I was thrilled that part of my postcolonial literature tutorial during my last term at Oxford was reading and writing about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fifteen years after the publication of her debut novel Purple Hibiscus in 2003, Adichie continues to make headlines today. Not only is she known as a renowned Nigerian novelist, but she has also made great viral strides with her TED talks “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009) and “We Should All Be Feminists” (2012). Adichie’s popular success in the public eye has thus had major implications for her most recent novel Americanah, published in 2013. Today I’d like to discuss Adichie’s role as a public feminist figure as opposed to how we would stereotypically categorize an academic.
After the critical successes of her first two novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), alongside the publication of her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck in 2009, Adichie began to step further and further into the popular spotlight through publicly giving TED talks. Part of her “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk was also used in Beyonce’s 2013 single “***Flawless,” immediately thrusting Adichie into a wider, more varied audience than those who attend TEDx conferences or judge literary prizes. Adichie’s dual role as both novelist and public figure allows her the agency and opportunity to advocate for her own work and ideas without relying on the voices of literary critics for praise.
Perhaps Americanah has also achieved great popular success due to the close alignment between Adichie’s values as a public figure and those promulgated by the novel. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Adichie explains how reading African literature helped her realize that “people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature” and therefore “I started to write about things I recognized” (Single Story). Years later, Americanah becomes a direct reflection of these words, even honing in on African women’s hair from the very beginning of the novel when Ifemelu wonders “why there was no place where she could braid her hair” in Princeton (Adichie 4). Ifemelu does not mirror the characters Adichie describes reading as a child, who were all “white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples”; instead, she has delivered her promise of branching beyond that single story promulgated by the Western literary canon (Single Story).
Likewise, in “We Should All Be Feminists,” Adichie laments that “because I’m female, I’m expected to aspire to marriage; I’m expected to make life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important” (Feminists). This disdain for women’s dependence on men for their personal identities and sense of self-worth is greatly emphasized in Americanah through Ifemelu’s increased agency. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Ifemelu has taken control of her own life on her own terms, remarking that “still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had, finally, spun herself fully into being” (Adichie 475). It is only after she creates this identity for herself that she finally allows Obinze, her past lover, to come into her house, thereby putting herself before the prospect of finding a partner. Adichie consistently values feminism and diverse representation both within and beyond her texts, becoming a reliable figure in the public eye. Her novel is therefore seen and read in this empowering context.
I highly recommend watching Adichie’s TEDtalks as well as reading her latest novel Americanah. Adichie is both a masterful novelist and public speaker, and the messages she delivers are certainly ones worth hearing.
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What are your thoughts on Adichie? Have you read any of her books? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!