting,” she said giving her view of the racial struggles in America as an outsider.

After this statement, Zadie offers up the *mic drop* moment of the whole interaction with this nugget:

“Then you hear during the Oscar ballot apparently the news was that many people didn’t watch ’12 Years A Slave’, they couldn’t even bring themselves to watch it. Like, try living it man!”. Boom!

This conversation contains so many intelligent and interesting anecdotes from both women who are black but from different parts of the world – Zadie as a Caribbean woman from the UK, Chimamanda from Nigeria – that present more perspectives in the conversations about race, identity, sexuality and feminism. To hear what both women have to say about Beyonce and the discussion about how she portrays her sexuality in public, be sure to watch the video below, or listen to the Soundcloud podcast version:

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