“Language Orthodoxy,” the Adichie Wars, and Western Feminism’s Enduring Myopia

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“You Americans,” she said. “You Americans don’t know anything about Africa. How am I supposed to teach you African Literature when you don’t know about Africa? Put your books away,” she instructed. “Take these maps. Take them home and fill them out: all of the countries in Africa, all of their capitol cities, all of their current heads of state. Memorize them. In one week I will quiz you. When each of you gets an A, then we will begin to study the literature,” she declared, rolling her r’s potently in the particular way that Sesotho-, Tswana-, Pedi-, and Xhosa-speaking people do.

That is how my African Literature class began many years ago at Temple University in Philadelphia. Mandela was still a prisoner of conscience, Sarafina! and Cry Freedom were in the theaters, and great men of conscience in my city were leading the American left’s charge to eradicate apartheid. There was no Internet yet, so if we wanted to know anything about any of it, we had to take a class, go to a meeting, or read a book. Our compelling new professor had selected six full novels for us to read: Sembene Ousmane’s Xala, Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, and others. But we weren’t allowed to read them yet?

That’s because she had us pegged. We had absolutely no prior knowledge with which to access the books’ proper meaning. Africa didn’t even make it onto the world map in my high school World Cultures class. The United States, all the European countries, and the USSR were there, but nothing else. Africa on that map was a simple outline of what looked like a large kidney bean.

In many ways, my professor, the South African literary scholar Thelma Ravell Pinto, had the same daunting task then that Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does with us today. Though they were born nearly 3,000 miles and a whole generation apart from one another, a major dilemma facing both remains: how to do the work amid the ignorance of Westerners. My teacher likely faced class after class of young people whose only knowledge of her whole topic consisted of stereotypes, humanitarian aid posters, and this thing called apartheid. Adichie now faces a group of third-wave feminist and gender queer critics who seem so focused on their agenda that they seem not to know or care about the broad scope of hers. They want her to change her position on their platform without giving equal understanding of her worldview or significance. At issue are both the transgender community’s definition of their own reality and an artist’s ability to deviate from their rhetoric without sanction.

Many of us tuned in to last month’s viral Internet saga over the comments that Adichie made on British TV when she was asked, “If you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman?”Adichie’s answer included these words:

I think if you’ve 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 as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.

(See the exchange here.)

These comments lit a firestorm of controversy over whether she understands or validates the transgender experience at all.

Some critics, like Rest for Resistance writer Thembani Mdluli, have expressed disappointment in Adichie’s comments but a desire to keep her in the fold and educate her about transgender realities. Still others, like Feminist Current’s Raquel Rosario Sanchez, have expressed support for Adichie, interpreting the reaction of Adichie’s accusers as insulting mischaracterization. Nigerian LGBT advocate Mike Daemon1 simply says that Adichie was being “realistic,” adding that trans women and biologically born women have “different journeys.”

But others were more critical: Raquel Willis of The Root accused Adichie of “gaslighting” trans women and denying them their womanhood. Many people in my cyberworld swiftly concurred, claiming that Adiche’s failure was in 1) suggesting that gender is biologically based, and 2) separating trans women from women in her reply. The angriest of those offended by Adichie’s answer have labeled Adichie a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and indicated withdrawal of their support through the hashtag #cancelled. According to Mdluli, some believe Adichie should be stripped of her platform or even her publishing deal for her offense against the community. Others think she should recant and apologize. In an interview with the Guardian, Adichie herself says that she will not; she has nothing to apologize for. According to Raquel Rosario Sanchez, her refusal “demonstrates that [Adichie] is withstand[ing] the firestorm and [teaching other women how to] resist.”

To Adichie, the battle is not about transgender rights but is “fundamentally about language orthodoxy… [the idea] that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.” Adichie has us pegged. For her, this rigid set of rules and sanctions “illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left.”

Many who cling to lingo and ideology instead of engaging in a give-and-take conversation with someone who is basically on their side are doing to Adichie what has been done to them: labeling and dismissing. Adichie was clearly not invalidating trans womanhood but was pointing out that society affords privileges to males that it doesn’t to females. The idea that she shouldn’t say such a thing feels disturbingly patriarchal. It feels, as Sanchez has said, like “just another way patriarchy demands submissiveness and silence from women.” There are sanctions for speaking one’s truth: Youth in a female body and the social role carried with it present certain challenges that are unique to women and girls. Those who seek to silence Adichie on this by asking her to reframe it according to their own specific terminology are veering uncomfortably close to both the patriarchal and the colonial act of silencing. Since the Portuguese first arrived in the Upper Guinea Coast of Africa in the 1450s, Europeans have been tampering with African language, voice, truth, and self-representation. Adichie’s more recent fans—who only see her as a feminist icon and not a postcolonial African writer whose work defies both patriarchal and colonial silencing—are missing the bigger picture.

Adichie is far more significant than her accusers seem to know. She’s a literary writer whose body of work transcends the feminist treatises that have made her a muse to Beyoncé and, now, a household name. From her work we learn things that aren’t taught in school: the scramble for Africa, the Berlin conference, the abuses of colonial rule that made the Western world rich, the character of the colonized mind, the names of Lumumba and Kenyatta, local customs and village ways that we never see in media, the cosmopolitan Black African society that we never see either. Adichie lends depth to personae that we Westerners are vaguely aware of, but do not really know: the child soldier, the corrupt opportunists, the British and American expats, the starving, swole-bellied children (called kwashiorkor).

Through Adichie’s literary output alone, she has much farther reach in the West than almost any African writer before or alongside her. Set in postcolonial Nigeria and in the US among African immigrant populations, her books tackle huge themes, educating us on matters of global and historical significance through intimate narratives. Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance, tells tell the entire history of Biafra’s secession from Nigeria and the bloody massacres of her Igbo people through the experiences of a well-to-do family who ends up struggling for its survival. According to one reviewer, she “nods at those responsible for [human rights abuses against Biafrans] without sliding into polemics.”

Writing, in her own words, is a “near mystical experience in which the characters sometimes speak to her”; Adichie sees authors like herself as “conduits” and “sculptors.” As such, she channels women in all stages of our struggle for voice: Amala and Eberechi who are given to men and required to feign consent; Olanna who says “no” despite what’s required; the barmaid who pleas for her life when she is assaulted by soldiers; Ukamaka who can hardly speak up to her boyfriend and Kainene who makes hers do whatever she wants; Edna who contemplates suicide; the nameless girl child whose cries make the villagers dig for her in the rubble; the mothers who haggle for meager rations to save their children and the others who plead with their eyes; Miss Adebayo self-assured academic; Mrs Muokelo, the sage, outspoken woman with a full beard who “should’ve been born a man.” The list goes on and on.

Even though her most recent work is feminist doctrine for popular audiences, she eschews feminist jargon. She sees words like cis and intersectionality as “words that are overly academic, and suggested that if feminists failed to regurgitate pre-approved statements about gender, they risked being traduced as bigots,” according to the Guardian’s Ellie Mae O’Hagan. When she delivered Great Britain’s 2012 Commonwealth Lecture, quoted and linked to above, she was described as possessing “the Holy Grail for writers[:] emotional truth.” She brings characters to life instead of labeling them. We feel their feelings and live their dramas—even those “caught up in terrible historical circumstances”—because she paints them with “empathy and grace.” She is not and will never be doctrinaire.

Before her accusers shrink her audience and shorten the range of her voice, I think they should deliberate a bit more. For instance, when an African hears words like “trapped in a male body forced to perform maleness,” what must she think? Africans were trapped in so many things and forced to do so many things in such violent ways. While Adichie deals with colonial oppressors, those who committed genocide on her people, immigrant life, love and death and betrayal and the nature of God, her detractors seem to be sitting on their cell phones and laptops lobbing insults and demanding her platform on a platter.

Compared to the sledgehammers of those on social media who’ve tried to bring her down, Adichie wields words like a paintbrush. She eschews excessive use of lingo, and there’s a lot of it among today’s third-wavers: TERF, transphobic, transmisogynistic, cisgendered, heterosexual, cishet, nonbinary, intersectional, and the thirteen choices for gender I was recently offered on a conference application: female, male, agender, androgynous, bigender, cisgender, gender fluid, genderqueer, intersex, transsexual, transgender, two-spirit, and gender not identified. Then there are the phrases: smash the gender binary, cishetero female privilege, coerced into a male body at birth, and this is not a debate. As an artist, Adichie shouldn’t have to use all of these if she doesn’t want to. Deviating from this language or portions of the ideology behind all of it needn’t make her an enemy.

When third-wave feminism and the genderqueer movement are at their best in spreading the important new ideas that form their current platforms, they are closer to Adichie in her role as both a storyteller and a popular public speaker. In a compelling explanation of the reasons that trans women cannot be said to have had male privilege, Everyday Feminism‘s Kai Cheng Thom is quite clear, listing seven things that cis-hetero people ought to know about the struggles of transgender people. They all made sense to me. But the part that makes me look at Adichie’s comments anew is Thom’s personal narrative:

The way I played, dressed, walked, and talked was scrutinized and criticized for any sign of femininity, of which, of course, there were many. Everything I was interested in, everything I did or like or wanted, was denounced as being “girly.”

I was often singled out for bullying by other children and for abuse by adults, because I was perceived as feminine, and therefore an object of entertainment and exploitation.

From this, I learned—as all girls do—that to be a girl is to be a child of a lesser god in this society.

I learned that girls were weak, stupid, frivolous, unimportant, unnecessary. And I, of course, was a girl. Even if no one would admit it.

What I mean to illustrate with this is that trans women experience misogyny, even before we begin presenting or being read as women in society.

When I read this, I realized that Adichie’s controversial comment didn’t reflect her understanding of how society views male children who don’t conform to its expectation of how boys should be. Her position, it seems to me now, is not so much incorrect as it is incomplete. But how would she come to see that if she’s labeled a “TERF” and dismissed? Rhetoric like “trans women are women period, no debate,” doesn’t persuade anyone. Narrative in combination with doctrine often does.

The upcoming documentary Check It combines narrative and commentary to illuminate transgender reality. In a montage connecting several of their testimonies into a single one, disenfranchised gay and transgender youth in Washington, DC, say:

I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been shot at. … We gotta protect ourselves because if you don’t stand up for yourself nobody will. … I never show my weak side cus if you show someone your weak side they use it against you. … My mom used to be like, you dumb, you slow, you retarded, you faggy-ass bitch. … A lot of us are homeless, don’t have nowhere to be, don’t have no one to count on. … It’s time for us to start living our lives the way we want it to be.

Through their testimony one also sees the factors that further complicate the narrative of born-male privilege: Poverty. Race. Abuse. Environment. With the exception of contextualizing commentary by the youths’ mentor activist Ronald Moten, there is no rhetoric or doctrine present in the film clips. Yet it is powerfully persuasive, raising the question as to whether Adichie’s understanding of born-male privilege is as full and nuanced as it needs to be. It also suggests that the activists seeking to persuade her should be consider moving beyond jargon and partake in her willingness to dig into the human experience in order to excavate deeper truths.

Less in-group rhetoric and labeling would be more effective for third-wave feminists seeking dialogue and public education around transgender issues. I don’t know if they will catch on to this idea in time to retract their attack on Adichie. But I know they need her. We all do. But whether we appreciate her in her fullness or not, she is and will always be a globally significant artist, a humanist of rare depth.

And she won’t be silenced.

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1. This is a pseudonym. The speaker withheld his real name in the original article, likely because same-sex relationships are illegal in Nigeria.

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Image credits: Featured image of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © by David Levenson. Image 1, image 2, image 3.


Sarah T. is an Anacostia, Washington, DC-based writer who recently completed her first book, This Past Was Waiting for Me, a collection of poetry and epistolary essays on the contemporary relevance of the Age of Exploration and Colonization. Her work has appeared in Everyday Feminism, Azure literary journal, and Sally Hemmings Dreams ‘zine. Sarah is also Sarah J. Trembath, a writing instructor at American University. More from this author →