I read the story and I thought to myself, “there is something about this woman that I can’t put my finger on. She is direct, bold, expresses herself clearly and in detail, yet something is amiss.” I’m not sure what that “something” is but I believe in due time, we all will know.
Indeed, I’d like to think that I am generally on the money with this “energy”/instinct thing when it comes to sensing when a situation is off. In reading and watching interviews after interviews where Adichie broaches the subject of her personal life, or the controversies that spill into the public domain, I feel strongly that “something” is off. Again, I am unsure what that “something” is.
In any event, whatever the case, I do appreciate her insisting that society at large is not allowed to box her into a category and must respect her personal autonomy to define who she is, and to do so how she wants to.
In a recent interview with Olisa Adibua’s Olisa.tv, Adichie takes on every controversy imagined that has been levied against her; and also addresses the unauthorized publishing by the Guardian UK of her article on depression. Again, she is articulate, intelligent, candid and pretty direct.
The excerpts below do not even come close to capturing how lengthy the two part interview is. It is, nevertheless, worth a read.
Olisa.tv: I have been requesting this interview for about a year now and you finally agreed to it. Thank you.
Chimamanda Adichie: I decided I wanted to address certain things and you were the one person I wanted to talk to. So thank YOU.
“A few weeks ago, the UK Guardian published an article online that you wrote about depression. Then a day later the article was removed. Many people were confused about this. There was much speculation. Some people even suggested that you might not have been the author of the article. I’d like for you to talk about depression and the story surrounding that article; why was it removed?
I was certainly the author. I have actually always been quite open about having depression. By depression, I don’t mean being sad. I mean a health condition that comes from time to time and has different symptoms and is very debilitating. I’ve mentioned it publicly in the past, but I have always wanted to write about it. I was meeting many people who I could tell were also depressive, and I was noticing how hush-hush it all was, how there was often a veil of silence over it, and I think the terrible consequence of silence is shame.
Depression is difficult. It is difficult to experience, difficult to write about, difficult to be open about. But I wanted to do it. For myself, in a way, because it forced me to tell myself my own story, which can be helpful. But also for other possible sufferers, especially fellow Africans, because there is something very powerful about knowing that you are not alone, and that what happens to you also happens to other people.
Depression is something I have recognized since I was a child. It is something I have accepted. It is something I will have to find ways to manage for the rest of my life. Many creative people have depression. I wonder if I would be so drawn to storytelling if I were not also a person who suffers from depression.
But I am very interested in de-mystifying it. Young creative people, especially on our continent, have enough to deal with without thinking – as I did for so long – that something is fundamentally wrong with feeling this strange thing from time to time. Our African societies are not very knowledgeable or open or supportive about depression. People who don’t have depression have a lot of difficulty understanding it, but people who have it are also often befuddled by it.
I wanted to make sure I was emotionally ready to write the piece. I don’t usually write about myself and certainly not very personally. I wanted it to be honest and true. The only way to write about a subject like that is to be honest.
Last year, a major magazine that I admire asked me to write a personal piece for them. I decided to use that as a prodding to finally write about depression. They liked the piece and were keen to publish it. They suggested some edits, and at some point I began to feel that the article was being made to follow a script, and that its integrity was being compromised. So I withdrew the piece. This was the most personal thing I have ever written and I felt it had to be in the form that felt most true. My agent then said that the UK Guardian was launching a new section that was supposed to publish long, serious pieces. She sent it to them and they were interested. But I had already begun to re-think the piece itself. I was no longer sure I was ready for it to be published. I thought about changing the structure. To make it two essays, one about women’s premenstrual issues and one about depression, so as to be more effective as a kind of advocacy memoir. Most of all, I decided I was not emotionally ready to have the piece out in the world. I wanted first to finish the new writing and research I was doing. So a day after my agent told me that the UK Guardian wanted it, I told her to please withdraw the piece completely. That I no longer wanted it to be published. The Guardian told her they were sorry I was withdrawing, but they understood. I didn’t think about it after that. My plan was – put it away, go back to it in a year, and see how I feel and revise and edit it.
This happened in September 2014. Then a few weeks ago, I was travelling and I get off a plane, turn on my phone, and see messages from acquaintances telling me how ‘brave’ I was. I was astonished. I had just written a piece for THE NEW YORK TIMES about my issues with light in Lagos and so I thought ‘haba, since when is writing about light brave?’”
“Do you remember what your first reaction was when you saw that an article you decided not to publish had suddenly appeared in public?
I felt violated. It felt like a horrible violation. This was the most personal piece I had written and the only person who deserved to decide when it would be read publicly was me.
Even their choice of words felt like a violation. They wrote that it was about my ‘struggling’ with depression. I would never have agreed to that caption. I do not think of the article as being about my ‘struggle’ with depression, but about my journey to accepting something I have had since I was born, and my choosing to ‘come out’ about it. I also hated that the sentence they highlighted from the whole piece was about how ‘the nights are dark…’ etc. It felt sensationalizing and cheap.
I was angry with the Guardian. Especially as their first apology was ‘we are obviously sorry.’ Any apology that contains the word ‘obviously’ is not an apology. They took it down and replaced it with an explanation about a ‘technical error,’ which even a child would have reason to doubt. It’s probably naïve of me but I had expected that they would be quick to admit their fault and make amends. There is something predatory about Big Journalism. Big Journalism doesn’t care about the humanity of it subjects. Big Journalism cares about ‘good copy’ and about not being sued. It took longer than it should have, but at least they subsequently published a proper explanation and apology, with the prodding of lawyers.”
“What did you make of The Guardian’s explanation that they had produced a ‘mock-up’ of the piece and then forgot to delete it in their system after you withdrew it and then it was automatically launched on their site? Also after it was taken down, many websites had already copied it and posted it, especially here in Nigeria.
I don’t understand how something stays on the website of a major, widely read newspaper for a whole day, something you have no right to publish, and nobody in your organization notices. As for the Nigerian websites, I think any website that puts it up is using what does not belong to them, which is called stealing. But this is the Internet age and of course I can’t really control any of that.”
“Well, I know for a fact that that article has been very widely-read and the consensus was that you were brave to write it and many people praised you. So I think it had positive impact.
I really hope other people who have depression found strength in it. My agent got many moving emails from people who were grateful that I had written about depression because they too had trouble even accepting that they had depression. I got responses from some distant friends and most were thoughtful and full of empathy and I was struck by how many said the piece made them feel better about acknowledging their own depression.
I also got a few responses that troubled me. Because I was generally quite upset by The Guardian, those responses further upset me.
William Styron who wrote the great novel Sophies Choice also wrote a memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, where he writes about being enraged by people patronising him and simplifying his depression to platitudes. I got a patronising email, for example, from an acquaintance which was full of passive-aggressive comments and then ended with ‘you are loved.’ And I thought: but that is obvious from the piece. I have a small solid circle of family and friends and I feel very loved and very grateful. But the piece is about the paradox of depression, that it is often a kind of sorrow without a cause. That being depressed makes even the sufferer feel bad and guilty because you are thinking of all these people you love and who love you and who you now feel strangely disconnected from. Another patronizing person told me ‘don’t worry, I won’t judge you.’ Which infuriated me beyond belief. Judge me? I didn’t know judgement was an option. Shame is not an option for me and never will be. Writing this piece was a choice I made. Being open about my vulnerability was a choice I made, and I don’t regret making it. There was also the usual Nigerian response of ‘just pray about it.’ I realized that many people who contacted my manager had either not understood the piece or had just read The Guardian’s choice caption of ‘nights are dark and I cry often’ and then decided to send me solutions ranging from bible quotes to various churches.”
“Did any of the responses really affect you?
I feel strongly, on principle, about the right to tell my own story. By publishing something I was not ready to publish, The Guardian violated that right, and I was very much affected by that. One particular response really saddened me. Someone asked my manager whether this was just a publicity stunt. I thought – have we become so soullessly cynical? Somebody actually thinks that if I wanted to pull a publicity stunt, I would write the most personal essay I have ever written about my own life?”
“Well, if you were looking for publicity, I would say you have the best source – Beyonce. One of the most famous pop musicians in the world used a part of your speech WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS in her song ‘Flawless.’ Many people say that you helped her shore up (or even create) her feminist credentials. What are your thoughts about that and on having given permission for Beyonce to sample your TEDxEuston Talk?
I think Beyonce is a cultural force for good, in general. It’s a shame that we live in a world so blindly obsessed by celebrity – an actor or musician talking about a social issue should not be a reason for the press to pay attention to that issue, because they should pay attention to it anyway – but sadly it is what it is. Ours is an age in which celebrities have enormous influence. Beyonce could easily have chosen to embrace something easy and vanilla like ‘world peace.’ Or she could have embraced nothing at all because she is, after all, immensely successful and talented and she can actually sing – we all know that not all famous musicians can sing. Feminism is not a subject that will win you universal admiration as an entertainer and to make the choice she did is admirable. I was happy to give my permission.
But people have questioned her right to identify as feminist because of the sexual nature of some of her performances?
This is actually the question I kept being asked, and I found it tedious. There is a moralistic and troubling strain of feminism that equates all forms of female sexuality with shame. What matters is that Beyonce controls her own image. Female sexuality is a feminist issue only when there is a power imbalance. Actually Beyonce’s brand of sexuality is mainstream-conservative, with the whole idea of ‘put a ring on it’ and the title of ‘MRS’ as an honorific and so on. It seems to me that people who criticize her for being sexual should also acknowledge that underlying her version of sexuality is quite an old-fashioned wholesomeness. If the fear of a subversive depiction of female sexuality is the problem, then they really should leave her alone.
You seem to be more in the camp of subversion.
I am indeed. I do not believe that female sexuality needs to be clothed in ‘respectability.’ Male sexuality certainly doesn’t need ‘respectability’ to be valid and the same should be true of female sexuality.”
A friend of mine said I should ask you why you are falling her hand. She said you are too humble about this Beyonce thing. She said if she were you she would be giving interviews about Beyonce everyday and putting things on Instagram about your collaboration. She said she felt very proud to hear your voice at the VMA awards but that you didn’t even give any interview about it. Her words were ‘Chimamanda has never made noise about this Beyonce thing.’ I hear you turned down every interview that wanted to focus on Beyonce.
Yes, when the song came out I turned down all interview requests. I was also a bit taken aback because I had expected some interest but I was startled that even the so-called serious news sources wanted to talk about it and in a kind of frenzied and goading sort of way. It all just seemed like too much noise. I realized it was something I would not be able to speak about with any nuance because whatever I said would be reduced to one line and become yet another source of noise. So I turned everything down. I was also working on some writing and wanted to be able to focus.
Later, when I was on book tour, there were people who wanted to talk about Beyonce and when I responded by saying I was happy to give her my permission and happy that so many young people would now become aware of gender issues and happy that my nieces and nephews now thought Aunty was cool – which was how I truly felt- people kept pushing and prodding as though they wanted me to say something I was not saying. Or people who were eager to tell me how excited they were about Beyonce using my speech, but oh, they hadn’t read my book. A serious literary person introduced me as ‘Beyonce’s favourite writer,’ even though my novel had just won a well-respected prize. Another person said to me – tell me how excited and honoured you were when she called you! – and I thought: what an inane question and what a limited choice of options. I very quickly became tired of such questions. The point is that I am a writer. I gave a talk about a subject I feel passionate about. When I gave the talk, I had no idea that anybody would even be really interested in it. It ended up that a music star watched it and was inspired by it and wanted to use it. I was happy to give my permission. But I refuse to have that define me in any way. If I am doing an interview, I should be talking about my work, not being asked to speculate on the authenticity of somebody else’s feminist motivation. By the way, please tell your friend to forgive me for ‘falling her hand!’
“I want to go back to the natural hair controversy. There was social media uproar about a statement you had allegedly made about natural hair. It was reported that you said in an interview with a UK newspaper that Nigerian women who wear weaves have low self-esteem. I kind of feel, and I said it at that time, that there is this ‘waiting for Chimamanda to take a wrong step’ thing existing within the Nigerian intellectual class. I read the interview and saw that you clearly never said that.
No, I never did.
By the way, to be clear, if that is what I thought, I would absolutely say so. But it is just such a simplistic and sophomoric idea. You can’t even remotely believe that if you have a sister like my wonderful sister Uche, one of the most self-confident women in the world and a keen fan of straight long weaves. I also said in that interview that while I prefer natural hair, I would buy straight hair wigs for my nieces if that was what they wanted, because life is short.
Anyway, I understand that somebody deliberately put out the headline ‘Chimamanda said women who wear weaves have low self-esteem’ and it was repeated over and over until it felt true. At first I could not understand all the noise, since the original interview was there for anybody to read and see that it was not what I said.
But I soon realized that many people WANTED it to be what I said. Because it would be an easy way to form a Society of the Outraged, and nobody would actually have to think about what I did say.
I was told about an ardent member of the Society of the Outraged who was asked to point out exactly where in the interview I had said what she was so outraged about. She then replied, ‘Read the interview again slowly!’ as if there was some magical clue to be unravelled by reading it slowly.
I don’t mind at all when people disagree with my opinion as long as it is truly my opinion. There are many people whose opinions I disagree with and I expect mine to be disagreed with as well. I actually quite like a good argument, but it is frustrating when people say you’ve said something that you haven’t said.”
What about cases where people have disagreed with what you actually said, without any distortions or inventions?
Probably the most vociferous responses to any opinion I have publicly shared came from the article I wrote after the so-called anti-gay law was passed. There were quite a number of people who said I had made them think differently. But by far many more were extremely hostile. People even called my family members. Tell her to shut up! Abomination! She used to be my role model but I will never buy her books again! She is writing this nonsense because white people give her prizes! That sort of thing. Even some of my family members were uncomfortable. The sense I got was they would just rather I keep quiet about gay issues.
But I would say exactly the same thing if I had to do it again. If my voice can get just one person to think differently then it is worth it, because it means there is one person who is likely to stand up for the justice of her fellow citizens.
Why do we respond with antagonism to what we do not entirely understand? Why can’t we say ‘okay this person loves in a way that is different from how I love and I may not entirely understand it but I do not believe it is a crime?’ It’s really that simple. And it’s very sad when people use ‘African culture’ to justify anti-gay discrimination.
Many African cultures are traditionally tolerant. In fact I think it’s the fundamental tolerance in the cultures of Africa that made colonialism so successful. We need to live and let live. We need to make space to accommodate what is different. Diversity is human. Throughout our history as human beings, there has never been a time when we were all the same.
I’d like to ask you about another controversy, and I have to say that calling it a ‘controversy’ is again because you are a celebrity, or a ‘public person’ as you say. It was not a controversy in actual fact. You gave an interview to a Nigerian newspaper where you told the journalist not to call you by the title of MRS.
Yes, a Nigerian journalist decided to give me a name because he felt it SHOULD be my name.
How can I tell you what my name is, and then you unilaterally decide what my name should be?
Whether or not I am married, I have told you that my name is Ms. Chimamanda Adichie. You then decide to create a name for me, and not only do you call me MRS but you give me another surname and you use that as my name in a newspaper article. Your newspaper article spreads far and wide. Before I know it, other people are calling me by that name.
This journalist who gave you a new name, as you put it, did so after discovering that you have been married for some years. He found out your husband’s name and then created the new name for you. I have noticed that you don’t talk publicly about your personal life. There is really nothing out there that can be directly attributed to you about your husband or marriage. Is there a reason for this?
I choose not to talk publicly about my personal life.