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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Directs Fiery Essay At Former Student — And Cancel Culture

Jun 17, 2021
Originally published on June 19, 2021 1:15 pm

Two literary stars from Nigeria are having a very public feud right now, and their personal beefs are heavily overlaid with big questions about feminism, gender identity, cancel culture, social media and anti-LGBTQ violence.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — author of such books as Americanah and Half a Yellow Sun, and a celebrated feminist who has been sampled by Beyoncé — has accused a younger writer who was once her student, Akwaeke Emezi, of being an opportunist who has tried to build on their former teacher's fame. In return, Emezi, a nonbinary person, says that Adichie "hates trans people," and is trying to use her platforms to oppress the queer community.

Both writers are frequently featured on NPR. Earlier this month, Emezi, who uses they/them pronouns, was invited to give a list of Pride Month reading recommendations on Morning Edition, and their latest book, Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir, received a stellar review. Meanwhile, Adichie's recent Notes on Grief was hailed on WHYY's Fresh Air in May, and her Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was named one of NPR's Best Books of 2017.

In order to understand their current battle, you have to go back a few years — and it takes some untangling to comprehend their exchanges. In an Instagram story Wednesday, Emezi resurrected their criticisms of comments that Adichie — who has championed LGBTQ rights in Nigeria, a country where it is still illegal to be LGBTQ, where anti-LGBTQ violence is common and where Twitter has recently been banned — made in 2017 to Channel 4.

The interviewer had asked Adichie about feminism as it relates to trans women. "My feeling," she said, "is that trans women are trans women. I think if you've lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are."

In the land of 280 characters-or-less hot takes, some Twitter users were quick to equate Adichie with J.K. Rowling, who has been widely criticized for being anti-trans — and not without precedent. Last November, Adichie told The Guardian that Rowling's comments on gender identity were part of "a perfectly reasonable piece," from a writer whom Adichie called "a woman who is progressive, who clearly stands for and believes in diversity." (In that interview, Adichie reiterated a familiar point: she called social media takedowns "cruel and sad ... and fundamentally uninteresting," intimating that nuanced conversation is impossible online.)

That same month, in a long Twitter thread, Emezi accused Adichie of having no regard or care for the trans community.

On Tuesday, Adichie published a lengthy essay on her own website, titled "It Is Obscene," in which the writer attempted to bring the conversation back to specific problems she has had with Emezi and another young, unnamed writer from her workshop — not over Emezi's gender identity, but over what she believes to be the younger authors' personal faults — rendered in scorched-earth language.

In the essay, Adichie specifically accuses Emezi of using her name to boost their own career without asking permission — in publicity materials, on their book cover and even in applying for a visa to the U.S.

In Emezi's Twitter thread in November 2017, they noted that after the debut of their first novel, Freshwater, Adichie had asked for her name to be removed from Emezi's bio and promotional materials, ostensibly due to Adichie's comments about trans women. "I was okay with it," they wrote, "because to be honest, I agreed that my connection to her shouldn't be used to sell my work. We do not stand for the same things. I didn't and still don't want her name on my books."

In riposte, Adichie writes in her "It Is Obscene" essay: "A person who genuinely believes me to be a murderer cannot possibly want my name on their book cover, unless of course that person is a rank opportunist." ("Murderer" — that's apparently a reference to something that Emezi wrote on Twitter in April of this year: "When you try to deny children access to healthcare, you are trying to kill them. That's what Rowling supports, FYI, and by endorsing her, that's what Adichie also supports. Whether you want to admit that or not.")

As for Emezi's charge that she is anti-trans, Adichie comments: "This woman knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalized people. That I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general."

In the "It Is Obscene" essay, Adichie also dives back into her frequent criticisms of social media and cancel culture — positions that for some observers denote an age divide. "We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow," she writes. "I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own."

On Wednesday, Emezi posted Instagram stories and a lengthy IGTV video responding to Adichie's essay. "She wrote an incendiary post that she knew would send hundreds of transphobic and homophobic people to our social media, flooding our mentions with violent comments," Emezi wrote in one story. "What do you think her goal was with that? It's not a coincidence that the writers she's targeting are queer and trans."

Emezi said that the video was made explicitly in lieu of giving a statement to journalists. "Here's the thing, as we should all know by now," they said. "You can't 'both sides' oppression. You can't 'both sides' when one party has power and is punching down at a more marginalized party." They added that, especially in the context of widespread anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Nigeria, this situation has provided anti-trans and anti-queer forces another opportunity to attack those communities.

Correction: 6/18/21

A previous version of this story quoted a 2017 interview that was incorrectly attributed to "BBC Channel 4" and a BBC interviewer. The BBC and Channel 4 are separate public television services in the United Kingdom. The interview described was from Channel 4.

Previously corrected on June 17

A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated Akwaeke Emezi's gender. They identify as nonbinary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If literary gossip could break the internet, this next story is about an essay that nearly did just that. At the very least, it crashed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website after she posted a blistering three-part piece called "It Is Obscene." The author of books including "Half Of A Yellow Sun" and "Americanah" called out two younger writers who have criticized her for her comments on transgender identity in recent years. Adichie wrote that, quote, "we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow."

Joining me now is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas, who broke down the feud and set up the context in a new essay published on NPR today. And Anastasia, first, help us understand the players right now. Who are these writers?

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: So, Audie, these are two literary stars from Nigeria. At this point, Adichie is a celebrity novelist. She's been sampled by Beyonce. And in this essay, she wrote about two younger writers. One is identifiable as Akwaeke Emezi, who is a rising star. The other writer isn't actually named, so Emezi's really been front and center here. And we should mention Emezi identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. And Emezi was a student at one of Adichie's workshops.

CORNISH: So there's a pretty big kind of difference in stature and power between these two writers. And Chimamanda, of course, as you mentioned, was kind of an international star. What happened? What are the roots of this?

TSIOULCAS: We really have to go back to 2017, when Adichie made some comments about feminism and trans women in a BBC TV interview. So let's take a quick listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHANNEL 4 NEWS")

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: My feeling is trans women are trans women. I think if you've been - lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman.

TSIOULCAS: So some felt like that was an attack on the trans and queer communities, that it really was an episode in which Adichie was denying the full womanhood to trans women. And that was problematic for a lot of folks.

CORNISH: She responded to critics at the time. What did she have to say?

TSIOULCAS: Well, Adichie has been a long-time champion of LGBTQ issues. But after that interview, she kind of doubled down and criticized social media chatter and soundbites as not really nuanced conversation and that people were sort of isolating this one thing.

CORNISH: In this new post on her website, she publishes emails written by Emezi. She lays out this story of how these young writers sought to be close to her and, she says, turned on her and then set out to sort of cancel her, so to speak, as transphobic. And it gets very personal. And then Adichie wades into the idea of cancel culture. What did she have to say, and why did it generate so much chatter?

TSIOULCAS: Well, she sort of exemplifies kind of the messiness of social media at this point in a lot of ways. But these bigger issues are there, too - feminism, who feminism belongs to, issues about gender identity, the ideas of power differentials. And Adichie published this essay just a couple of days ago. And then Emezi posted several stories and videos to Instagram in which they pointed out that Adichie is punching down, not just at them individually, but to an already very marginalized community. It's kind of ironic, really. Adichie talks a lot about kindness and generosity, but then her essay is really scorched earth.

CORNISH: In the meantime, since you said there have been responses to her essay, has she responded to that? Kind of where are we in this very public feud?

TSIOULCAS: So as of this afternoon, Adichie's really let this essay speak for itself. And I've gone for comment to both authors and haven't heard back.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks for your reporting.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.