This interview is an edited and condensed version of an on-stage conversation that took place at the FT Weekend Festival in Washington, DC, on May 7
Frederick Studemann, FT literary editor: This session, “Writing in an Age of Intolerance”, was conceived as a conversation about what people call the culture wars. But now, as we sit here, there is a real war going on. How should writers respond to a conflict like the one we’re seeing in Ukraine?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In thinking about war, nonfiction and fiction are equally important. The role of a fiction writer when it comes to the subject of war is to imaginatively mine emotion and feeling, and what I’m maybe going to call humanity. I think fiction should tell us how war felt and nonfiction should tell us what happened.
Thinking about Ukraine, for example, I don’t think that Ukrainian writers could possibly even do fiction about a war now because there’s a sense in which one needs distance and time, in order to wring emotion and meaning from something so horrible and traumatic.
I’m not sure I could’ve written Half of a Yellow Sun if I’d experienced the Nigerian Biafran war. I think I have the distance, not just of time, but of not having directly experienced the war. And so, in some ways, I inherited memory. I think there’s a sense in which it gave me an advantage. There are people — Chinua Achebe, for example — who wrote about the war, but very briefly and almost obliquely. I think that’s because he was deeply immersed in that war.
FS: We are speaking at the end of a week in which we’ve heard about the possible overturning of Roe vs Wade in the US. Some people say this is only going to further inflame another type of conflict, which we call, rightly or wrongly, the culture wars. Where does it escalate to?
CNA: I think the possibility of overturning Roe v Wade in this country is an absolute disaster. But it’s interesting because when we talk about culture wars, I think these things have [long] existed. This is a country in which a large number of people are one-issue voters. And often, that one issue is abortion.
My point is, now that there’s the possibility of it being overturned, it’s a disaster, it’s upsetting, but it’s not really shocking. Because it’s a position that quite a few people in this country hold. I really respect people who are, for religious reasons or for whatever reason, opposed to abortion, but I think it’s a position that people should have only for themselves. You cannot have it for other people.
I find it astonishing that we can be having a conversation about whether a woman should be allowed to do what she wants with her own body. I think the only reason we can be at this place in this country is because we still do not really think of women as full human beings. If we did, we would not be having the conversation. I actually wasted about 45 minutes reading Mr Alito’s leaked memo. It’s astonishingly unintelligent. The premise, really, is “it’s not in the Constitution”. So, the bunch of men in the 1780s who gathered to write this thing, forgot to mention abortion, therefore today . . . this is absurd, honestly.
FS: On the other side of the culture wars, I think you were quite critical of American writers for insisting on taking readers to a comfortable, safe space. Is that a view you still hold? Given that since you made those remarks 10 years ago, a lot has happened: Trump’s presidency, Black Lives Matter and now the Supreme Court leak. Are writers going to step up? Can they?
CNA: It’s not so much about criticising writers as individuals, but rather criticising the literary culture, which I think is part of a larger American culture of addiction to comfort.
I remember when I came to the US, reading novels, and especially novels that were ostensibly about race, sometimes you weren’t even sure what was being said because it was couched in such indirectness, that was then labelled complexity, but seemed to me a way of avoiding the really uncomfortable bits. I think it’s even worse now because we now live in this age of social media, where we’re all supposed to be perfect angels.
I think people are terrified of having the wrong opinion or saying the wrong thing, not using the most recent and the most right-on word. I think it has serious consequences for people who create art, because it stifles you. The greatest enemy of creativity is self-censorship.
When I teach young people in Nigeria, I say to them, when you’re writing, do not think about your family. Because we come from a culture where you’re thinking, I don’t want my mother to know I know about sex, so I can’t write a sex scene. Those are the things that writers in general will struggle with, but now, in this culture, there’s the additional possibility of backlash. At the risk of sounding like one of my cantankerous uncles, who thinks that everything modern is terrible, I do worry about what will happen in the future. I do worry about what kind of literature we will leave behind.
Because we’re creating, at the risk of sounding dramatic, in a culture of fear and intolerance. The people who think that they are tolerant are, in fact, quite intolerant. Those people really are part of the tribe of those that create. And so, if you’re in a family of people who are not letting you be in that space where you can write truthfully, then I think it’s reason to worry.
We need literature, we need to tell stories as human beings, we have to. I’m optimistic, realistically so. I imagine this is a wave that we’re going to ride, but at some point we will all sit up and the scales will very noisily clatter down and fall from our eyes. And we will realise that we’ve been just mad.
FS: Some people think that perhaps events in Ukraine might pre-empt that kind of reset.
CNA: Obviously I feel very strongly about what’s happening in Ukraine and Putin’s mad war. But I do also sometimes worry about what’s happening in Ukraine blinding us to the fact that there are other parts of the world in terrible turmoil.
What I would say is: Yemen should’ve kicked us out of it, what’s happening in Ethiopia should’ve kicked us out of it, what happened in Congo should’ve kicked us out of it, Central African Republic should’ve kicked us out of it. I don’t know that Ukraine will. Maybe it will for the small circle of people in the west who think that only when things happen in the west do they really matter. Can I just say, and I know this is not the question, but it’s just really unconscionable that the British government is welcoming refugees from Ukraine, as it should, but then it’s shipping others to Rwanda. I just think, why isn’t there outrage about that in the world?
The thing that’s worrying about the culture on the American left, really, is that it’s not about the messy realness of the world. And I don’t know what will push us out of it, but at some point we will have to. It’s not sustainable.
FS: You’ve said in the past, I wasn’t black until I came to America. You deal with that whole issue brilliantly in Americanah . There’s been a lot of development since that time, most notably Black Lives Matter. How do you think things have changed in the whole race issue here?
CN: When I talked about becoming black in America, it’s really because in Nigeria we’re all black, so we don’t think of race as something with which to identify ourselves. In Nigeria, of course I knew about race. I read Roots and then I saw the TV series. I knew vaguely about African-American history. Then I came to the US and I realised that this new identity was something I did not have a choice about. And this is because of the way I look.
I did try for a while to resist the identity. In my first year as an undergraduate, I would say I’m not black, I’m Nigerian. Part of it I think was that immigrant anxiety, of a person who’s come to a new place and is eager to do well, and who has already seen that this is a country that is objectively anti-black. And feels that the way to deal with that is to back away from blackness. But I realise you cannot. This is an identity based on what you look like and all of the negative stereotypes attached to blackness will be attached to you. You can proclaim that you’re Nigerian forever, but they’re just looking at a black girl.
And so, I started reading African-American history and literature because I wanted to understand race in America. The more I read, the more I was surprised, horrified, full of admiration for African-Americans. I came to then call myself black. I like to say that in American I’m politically black. I’m not an American citizen, but living here, that I will do everything to support a candidate who’s black and who’s fairly reasonable.
Black Lives Matter I’ve really admired. I think what Black Lives Matter has done is shift the conversation in a way that is remarkable. There’s a lot that one can talk about now in America that one could not talk about when I first came here 25 years ago. I think that is really because of Black Lives Matter.
FS: Could you give an example?
CNA: It’s strange that even fact is disputed in this country, especially when it comes to race. I think it’s also now quite OK, mostly, to talk about the still incredible underrepresentation of black people. But of course, it also comes with some very troubling side effects, such as when people say things like, for this week, I will only be buying from black-owned businesses. To which one then says, and then next week, then what happens?
There are all of those sort of performative things that happen. But I think those conversations are good for this country, because you cannot run away from your past and from your present. Racism is not a thing of the past, that’s the thing. What’s happening today is very much connected to what happened yesterday. That’s what it is to be alive in the world.
There isn’t a monolithic blackness, of course. There are people who say you don’t need to make distinctions, black is black. But I’m thinking, actually, you do. For example, universities in this country still do not do enough to reach out to underprivileged African-Americans. I think there is still too often this blanket blackness, so when you get the really talented kid from Lagos or from Nairobi, you say I have a black person. You do have a black person, but you also need an African-American black person because there’s a different history there.
I do think that those differences are important, but we also have to remember, yes, [there are] black people in England, black people in France, black people in the rest of Europe, but there is a thread running through, and it’s that white people manage to push us to the bottom everywhere.
FS: Last year both Booker Prizes, the French Prix Goncourt and the Nobel Prize for Literature all went to writers from the African continent. Many people saw this as part of this great broader renaissance of African writing. Would you say this is a real example of writing from Africa getting better recognition?
CNA: For me, prizes are important because they bring readers to writers. What I hope for and what I dream about and what would matter so much to me, is when we get to a place where black writers are read in the same kind of ordinary way that everyone else is read. When black writing isn’t seen as black literature. And especially when it comes to African literature, where people who read it think that they’re taking their medicine. It shows that you’re good and virtuous and you believe in diversity and those poor Africans. I want us to get to that place where you’re reading Abdulrazak Gurnah because it’s fantastic.
FS: You’ve spoken about the problems of self-censorship and intolerance. How does one bring tolerance back in?
CNA: In one of Edna O’Brien’s novels, August Is a Wicked Month, there’s a section where they’re talking about a writer. He’s not named, but it’s obvious that it’s James Baldwin. And the character says he’s not an N-word writing about N-words, he’s a fairy writing about fairies. That piece of dialogue, I thought, was really very good, which is why it stuck in my head.
But reading it, I also remember thinking that most editors in America today would ask you to take it out. And they would ask you to take it out because they will be terrified of somebody being offended. But the point is, people talked like that about James Baldwin. And O’Brien has left us, really, this historical and emotional testimony, which is what literature should do. The fact that one cannot do that today breaks my heart because there’s so much we will not get to know about ourselves. And, of course, Edna O’Brien’s novel is not in any way a racist novel or a homophobic novel because you can tell that the worldview of the novel is one that is actually quite beautiful and accepting and open, but it’s honest. It’s honest enough to say this kind of conversation happens.
FS: You run student workshops in Lagos — how do you find the dynamic, working with a younger generation?
CNA: There’s a hunger, people want to tell stories. I try to set the tone, I suppose, of the workshop. I say to them, this is my space, so I get to make the rules. And one of the rules is we listen to everyone, my point being let’s try to leave the sanctimony at the door because it gets in the way of creativity. I will also say, I want us to start by looking inward and thinking about the places where we have failed, because you cannot write fiction from a place of being pure and perfect. You have to write from a place of flawedness.