‘I believe literature is in peril’: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes out fighting for freedom of speech

As the BBC prepares to air her hard-hitting Reith Lecture, the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun talks about truth, trans rights and our ‘misogyny-drenched’ planet. Plus: read an extract

I meet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the day after she delivers and records her Reith Lecture for the BBC. She is a commanding presence: flawless to look at, serene in her confidence, vivid and trenchant in her quest to smash every point and win every argument. We meet at Broadcasting House a few hours before she leaves London for Lagos: the writer now splits her time between Nigeria and the US. In the former, she says, “life is louder, more raucous, more joyful, my cousins are there. People come into the house all the time. In the US, I have silence and I need silence as well.” It’s a neat, fleeting snapshot of who she is, troublemaker and thinker, with enough self-awareness to make space for both.

The theme for the four Reith Lectures this year is freedom, and Ngozi Adichie’s contribution, which will launch the series this Wednesday on Radio 4, is on freedom of speech. The word was that it would be a cat-among-the-pigeons moment, making all the liberals in the incredibly curated audience clutch their pearls. The stated intention is, as you’d expect from Reith’s mission, to educate and entertain. But the subtext, I think, is to set a grenade off under some issue of the day.

Ngozi Adichie didn’t get her reputation as a straight-talking provocateur from her novels. In those, her overriding agenda seems to be the urgency of the story. The first, Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003 when she was only 26, had an immediate impact, winning the Commonwealth writer’s prize and international acclaim. Half of a Yellow Sun, three years later, was a magnificent achievement, and swept away anyone who had unaccountably not noticed Purple Hibiscus, which is now on the GCSE syllabus. Ngozi Adichie is a hit with Gen Z.

Her third novel, 2013’s Americanah, was about racism in the US, to where she’d moved in order to study when she was 19. “It was because my sister was there,” she says, adding drily: “There was somebody who would give me food.” She was escaping her medical degree in Nigeria, a process she describes with her trademark graceful brevity: “Getting into medical school is really difficult. So I announced to my parents, ‘I really want to leave.’ They say, ‘Are you sure?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’ And they say, ‘OK.’ My friends said to me, ‘That’s like a fairytale.’ You do not go to African parents and say, ‘I want to leave medicine’ and they just say, ‘Yes.’ It really did make a difference that they supported me.”

It was two Ted talks – The Danger of a Single Story in 2009 and We Should All Be Feminists in 2012 – that marked her out as a persuader, a polemicist, a contrarian. “I didn’t think the talks would become what they have become,” she says. The first, in which she discusses the dominance of the caucasian experience in the literary canon, has been watched by 27 million people; the second was turned into a book which became a global bestseller and is distributed free to all Swedish 16-year-olds.

“With The Danger of a Single Story,” she continues, “people are not used to Africans taking this position. You know, we’re supposed to constantly be in a state of gratitude, as Africans. And here I was saying, ‘Let’s all do better.’ I remember thinking, ‘They probably won’t even clap, but that’s fine’.” She thought something similar before We Should All Be Feminists, “which I was scribbling frantically just before I went on stage, because I hadn’t prepared properly. It was an African Ted. Feminism is not a subject that’s popular on my continent. So again I was thinking, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ And then they gave me a standing ovation.”

In her Reith Lecture, Ngozi Adichie makes a passionate, trenchant call-to-arms, and argues that our culture of self-censorship, policing each other’s language, cordoning off whole subjects as unsayable, is “almost the death knell of literary and other cultural production”. If we cannot tell the truth to one another, she says, literature is finished.

Explosive … the 2013 film of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Explosive … the 2013 film of Half of a Yellow Sun. Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

“An American student once accosted me at a book reading,” Ngozi Adichie tells her audience. Why, the student asked angrily, had Ngozi Adichie said something in an interview? “I told her that what I had said was the truth and she agreed that it was – and then asked, ‘But why should we say it, even if it’s true?’ At first, I was astonished at the absurdity of the question, then I realised what she meant. It didn’t matter what I actually believed.”

It’s a magisterial sermon but slightly undermined, for me at least, by the fact that she keeps not saying what these things were that she wasn’t meant to say. How can you make an adjudication about who’s absurd, who’s policed, how we defend the freedom to say what’s true and important, if you don’t know what the thing is?

So the next day I ask her straight out: what was this true thing that the accosting American hadn’t wanted her to say? “Something,” she says. “I will leave it there.” I suspect it was something to do with trans issues, as Ngozi Adichie has gone viral on this subject before. Five years ago, the writer said in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” She has written extensively about the fire she came under after that.

Ever since, she says, she has lost all respect for some people she would previously have gone for a drink with. There are invitations she is wary of accepting. “In Nigeria, I’m known to be controversial, right? And I’m controversial because I’m a feminist. Ask any Nigerian, you’ll meet the parents who say that I’ve made their daughters not want to get married, or say that I’m the reason that marriages have ended. And I’m very proud of that. It was one of those things I feel so strongly about that I wanted to make sure I talked about it. Now this whole trans thing, I did not know I was walking into anything. I thought I had said something self-evident. So I think I just experienced a sadness. I felt, ‘I’m on your side. We’re a tribe. Why am I a controversial figure?’”

This is the driving logic of her fear for free speech: that she can’t say biological sex is inalienable without sparking a storm. “So somebody who looks like my brother – he says, ‘I’m a woman’, and walks into the women’s bathroom, and a woman goes, ‘You’re not supposed to be here’, and she’s transphobic?” We break briefly so I can look at a photo of her brother, who is smiling, tall, bearded and handsome. He’s actually on this trip with her; she has five siblings in all, two sisters, three brothers, all very close. I suggest that he would look different if he were living as a woman.

“But that’s the thing,” she says. “You can look however you want now and say you’re a woman.” And, she adds, anyone who might take issue with this is “outdated” and needs “to have the young people educate [them]”. I suspect she’s taking an argument – that trans people don’t want to be policed for how they dress and what stage of transition they’re at – and reducing it to the absurd. So I tack another way: “Imagine your brother did want to live as a woman. You would support his endeavour with love, right? You’d probably think treating him with dignity and respect was more important than where he went to the toilet?”

“But why is that?” she asks. “Why can’t they be equal parts of the conversation?”

“Maybe because dignity is more important?”

“Not if you consider women’s views to be valid. This is what baffles me. Are there no such things as objective truth and facts?”

I’m not having that. “You couldn’t objectively say, ‘All women are threatened by trans women.’ I’m also a woman. That doesn’t reflect my experience.”

“No, of course not. And it would not reflect the experience of many people. I think that’s different from saying, ‘Women’s rights are threatened by trans rights.’”

I think the opposite is true – and since I’m in the oppressed category whose rights she’s wanting to protect, I think we have to file the matter under, at best, not-yet-settled. Then we drop it since, realistically, we could fight about this all day and she has a flight to catch.

The overarching mood of the era is one of “moral stridency”, Ngozi Adichie says in the lecture, which “is always punitive”. She elaborates: “Europe imports America’s cultural battles.” She has always been fascinated by our “resentful admiration. In some ways, America sets the standard of what we should be talking about and caring about. Europe should also take responsibility. And say, ‘You know what? No, thank you.’”

It’s all a question of perspective, I guess. I’m more interested in the deliberate export of culture war by rightwing thinktank networks; she’s more interested in liberals building better resilience to things that offend them. “It’s not to say that we have to accept everything. I’ve read many books that have really annoyed me.” I ask her to give me an example. “I won’t. But I’ve been annoyed by the portrayal of black people. I’ve been annoyed by the portrayal of Africans. That happens quite a bit. I’ve been annoyed by the portrayal of women. But for us to get to the world that we want, we have to start with the world as it is. To say that we want to cleanse a novel of misogyny is make-believe; the world is drenched in misogyny.”

Is that real, though? Are progressives trying to eradicate the literature of the less enlightened eras, or is that a rightwing caricature? “A friend of mine was telling me that there are actually now trigger warnings in novels. A book that he bought in Waterstones!” She worries, too, that orthodoxy can evolve in any direction; an author can become cancellable at any time. “Who’s to say that someone’s not going to say, ‘Cancel Americanah, it’s about Americans, and she’s culturally appropriating’?” It is the highest virtue to a novelist to say what they consider true, irrespective of whether it’s popular or fashionable or pretty.

Ngozi Adichie worries about creeping authoritarianism, about rightwing populism, about fake news and about democracy failing. These are exactly the same things that those she sees as the enemies of free speech worry about. If I think the free speech debate is being puppeted by the right to destroy the unity of the left, she probably thinks I’m someone else’s useful idiot. But in combat, as she is in her prose, she’s exhilarating and I’m glad we had the conversation. The paradox of her Reith Lecture, as in the free speech debate generally, is all the things it doesn’t say.

‘An epidemic of self-censorship’

An extract from the writer’s Reith lecture

We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. We no longer need to have real discussions because our positions are already assumed, based on our tribal affiliation. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith. Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so, they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.

One cannot help but wonder in this epidemic of self-censorship, what are we losing and what have we lost? We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then, faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.

To anyone who thinks, “Well, some people who have said terrible things, deserve it,” no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is. Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.

No human endeavour requires freedom as much as creativity does. To create, one needs a kind of formless roving of the mind, to go nowhere and anywhere and everywhere. It is from that swell that art emerges. The German writer, Gunter Grass, once reflected on his writing process with these words: “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention.” As a writer, I recognised this intimately. As a reader, I have often felt the magic of literature, that sudden internal shiver while reading a novel, that glorious shock of mutuality, a sense of wonder that a stranger’s words could make me feel less alone in the world.

Literature shows us who we are, takes us into history, tells us not just what happened but how it felt and teaches us, as an American professor once put it, about things that are “not googleable.” Books shape our understanding of the world. We speak of “Dickensian London.” We look to great African writers like Aidoo and Ngugi to understand the continent and we read Balzac for the subtleties of post-Napoleonic France.

Literature deeply matters and I believe literature is in peril because of social censure. If nothing changes, the next generation will read us and wonder, how did they manage to stop being human? How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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