Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists, remembers the hushed tones that accompanied her first period.
In a recent interview in New York, she leaned in to mimic her mother’s voice. “‘What are you doing with your menstrual pads?’” she whispers. “My mother taught me to go burn them in the backyard when nobody’s looking.”
Adichie never fully understood the shame that was supposed to usher in womanhood, which made her hide her pads and made her friends apologise to boyfriends for having periods at all. “I’m not going to have my daughter have that kind of shame,” she said.
Adichie’s latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, is a 63-page blueprint for achieving that reality. Written as a letter to a friend, the book offers a set of guidelines for how to raise a feminist daughter. “Teach her to love books”; “never speak of marriage as an achievement”; “‘because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything.” The premise of feminism, Adichie writes, is simply: “I matter. I matter equally.” The Washington Post wrote that much of the book would be familiar to readers of Adichie’s previous work but that it was “more personal, more urgent”.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Publisher: Knopf Pages: 80 Price: $15
In person, Adichie, 39, is warm and thoughtful, and also distinctly glamorous. She has spoken often about the pleasure she takes in fashion, and she is the face of Boots No7, a makeup brand. Adichie has cultivated these two strands of her identity: the serious literary author and the fashion icon. In turn, she has been celebrated both by mainstream pop culture and the literati. She won a MacArthur fellowship in 2008, and her novel Americanah
won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Her 2012 TEDx talk, We Should All Be Feminists
, was sampled by Beyoncé in her music, and excerpts appeared on T-shirts at Dior’s Paris Fashion Week show last year. The pop and the literary threads are not opposites to her, and their merger is central to the way she presents her public self and her work.
“I think it’s very important that brilliant women step up and be hot babes,” Adichie joked in a conversation with the author Zadie Smith in 2014.
So in the past few years, she has become something of a star, flourishing at the unlikely juncture of fiction writing and celebrity. Her position was on full display during her visit to New York, where she started her book tour last week. She took the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at Cooper Union, and there was “this kind of unanimous scream,” said Robin Desser, a Knopf editor who has worked with Adichie for 12 years.
“I really have never seen anything like this,” Desser said. “And I’ve published people who are really popular.”
The main proposition of Dear Ijeawele
is that feminism
is a project that necessarily binds mothers
and daughters, and that raising a daughter feminist has as much to do with what you tell yourself as what you tell her. Adichie’s first of 15 suggestions places a mother’s freedom and growth at the centre of a daughter’s feminist education. “Be a full person,” Adichie writes. “Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood.”
The book grew partly out of the desire of Adichie’s friend, called Ijeawele in the text, to teach her daughter “to take less of the nonsense” that past generations faced. Adichie wrote her friend a letter in 2015 and published it on Facebook last year.
She said she still wasn’t thinking of it as a book but simply wanted to start a conversation. The responses she received made her even more sure that it was an important piece to write.
“Even friends of mine — people I love — wrote, ‘why yes, we kind of agree, but why call it feminist? It’s just common sense.’ And I’m like no, it’s feminist,” Adichie said. “Or, oh it’s just humanism. Or someone said, ‘these are just democratic ideals.’ And I thought, what? It’s everything but to acknowledge the fact that gender is a problem.”
Adichie wrote the letter before she was a parent, but now she has a 17-month-old daughter whom she is trying to raise as a feminist. She and her husband split their time between Nigeria, where she grew up, and the United States.
Adichie often comments on how race and gender play out in the United States, but her book does not tackle some of the meatier questions that have occupied the American feminist movement in recent years, most notably the role of transgender people.
On this book tour, after we spoke, Adichie made controversial comments suggesting that transgender women experience male privilege before they transition. For activists who have been grappling with these questions for years, the comments came across as ill-informed. Asked about them, Adichie suggested through a spokesman that people go to her Facebook page, where she has posted several responses, acknowledging that her comments “upset many people, and I consider their concerns to be valid”.
© 2017 The New York Times