Beyond “***Flawless”: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Feminism

Originally published in Broad Recognition 

As millions of loyal fans across the world downloaded Beyoncé’s latest album, many listeners may have been surprised to find the dulcet tones of acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interspersed with the trap-inflected beat of “***Flawless.” In the song, Beyoncé samples an excerpt of Adichie’s TEDxEuston talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” The clip addresses how society conditions the aspirations of girls and boys while also offering a straightforward, accessible definition of a feminist: “a person who believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes.” Although “***Flawless” may spark conversations across households over feminist theory, one must hope the conversation does not stop there. I hope that it also opens budding students of culture to the themes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and short stories, which are far more complex than the Beyoncé soundbite.

Through her books Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck and, most recently, Americanah, Adichie has been catapulted to literary stardom. Her beautifully rendered tales of life in Nigeria and the challenges of immigrant life in the United States have garnered a vast, loyal fanbase. While she may have been hailed as the 21st century daughter of Chinua Achebe, her work has moved beyond the label of “African” or “world” literature because of its embrace of universal themes of the personal and the political. Her near-viral TED talks, “The Danger of The Single Story” and the aforementioned “We Should All Be Feminists,” have complemented these epic tales and pithy short stories by expanding upon the themes that she has addressed in her literary work.

Although these TED talks have likely served as many people’s first introduction to Chimamanda’s particular brand of feminism, they should not be the last. Her novels mesh her theories with reality—they explore the realms of femininity and masculinity through the lenses of the every(wo)man while quietly challenging the notion that feminism is un-African. The mainstream feminist agenda often neglects the stories and challenges of black women, immigrant and African women for too long. Because Adichie occupies all these spaces, she brings fresh perspectives to their stories by juxtaposing vulnerability with empowerment in her female characters. In societies and social settings in which these women are often perceived to be oppressed, she makes powerful statements about female agency. Adichie creates worlds in which women can take ownership of their sexual desires—in which they are neither defined by their decisions to embrace or reject it.

Purple Hibiscus explores domestic violence and the role of women in the household in the context of a patriarchal society. The novel tells the story of a young girl named Kambili who, along with her mother and brother, lives in fear of her father Eugene. As the head of the household, Eugene emotionally and physically abuses his wife and children while he is regarded as a hero by the outside world due to his dedication to human rights and illustrious business career. Adichie contrasts the demeanor of Kambili’s mother Beatrice, a quiet, submissive women, with her aunt Ifeoma, who confronts Eugene’s tyranny. The novel examines the ways in which Nigerian women negotiate the domestic sphere in the post-colonial era. Through the lenses of Ifeoma, it confronts the idea of misogynistic traditions and asserts that gender ideals can evolve in tandem with tradition.

Adichie’s second novel Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of two fiercely independent sisters navigating their relationships in the midst of war and shows the evolution of the modern Nigerian women. She contrasts the modern, highly-educated and independent Nigerian women who confront the horrors of war with village women who have been subjugated and merely exist to be the tools of men. Cast against the background of the Biafran War, the novel beautifully illustrates how the fight for independence affected citizens at the national, community and individual level. The theme of independence and of crafting one’s own definition of womanhood, outside of manhood, features prominently throughout the book. As Aunty Ifeka says during the novel, “You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man…. your life belongs to you and you alone.”

Similarly, The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of some of Adichie’s best short stories, paints myriad pictures of African womanhood. In “Imitation,” the protagonist Nkem, the beautiful, kept wife of a wealthy Nigerian businessmen struggles to fit the picture of domesticity her husband desires and struggles with how to confront her husband’s infidelity. In “Cell One,” Adichie touches on the differential treatment between girls and boys that she later expanded on in her TEDxEuston talk. The collection of 12 tales that stretch from Nigeria to the United States

Adichie’s latest novel Americanah, which has dominated the end-of-the-year “best book” lists, introduces a protagonist named Ifemelu. Despite being an epic romance between two lovers, the story is far from a Cinderella story, and Ifemelu is no simpering fairy tale heroine. The novel negotiates how girls become women through the lenses of the black, African and immigrant experiences. Out of all of Adichie’s novels, it perhaps embraces feminism most blatantly while also offering sharp insights on race relations in the United States through excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog. Ifemelu is no shrinking violet: she is bold, she is brash and outspoken. Through her blog posts on race and her commentary on her romantic relationships, we see a woman active and contributive, vocal through various means. Ifemelu is a heroine precisely because she vocalizing the thoughts that women often keep silent.  Through Ifemelu, Adichie offers a powerful commentary on romantic relationships that champions partnership over ownership.

If “***Flawless was a sample of Adichie’s feminism and her TED talks an appetizer, her novels and short stories must be the main course. In each exquisitely written volume, Adichie renders powerful, inspiring, but flawed female characters and invites the reader to accompany them on a journey of self-discovery. In exploring the lives of these characters, she invites the reader to develop their own definition of feminism organically in the comfort of richly imagined settings that stretch from Nsukka to London to even, in her latest novel, New Haven.

Akinyi OchiengComment