This post is to update you on whether or not I was brave enough to ask for an autograph at the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture I attended last night at Saint Mary’s College. During the summer, between semesters, I work at the front desk in dorms at this women’s college; therefore, I know the place pretty well. I arrived a bit after 7:00 to find the entire lobby of the building packed. I moved to the front and got my will call ticket, which put me right by the doors that would soon open so we could all enter the auditorium. Like I said, I’m familiar with the buildings on the Saint Mary’s campus, so I was able to walk right to the front and get the closest possible seat. The seating was not assigned, which I always think is a mistake for a popular event.
Somehow, two undergrads from the University of Notre Dame reserved their seats. The young man, a junior, was hard core fan-girling. He said, “Oh, my god” about a dozen times in a row (literally). I told him I was auto-correcting him in my head. He then apologized, thinking I was upset that he was using the lord’s name in vain in a Catholic college setting. It wasn’t that, I said, but the fact that he was stuck on repeat.
Two young students, women of color, asked me if the seats on the other side of me were taken, and I said no. They were so surprised because the whole place was packed. They wouldn’t stop saying “Shut. Up.” “Shut. Up. Oh, my God, shut. Up.” I remember doing what people now call “fan-girling” myself upon seeing the faces of Salmon Rushdie, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Jeanette Winterson, and Lidia Yuknavitch. But I felt different, more grown up. Like I’ve reached the age that even though I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a big deal, I also know she’s a person. And I’ve been to so many lectures and readings that they’re starting to sounds the same, no matter where the person is from.
First, Adichie delivered a 30 minute lecture. Then, she took questions for an hour. I discovered there were a number of Nigerian students in the audience who had come from nearby colleges, students whose parents are from Nigeria, but they are not. Here are some of the main points Adichie made during the event. I tried to get the wording as close to her’s as possible, but really it’s all paraphrased because I couldn’t record the lecture.
She made the point that feminists can’t just critique, they have to do something. Here, I was immediately reminded of my experience reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I’d read Gay’s articles online and always found them insightful but puzzling. Why, I couldn’t figure out. When I read a collection of these essays altogether, I realized what it was: Gay has many things she critiques, but rarely in her book did she have some sort of suggestion to do something about the problems.
Women are complicit in demeaning women and hurting feminism. This one is easy to see in everyday life. Women constantly tear each other down, and I’m sure you all see it.
Women shouldn’t worry so much about what men who aren’t feminists think. They’re going to think it anyway. Worry more about raising children to be feminists. Adichie also added the point that a wife can find a fairly balanced man and then shape him by teaching him. Hoping that a whole generation of women across the globe will raise their sons differently is beautiful, but this also neglects the effects of other people who are not in the same age cohort as children raised as feminists. Adichie was responding to a question from the audience, and it seemed like the real point was ignore the trolls.
Professional women feel like they can’t talk about the surgery they did or the class they taught, but reassure everyone their husband is cared for in order to be forgiven for having a job. This is a point with which I am familiar, but I guess I never thought of it as feminist guilt. I always thought women were trying to show the world they are do-it-alls. This point definitely gave me something to think about.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set during a war that is not far in our past. They people involved are still alive, and so when her book came out and she did her first event, people yelled at each other, which she said she found quite delightful because now they were talking about it. She also said that if a writer is going to write about a period in history, especially a recent and contested one, then they’d better get it right, factually. I enjoyed this answer Adichie gave to a question from the audience. I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies that romanticize tumultuous periods. It’s one of the main reasons I won’t go see the movie Race even though I love Jesse Owens. What are the chances that film ends with the true end of his story: Owens being so poor because he can’t get a job in American because he’s black, so he starts running races against horses to entertain white people?
There are so many problems in the world, and when people write back to those things, they are not writing art. I would have liked to hear more about this comment from Adichie. Many readings I’ve attended emphasize that when we see obstacles in life, writing will help us make sense of them. I came away puzzled by this comment.
A professor from a nearby college asked how to say the names of the characters in Americanah. One of the names is hard to say, Adichie told us, even in Nigeria, because Adichie likes to be difficult. She says she used to read Russian books growing up and didn’t even try to say their names, they were always “the one who starts with an I.” She thought this all was quite funny, and the audience did, too!
An African student who identified as a writer asked if Africans must write books that are political. Adichie said no, and said she knew a few African authors who write genre stories. There didn’t seem to be many examples, though! It was a good question!
A black student asked Adichie what her advice would be to women of color navigating college. Adichie’s first piece of advice was step 1, throw away the weave. The author laughed a lot and seemed delighted by the questions asked of her. She described watching YouTube videos about natural black hair when she feels stuck writing, and everyone laughed. There were a lot of women of color in the audience. She said natural black hair is about doing something for yourself, and pride.
After the reading, one of the fangirls next to me asked if I liked the event. I paused for a long time and said it was good. I’m sure she thought this meant I didn’t really like it. Who doesn’t just say, “YES!” right away?
I realized I was a million miles away from being a fangirl undergrad like I once was and that instead of being in awe of speakers, I forget they are famous and think about the messages, their practicality, and where I’ve heard those messages before. I’m constructing patterns in my head. The ideas about global perspectives and compassion that Adichie talked about reminded me of things Salman Rushdie said at a lecture in Lansing, Michigan, in 2005. He said, “For God’s sakes, open the world a bit.” Adichie also made a strong connection to the people of color in the audience (without ignoring anyone else) like Nikki Giovanni did at Central Michigan University in 2008. There were so many black students, both college and high school, at the Giovanni event who came to hear what she had to say about black lives in contemporary America. Adichie did the same, but added a multi-cultural perspective as a Nigerian.
In the end, there were no books for sale and no book signing. I think the many, many people I saw sitting around me, clutching their copies of her book eagerly, were super disappointed. I’m okay with that; I’ll head to the library.