Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie „Challenging feminism? Bring it on!“
Kassel After her conversation with 80 local high school students, an award ceremony, and a two-hour signing session for an avid audience at Kassel’s State Theater, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems exhausted for just a moment. Today, she is not just being awarded the Kassel citizens’ prize „Prism of Reason“, it is also Adichie’s 42nd birthday. After a few minutes of rest, a conversation begins with a highly attentive, thoughtful, and humorous literary genius about the faults of capitalism, African entrepreneurship, and the female orgasm.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you have been awarded the „Prism of Reason“ today. You're one of only a handful of women to receive it in its 29-year history. What does being reasonable mean to you?
I am not always reasonable. First and foremost, I am a writer, a creative person, with a gift for making things up. I get a lot of pleasure, joy, and meaning from making up stories but I also refuse to hide behind art. I think of myself as having different selves and the self that writes fiction doesn't think rigorously because it's more dreamlike, it's about character and emotion. But in the rest of my life, I am a person for whom living in the world requires critical thinking, curiosity and learning. There's a kind of rigor that I generally apply to the way I think about political and social ideas. I ask questions endlessly and am very much aware of complexity. I'm very wary of a simple answer. Being reasonable requires a certain kind of middle ground. An acknowledgement that while one can have a very strong opinion, often there are grey areas and complications.
Some might say that politically and socially speaking right now, it’s a time for revolution and resistance. Do you think that's mutually exclusive with being reasonable?
No, not at all. We have to be reasonable in resisting. There are people on the extreme left whose passion I admire, but I sometimes feel a little alienated because it can seem that their views are not very pragmatic. Resisting and being reasonable are not mutually exclusive in the least bit because a just world is a reasonable world.
You have received this award today for your vision of a humanist diversity. How would you describe that vision?
In general, live and let live is a very good philosophy to have a better life, as long as somebody is not hurting anybody else. Because whether we like it or not: The world is diverse.
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You argue against „the unforgiving atmosphere of language orthodoxy closing down essential conversation“. Can you elaborate?
I generally like to think that I don't come from a place of ill will. I also deeply believe in diversity. The world is a wonderfully diverse place and I don't want to live in a world that's not diverse because I would be bored. At the same time, I think we should be allowed to voice uncertainty and concerns. Increasingly in academic and intellectual circles, to question certain things is immediately to be labeled somehow bad. It's not even that your ideas are bad, it's that you're bad. And it comes with real consequences: The possibility of being ostracized, being labelled. So, people are not having real conversations. It doesn't feel comfortable, it feels dishonest, and it almost suggests that we're not sure enough of our convictions. If you say to me: You're a feminist, do you want me to challenge feminism? Instead of rejecting that, I say: Bring it on, because I'm so sure I'm right, I'm going to level your arguments and destroy you. But there is a certain segment of the intellectual left that is so worried that maybe they're not right, that they do not welcome questions and challenges. It concerns me because I do believe we’re right and we have to engage in those discussions. I believe that the best answer to bad speech is more speech.
Your TED talk „We Should All Be Feminists“ is among the most watched of all times; it has been sampled in a Beyoncé song, printed on Dior t-shirts around the globe, and in Sweden the speech is handed out as a book to every 16-year old. When you look to the economy, what has been the reaction to your outspoken feminism from businesses and leaders: Have you witnessed change in any real way?
One might question what a „real way' is. I get more invitations from companies than I get from feminist organizations. I'm constantly being asked to come speak about diversity. But that's not what I want. I am not your diversity coach. I did speak with the CEO of Goldman Sachs on stage in London. Not with the person who is in charge of women's services but the CEO. I say that because it's important. The feminist conversation has to be taken to the main stage, not just the women's or diversity stage - because it does affect everybody. Diversity is not something you do when white men are not around. People who are currently in positions to make decisions need to be present to listen to these conversations. The business world is starting to see that business cannot just be about profit making without thinking of the people who work there and about what it means to have a welcoming environment for people with different experiences to have a seat at the table.
How do you think about the progress of the the MeToo-Movement?
It's not enough in my opinion to fire the man who sexually harassed the woman. We need to ask ourselves how much we have lost because women were not allowed to have positions that they deserved. There are women who left workplaces because of harassment and their lives have changed forever because of somebody else.
You alluded to the fact that there's a growing awareness of corporate social responsibility. Are these concerns compatible with our current form of capitalism?
I think the current form of capitalism is a disaster. I say this as a person who likes a certain form of capitalism which annoys my feminist friends. My ethnic group in Nigeria is Igbo from the Southeastern part of the country. And the stereotype about Igbo people is that we are born with trading in our genes, with the wish to start a business. So, I come from a culture of capitalism but it's a different kind. It's not corporate or what I like to call magic money capitalism. Capitalism shouldn't be about somebody with a magic wand to make money just appear and disappear. It leaves me wondering: Where are the concrete things that are produced? I'm a very keen believer in the kind of capitalism that is about production and an exchange of goods and services, because it's less likely to give rise to immense inequality.
Technology has been transforming the economy from one of concrete production towards one of more intangible assets. How have you personally experienced that technological progress?
Technology has changed human connection and communication in drastic ways. Some of them are beneficial, but some I do find creepy. I do not use facial recognition technology on my phone. And I cannot stand how we talk to little gadgets. It's very strange to me to have a conversation with a disembodied metallic voice and pretend it's human. It worries me and sometimes when I talk about it, I start to feel very old.
You just turned 42 today.
Yes, well maybe my daughter will grow up in a world where that's normal.
Technology is now increasingly able to produce stories as well. Artificial intelligence has begun to generate fiction. Would you ever use AI as a tool in your own writing?
Never. Because it’s not creativity. The whole point of creativity is that it comes from the flawed, complex, and uncertain mix of what it means to be a human being. Creativity by its very nature has to have imperfection. What is the point of cultural production and of having a society in which we create poetry and art? For me, literature and art have a particular kind of meaning because they have been created by a person who has a point of view. When disembodied things start creating art, it might be aesthetically pleasing but there’s no soul to it.
But doesn't technology make our lives easier and more convenient, too?
Sure. I can stay in touch with my family in the US and Nigeria easily. But with AI, I do think we may lose an essential form of human interaction. I don't like the idea of walking into a store and there's no human being. Instead you have to just press a bunch of buttons all the time.
That's called customer integration.
Yes, but then I'm doing the work I am paying you for. You should hire real people to do it. I'm not a fan of robots taking over our future of work - it sounds apocalyptic to me. Again, it's just too narrow a focus on profit. If there's one airline that hires real people to interact with me during check-in, I’m flying that airline.
You would choose a company for its level of human interaction?
What turns you off interacting with technology?
It can make us lose empathy and prevent us from having real conversations. There's something about machines and technology and artificial intelligence that is too smooth. My concern is that we lose a certain essence of humanity.
You have warned of The Danger of a Single Story. We have been experiencing populist movements across the world, including in Germany, with what appear to be quite singular stories about the respective other side. What do you recommend to enrich a nuanced understanding of each other?
People need to turn off the TV and most of social media. And we need to ask ourselves: How can we get people to read real things again? How can we give real value to books - and I don't mean management books. I think it's important for a society to read human stories.
But it’s getting harder to inspire people out of their comfort zone of interpreting the world, populism is evidence of that. How do we engage people in these stories?
Government should subsidize books. Some people you will never reach of course. But political structures have failed. Their focus on investing more in infrastructure than in people and education was a failure. From my understanding of what happened in Germany after reunification, I am not too surprised that certain parts of the country tend to now shift towards more right-wing views. When you are used to a certain quality of living and suddenly that changes, you perceive an entitlement being taken away from you and you begin to blame certain people. I don't mean this as an excuse because I do think the political right in the world is absolutely wrong. But people who stand for it are also complex. Some are drawn to a sense of certainty, even though it's a false certainty, in a world that is so uncertain. I can see how it could have a certain logic to it. Maybe the way to have difficult conversations across the aisle is to acknowledge where that wish for certainty is coming from. But of course, we must also always believe in hard facts. In all their complexity.
Should today's leaders engage more with fiction?
Yes, absolutely, CEOs and political leaders, too. When you read stories you become alive in bodies that are not your own. And without knowing it, you are learning and it broadens your worldview. Reading fiction my entire life taught me that the world is diverse and people are different, have needs and are not just logical. We are not just a collection of logical flesh and bones - we're emotional beings. Leaders should read more novels, it will help their organizations because institutions are only as healthy as the people who work there. Their emotional health and social concerns matter.
Germany is celebrating 30 years of reunification, yet there are still some deep-seat social divides between the East and the West. Can literature also be reconciliatory?
I like to think so. During the very first event in Nigeria for „Half of a yellow sun“, my book about the Biafran War which is the most contested part of our country's history, there were very heated discussions in the audience; people were enraged. For some people it was the first time they were confronting their history and the novel made them start to see the human story. Now there are calls for memorials for the people who died in Biafra and for that history to be part of the school curriculum. For some, my novel was the first time they were connecting to real characters involved in that war. That's just an example of what storytelling can do. Good fiction makes empathy possible. When you write it, you just cannot describe things in black and white.
A number of African economies have vibrant cultures of individual innovation. How would you describe the culture of entrepreneurship in your native Nigeria?
When people think of the continent of Africa, for many the first association is that of aid. I know it's from well-meaning places but I am deeply resistant to that idea. There are many African entrepreneurs who are full of ideas but lack opportunity. In Nigeria, I often mourn all the possibilities that are not able to blossom because of things that are actually very doable if only they had small capital. Some limitations are structural, like our electricity grid that does not work consistently. And yet still, many Nigerians are deeply entrepreneurial, often setting up multiple small businesses at the same time. Trading is in our DNA.
What kinds of stories about the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigeria have not been told?
People are not waiting for a white savior. People want opportunity, they want access.
Before your daughter was born, you wrote a book with suggestions on how to raise a feminist child. Now that you are a mother, would you add any suggestions?
I would emphasize that it’s really difficult to teach your child those values in a society and an economy that constantly divides our children into girls and boys, be it through pink and blue toys or by interacting with them in certain gendered ways. It’s like a conspiracy. Second, I would say: Don't feel compelled to conform to orthodoxy. For women, for example, don't feel compelled to breastfeed. If you want to keep your breasts to yourself please do. When I got pregnant I read all of these books and went through an immense anxiety because I wanted to get it right. You’re made to feel like if you don't breastfeed, your child will basically end up unhappy and ultimately not have good orgasms when they're older.
That would be very sad.
Yes, and of course I’m being sarcastic. But breastfeeding may take a toll on you. My daughter had problems with breastfeeding initially. She had allergies, I had to get on a special diet, my doctor said I could stop breastfeeding but I thought I couldn't because I felt an incredible sense of responsibility. I would now do that differently because I spent the first six months in massive anxiety and didn't enjoy my child enough. My mother fed all of us formula and I think we turned out okay. Women, be kinder to yourselves; it will make you better mothers.
Thank you for the interview.
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