Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie review – a feminist manifesto

When a friend asked Adichie for advice on how to raise her baby daughter as a feminist, the writer came up with 15 suggestions

It would be difficult not to like this little book, which shines with all Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characteristic warmth and sanity and forthrightness. Her friend Ijeawele wrote to ask how she should bring her baby daughter up a feminist, and in response, after the right hesitations – “it felt like too huge a task” and “she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing” – Adichie made a list of 15 suggestions. They are all more or less good ones. Ijeawele must be a full person and not let motherhood alone define her; she should go back to work if she wants to, and love “the confidence and self-fulfilment that come with doing and earning”. She should share childcare equally, and not thank her husband for changing their daughter’s nappy – nor complain about the way he does it, either. They should never tell their daughter not to do something “because she’s a girl”; they shouldn’t encourage her to aim at getting married, as if it were an achievement in itself.

Some of the suggestions feel like mountains of difficulty made simple: but then that’s what manifestos are for. Number eight for instance, “Teach her to reject likability”, burrows down into the heart of the matter – but oh, how is it done? And reject all likability, all of it? And what if their daughter when she is a teenager wants and needs desperately to be liked? Adichie is keen to get her reading books but stories won’t necessarily help: for so many centuries, and so persuasively, human stories and songs and dramas have mostly, with some honourable exceptions, been more interested in the beautiful women and punished the unlikable ones. (“No reference to examples in books,” Anne Elliot insists to a male friend in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands.”)

The old patterns are woven into the texture and colour of our desires and our meanings, they are entangled in our cultural foundations, waiting to trip us up again every time we believe we have finally raised our consciousness to extirpate them. In We Should All Be Feminists (another little essay book), Adichie wrote: “imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations”. But what we learn from anthropology, and from experience, is that we aren’t born free; we’re born cultural creatures, unable to begin to have selves until our cultures give them name and form, have expectations of them. Which doesn’t mean we can’t loathe and oppose and change elements of our culture: it alerts us to the fact that the material we are grappling with doesn’t exist outside of us, it’s what we’re made of. All the more reason, of course, for suspicious vigilance – and manifestos for change. Ijeawele’s daughter should “grow up to think of herself as, among other things, a proud Igbo woman”, but selectively embracing “the parts of Igbo culture that are beautiful”, rejecting “the parts that are not”.

Adichie manages the same consummate balancing act in her booklet as she does in her fictions: addressing a Nigerian friend and the specifics of Nigerian experience and at the same time addressing all of us, the world. A reader in the UK, picking her way through the 15 suggestions and between the differences and the common ground, enacts an important encounter: different worlds become that little bit more mutually intelligible. We need to know that capacious, volatile Nigerian contemporary culture – where a daughter might be told to “bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl”, or teased that she is “old enough to find a husband” – also includes Adichie and her friends. They demand the whole lot for women, everything any woman could want anywhere: full equality and opportunity for selfhood and education, sexual freedom and freedom from shame, shared childcare and domestic work, their own surnames. The old asks, which in the UK can seem to have shrunk to conventional pieties, or surface adjustments strained uneasily over complex realities, recover their freshness in a new context. And it was in a “progressive British newspaper”, so Adichie tells us, that Philip May was said to have “taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine”. Nice of him.

It has fallen to Adichie to be a spokeswoman for more than fiction – and no doubt that readiness to speak out is in her temperament as well as in the pressure of politics in her worlds (she divides her time between Nigeria and the US). It seems to work for her. In the last lines of Dear Ijeawele she hopes that when the baby girl grows up she “will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane and broad-minded place”. We can never have too much of that. But it’s in the description of characters and relationships in her novels – in Ifemelu’s story in Americanah, say, or in Olanna’s in Half of a Yellow Sun, or in the richly sympathetic treatment of her male characters – that Adichie puts her feminism to work. Fiction is so good at capturing the intricate, intimate tangles of sexual politics on the page: the dangers of wanting too much to be liked; the difficulties of negotiating authority and power with beloved men; the tensions between motherhood and selfhood or the places where cultural differences intersect with sex. It’s where Adichie can test her hopes against the brute resistance of prejudice and injustice and war.

• To order Dear Ijeawele for £8.50 (RRP £10) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Tessa Hadley

The GuardianTramp

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