By Edem Torkornoo
First Published in Applause Africa (March 2014)
Two of the greatest female novelists of our time Chimamanda Adichie and Zadie Smith sat down to speak at the Schomburg Center in Harlem about Adichie’s new novel Americanah two weeks ago. The hour-long conversation spanned topics such as writing, race, classism, feminism and black women’s hair. Smith served as moderator whilst Adichie answered questions about the book.
With the opening statement “I think it’s very important that brilliant women step out there to be hot babes,” in regards to Smith, Adichie shows why it is easy to fangirl over her. The candor that is evident in her written work is quickly seen throughout the conversation. Smith points out that Adichie’s work has a “psychological acuity” which makes her characters very real and much like the people we meet in our everyday lives.
When they speak about feminism and the notion of strong women, Smith points out how the women in Adichie’s novels are very confident and not afraid to speak their mind. Where as in a lot of American fiction today, women are written in relation to their men or as status objects, Adichie gives them a strong “stand-alone” voice.
The conversation also highlights the concept of classism versus racism. With this, Adichie says she grew up knowing more about having class privilege than race privilege. This is because in Nigeria, almost everyone you meet is the same color as you and so it is class that plays a big role in how you deal with the world and the world deals with you. Smith chimes in to say that to the middleclass white American, there is no concept of class amongst black people and they may see the African American society as an “undifferentiated mess.”
The authors also speak about the sometimes tenuous relationship between African Americans and non American blacks in the U.S. According to Adichie, the relationship is this way because each group is somewhat ignorant about the history of the other. Someone in the audience asked if Adichie has been able to speak about race in America as she has in Americanah because she is a non-American black like her character Ifemelu. To this she says, “If I were American I will not have been able to write this book.”
We have picked out a few statements that stood out to us:
On writing clear and concise prose that doesn’t leave her readers second guessing and her characters:
“I think it’s very easy to confuse something that is badly written as somehow deep so if something is incomprehensible and the sentences are bad, we’re supposed to say that it’s really deep.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“I like to say that this (Americanah) is my f*ck you book. And by f*ck you I mean f*ck you to another version of myself.“ – Chimamanda Adichie
“To say that the idea of a woman being strong and simply being strong not to prove anything or not to be unusual is normal to me.” – Chimamanda Adichie
On race and the Obamas:
“In the UK there isn’t a sense of a positive black identity and here (in the U.S.) even if its been created in defense or in response there, is so much that’s beautiful in it. And so much that feels strengthening and so if someone calls me sister, I find it a very joyful matter to be called sister by a stranger in a shop. I think that’s an extraordinary thing.” – Zadie Smith
“I am not interested in policing blackness. The point about Michelle Obama isn’t that, somehow Obama would have been ‘less black,’ it’s there was a long history and tradition that needed to be broken. For me, the world I long for is a world where all the blacks have equal value. Where you open a magazine and there’s a woman Michelle Obama’s color, there’s a woman Viola Davis’ color, there’s a woman your color, there’s a woman Thandie Newton’s color. But the truth of the matter is, that’s not happening yet. And I think really that’s the reason why so many black women love Michelle Obama AND love Barack Obama. I remember the first time I saw that this was the woman who had married him, and I thought ‘haaa.” maybe’s not so bad after all!” – Chimamanda Adichie
The only reason why race matters is because of racism. Talking about race is talking about the visualness of it.” – Chimamanda Adichie
On the relationship between Africans and African Americans and African immigrants:
“I think that there is a lot of ignorance about Africa and it’s history because I think many African Americans were made to feel that Africa was a place that there were supposed to feel shame for. I think there are many Africans that come here and buy into all the stupid stereotypes about African Americans that America propagates so there is often a disconnect. I also think many Africans finds themselves playing the role of the good black (like I talked about earlier). It’s very complicated. But I sometimes feel like I want to send a brief and concise history of African Americans to all the Nigerian immigrants who come here to read and send a brief and concise history about some African countries to African Americans.”
“I don’t understand, after having read the history, how a people can come out of it (slavery) with such grace.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“I think that there is a narrative that America likes to tell itself, that is that all immigrants should be terribly grateful to have come and should therefore shut up and not complain.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“I tell people that if you ever get to interview a black woman, please don’t make any decisions based on her hair.” – Chimamanda Adichie
On finding your purpose as asked by a 25-year old:
“To really love something is a gift. It’s not something that’s common.” – Zadie Smith
“I think what I will say is that when I was 25 I didn’t think in those terms. I didn’t think in that kind of language or that “I want to find my purpose.” And I really would advice very strongly that this 25-year old not think in those terms. What it does is, it just clouds your head and you start thinking, “I have to find my purpose, I have to find my purpose.” What you should do is just live. I just think life is short. Do your thing, follow what you love, follow what will give you a job and can help you eat.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“I don’t want to live in a world where I somehow have to apologize for liking what I like.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“I am not interested in policing feminists. Who ever says she’s feminist is bloody feminist. I feel like we live in a world where more people should be saying it and we should not be pulling people out of the feminist party.” – Chimamanda Adichie
“Men don’t really get female fashion. They really don’t. I don’t even think about men when I make my choices because they are irrelevant. They just don’t get it.” – Chimamanda Adichie
The conversation is smart, inspiring, funny and well worth your time. There are many instances where you will either be nodding your head along or screaming yes. Happy viewing! Watch here.