I am tired of Nigerians who read a headline and, without bothering to get details and context, jump on the outrage bandwagon and form lazy, shallow opinions.
“I am tired of Nigerians cynically thinking of anybody in public life as a ‘brand.’ No, I am not a brand. I am a person who feels strongly about certain issues. I choose to talk honestly about them. I made the choice to talk about feminism knowing very well the kind of hostility it brings – but I think it’s important and I will continue to speak my truth and hope to bring about some change, no matter how small. Adirom agba egwu ka m data ego”. – Chimamanda Adichie
Like some others, I’ve had something to say about Chimamanda Adichie’s interview with Hillary Clinton. Basically, my opinion, which I expressed in the Facebook link below, is that it was a beautiful interview in which an older, accomplished woman largely indulged a brilliant, younger admirer and we all got educated by both from the exchange.
However, following the criticisms that trailed the interview, specifically because of the question she raised about Mrs Clinton’s Twitter bio, Adichie felt the need to defend herself and respond to her critics and she chose her Facebook page to do this. The excerpt above is from that response. I do not think this is a wise move and I will explain why. When you feel the need immediately after an interview that the whole world watched to further explain yourself, it’s a sign that you did not do a good enough job in the first place.
And, true, Adichie herself admitted this vaguely in her Facebook piece, but she did it in a way I think undermines the admission. This was how she put it: “I was too excited, emotional, slightly nervous, to be on stage with this remarkable woman. Had I kept in mind how easily outrage-mongers would jump on a headline, I would have phrased my question better. I would not have made it about my being upset, because it can come across as navel-gazing”.
Of course, it is insulting to describe people who have issues with her line of questioning as “outrage-mongers”. Indeed, her whole defence amounts to hiding behind a finger. I mean, if you are admitting that you could have phrased your question better, knowing that your poor phrasing elicited the reaction it got in the first place, why then insult those who reacted as expected by calling them “outrage-mongers”?
People are not jumping on a headline, they are responding to that part of the exchange that naturally became the headline worldwide because of the controversial nature of the question and the personal upset she said she felt over the matter. She would have been better off admitting her mistake honestly and wholeheartedly, rather than in this ham-handed and insulting way.
Another curious thing about this response by Adichie is that she titled it “Dear Unnamed Person Who I Am Told Is On Social Media Saying I am Her Family and Telling Me to Shut Up”. She started off the piece aggressively addressing this unnamed person, implying she is not family, but just someone she vaguely remembers as a classmate in primary school. However, while we can all get into discussing the rightness or wrongness of this person’s conduct,
Chimamanda engaging such a person publicly can never be in her own interest because she and only she has something to lose. I mean, it’s one thing to have a robust debate about your work or about some great ideas with people online, but quite another to get into a catfight with an alleged name-dropper or even a real family friend who thinks attacking you in public is the right thing to do.
I later read some exchange between the lady and some others where they were lamenting that Adichie is letting her fame get to her head and that this is the reason she’s acting nastily towards the lady she was attacking because in truth they are family friends and so on. To me, this is quite unfair, but that is what you expect when you personalise your response to a public criticism by a person you know, even if only remotely.
This is because such a personal response fertilizes the ground for more personal attacks against your person by persons who think they have personal relationships with you and that’s not where you want to be. You don’t want to come off a great interview with Hillary Clinton that has got the whole world talking only to be mired in a public quarrel with people who say they’re family. You can avoid all this by ignoring them or by simply framing your response in a general way.
Having said the above, the main purpose of this piece is to address Adichie’s attack on Nigerians as we can see from the excerpted portion above. Indeed, this seems the main purpose of her response. Why is she picking on Nigerians who like the rest of the world are expressing their opinions about the interview? Is it that Nigerians have no right to criticise her? Is it that Nigerians are the only people who criticise her unintelligently in the way she’s talking about? Do Nigerians have the monopoly of forming lazy and shallow opinions about her works and comments? What exactly have Nigerians done to merit this kind of putdown from her?
In all honesty, Chimamanda’s outrage is totally out of place. This is plain hubris and we can see an Icarian tendency at work. She should count herself lucky that she’s getting any response, sensible or idiotic, from Nigerians. We react to her only because we identify with her as one of us and her worldwide fame is based on how we see her and how we have projected her and accepted her as one of our own. We are proud that she’s one of us representing us in her works and in her engagements worldwide, but she cannot undermine us by heaping this special opprobrium on us simply because she does not like what some of us are saying.
No one made her a brand; she is a brand by the very nature of her work and platform. That is why she gets the engagements to interview a Clinton and to speak in places and be the face of Boots No7 make-up. She’s a brand because people listen to her and want to hear her opinion on issues concerning women and other matters that are important to humanity. She should be thankful that Nigerians are taking her seriously. No one is saying she cannot talk honestly or make the choice of talking about feminism. She won’t be the first neither is she going to be the last to attract hostility for talking about feminism.
The kind of hostility she gets from Nigerians is no different from the kind she gets from elsewhere or the kind of hostility that feminists from other climes get from their people or elsewhere. But none of these other persons single out their countrymen and women for the kind of treatment Chimamanda is now dishing out to Nigerians for daring not to agree with her. As in all things, there are good and bad criticisms, but a good public interlocutor will simply roll with the punches and when they have to respond, they speak to their audience universally, not sectionally and not insultingly.
Chimamanda does not realize that criticism is what will make her grow and what will make her work and image soar. What is putting her out there right now is a combination of her youth and her real African background, which collectively works very well in the West that is always looking for that convenient intellectual symbol of our supposed shared humanity, irrespective of what some of their governments, institutions and persons are doing politically or socially in their systematic, but enduring destruction of the African living space and the heist going on in the name of bringing us development.
Our West-sanctioned intellectuals, none the wiser, waltz into the klieg lights of Western capitals, perch commandingly on studio chairs, urged on by seas of white faces pleased to see some exotic pieces of their own intellectual creation. As our intellectuals guzzle down wines and canapés from station to station, seas of white faces to seas of white faces, time flies, then the lights go out, then their diaries become more vacant and the emptiness echoes louder. Yeah, that’s what it’s all about – buying time with ideas that are going nowhere, ideas so seemingly serious that they are celebrated for decades until they, these huge elephants, dutifully deliver their piddling mice.
Make no mistake, there are many, many young Nigerians on social media who give me the same intellectual pleasure I derive from reading or listening to Adichie and more, but what makes her a little different is the platform. Yet, that is not enough to achieve greatness, even when it looks tantalizingly within reach. You can’t smell it if you don’t have the intellectual temperament to go with it, especially if you aren’t in the sciences where we allow cranky geniuses to function undisturbed in their own little laboratories.
In the world of social activism and literature, you deal in words and speeches, so you literarily have to be of good behaviour because greatness is negotiated with real people, not produced magically in a book. It’s a world that sucks life out of prima donnas – brutal, unforgiving, but fair. Indeed, the most damning thing for a social activist or a writer is not a poor book, but poor character. You’re a goldfish in a bowl and every Tom, Dick and Helena has got the right to turn you over and over and over again.
So, Chimamanda must think the future. What I’m showing her now is the ghost of many Christmases to come. She’s young, vivacious, beautiful and in great shape. But as she grows older and this seeming phenomenon fades, people will begin to examine her life and legacy and no matter how great her body of works, how she treats criticism will always terribly undermine her if she does not change her temperament now. She might end up writing the classic shoot-yourself-in-the-foot story or she might not, it’s all in her head, and in her heart too where she seemingly wears her sleeves and not in a good way.
Now, something else happened in that interview that not many are talking about, but which with hindsight now seems to talk to Adichie’s impulse to just let go emotionally in public without that necessary quiet introspection. I’m sure we’ll get people who will dismiss it as just a joke, but it was not. It was Adichie speaking honestly because that’s her. I’m talking about that moment when she thoughtlessly declared that if she were Hillary, she wouldn’t have gone for the inauguration of the man she couldn’t bring herself to mention his name. She seems like a lady who worships her anger too deeply to the extent that it momentarily blocks her otherwise prodigious mind from processing consequences when she’s foisted on the public space.
I mean, what was she thinking when she said that? Does she think she would survive the political earthquake that would most certainly swallow her up forever if she throws a strop and refuses to show up for the inauguration of the person that defeated her in an election in a world-class democracy? Where is she going to hide thereafter? What does she think statesmanship is about? Statesmanship is more temperament than intellect. Of course, anyone who gets to the level Hillary has gotten to politically would just see this piece of drama from her as a childish fit. In the end, Hillary offered her an indulgent smile, but that whole exchange says a lot about Chimamanda, just as her confession to being a little bit upset that Hillary first described herself as a “Wife” in her Twitter bio does too. The obvious fact is that how she takes criticism is a direct child of that type of thoughtless anger.
On my part, I truly wish her well and pray she matures rightly to carry the burden we have placed on her. In fact, after listening to her talk at the Stockholm Forum for Gender Equality, I was going to place another burden on her. I was mulling over an article I wanted to write to urge her to expose the big media person who sexually harassed her when she was 17. I was going to do this because I believe she as a standard-bearer for such abuses, as a victim and campaigner, would help prise open this can of worms that is a raging menace in the nation today in the form of pedophilia, rape, child rape, indecent assault, sexual harassment in the workplace and all sorts of sexual violence being perpetrated against women where reportage is low and prosecution almost non-existent. I thought her experience and platform would provide the oomph we need to start a social movement to address these issues in a meaningful and consequential way.
The point is I like her because of what she represents for young people and what she represents for the survival and growth of our literature in English. She’s obviously a hugely talented lady who I think only needs to develop the capacity to handle criticisms better, good or bad. I feel for her because she should be above something like this.
She’s spent enough time in the limelight to know how to navigate these curves. It’s in her interest to relax and enjoy who she is without feeling evidently and publicly grieved by what people say about her and her works. I wish her well and would certainly still continue to root for her because what she represents for us as a people is bigger than her hissy fits.