“No one is being murdered or hauled off by the American government to prison for writing a novel,” said Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, which closed the PEN World Voices festival in New York Sunday night. Though couched in a thoughtful set of anecdotes, Adichie had sharp words for her mostly young and vocal audience about the “codes of silence” that govern American life.
“To choose to write is to reject silence,” Adichie went on to say.
Adichie had acted as co-curator of the festival, along with its director Laszlo Jakab Orsos. And so she had had a front-row seat to the roiling debates about Charlie Hebdo that overshadowed most of the festival’s other events. “There is a general tendency in the United States to define problems of censorship as essentially foreign problems,” Adichie said, in what seemed a gesture towards acknowledging that.
Using the contrast between Nigerian and American hospitals as an example, Adichie pointed out that Americans like to be “comfortable”. And she worried that the comfort has brought “dangerous silencing” into American public conversation. “The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish,” Adichie said. As such, the goal of many public conversations in the United States “is not truth … [it] is comfort”.
Adichie’s remarks were made all the more poignant because of a recent personal ordeal surrounding the release of her father, who last week was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria. Adichie did not directly mention the incident in the speech, but she did characterise Nigerians as those who expect “pain” in life.
Adichie identified social media as a contemporary “tool of silencing”. The Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which was focused around the abduction of 200 girls in Nigeria, the narrative had been forced to make out as if perpetrators Boko Haram were targeting girls, “so that we could say oh, it’s just like the Taliban,” said Adichie. But, she pointed out, Boko Haram is opposed to western style education for both girls and boys. “It is censorship to force a story to fit into something that already pre-exists,” she said.
Breaking silences, Adichie added, is not always easy. “I have often been told that I cannot speak on certain issues because I am young, and female, or, to use the disparaging Nigerian speak, because I am a ‘small girl’ … I have also been told that I should not speak because I am a fiction writer ... But I am as much a citizen as I am a writer,” she said. It was as a citizen and writer that she spoke out against the recent criminalisation of homosexuality in her home country, a law that not only put the safety of many innocent civilians at risk, but also many of her friends.
Adichie concluded with an anecdote about her own teaching of a workshop in Lagos. A student complained that a story was not “teaching us anything”. At first Adichie dismissed him, but later she thought she had engaged in an “overprivileging of literature”. His question, “Does literature matter?” was an important one to her. “I would not want to live if I were not able to have the consolation that stories give me,” she concluded, “and for this reason I will stand and I will speak for the right of everyone, everyone, to tell his or her story.”
After reverberating applause the evening then moved into a Q and A session, where the PEN president, Andrew Solomon, who later thanked her “as a gay American” for her stance against the criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria, interviewed Adichie on topics ranging from the subtleties of race, class and gender, to the annoyance of having to be aware of her race in the States.
“I think we should listen more,” she said in response to Solomon’s question about how to bring a diversity of understandings towards the single story. She also said she wished to be able to address those “with power. Because they are the ones who want to do the listening”.
She also said that it was important to her that “African stories are told by African people”, and that not doing so does a disservice to the nuances of the culture. “How are we ever going to really understand one another if we’re not being told stories in a way that is full and fully done?” she said to an applauding crowd.
But the warm and gracious Adichie first and foremost is a writer, and it was this sentiment that prevailed over a discussion that went on to include discussions about identity and ignorance surrounding Baltimore. “I think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as a dreamer,” she said, before a standing ovation overwhelmed her, “and I think what’s interesting … is that when you’re sitting there in front of your computer, hoping to write a good sentence, you really don’t remember that you’re black and African, you know, you just think, I want to write a damn good sentence.”