Wednesday, June 23, 2021 5:33 pm
By Nehru Odeh
When bestselling and multiple award-winning writer, feminist and public intellectual, Chimamanda Adichie started an international writing workshop in 2007, her intention was not only to make writers give expression to their distinct voices and talents and achieve their dreams but also to create a sense of family. “We become, even if only briefly, a family,” Chimamanda once said of the programme.
However, that sense of family is currently under strain, as the relationship between the writer, whose work has been sampled by Beyonce, and one of her former students, Emezi Akwaekwe, the author of Freshwater has soured, no thanks to the blistering attacks the latter has carried out against the former over a statement she made in an interview she granted Channel 4 in 2017.
In those series of attacks on Twitter, not only did Emezi brand Chimamanda a transphobe, she stopped short of calling her a murderer. The truth is, there has been no love lost between the two hitherto friendly writers since Chimamanda granted that Interview. Still, the fallout of that strained relationship is that it has been burdened with ideological tropes such as gender politics, feminism, gay rights, cancel culture and transgender rights etc, with many taking sides..
However, the bestselling writer has come out with her defence with a view to set the records straight in a no holds barred essay entitled, It Is Obscene: A Reflection in Three Parts which was published on her website on 15 June. That essay has generated a lot of reactions. With many saying that Chimamanda has a right to defend herself and that her 2017 statement doesn’t define her as a transphobe, given the fact that she has always championed gay and minority rights while others are saying she is using her influence and audience to “harass a trans author.”
To harass a trans author? In that essay, Chimamanda revealed how Emezi attacked her on social media after she had granted an interview with Channel 4 in 2017 in which she said trans woman are trans women in response to a question she was asked about whether trans women are real women.
Chimamanda said in that interview: “A trans women is a trans woman… 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”
Emezi later went on with series of attacks again in 2020 after Chimamanda praised an article bestselling writer JK Rowlings’ had written, saying it was “a perfectly reasonable piece,” but which many claimed was transphobic.
That Chimamanda’s statement did not go down well with many, including Emezi, who viewed it as transphobic. “When she first made her transphobia public,” Emezi wrote, “I speak for those of us who genuinely loved and looked up to her, that shit broke our hearts.”
Critics claimed that Chimamanda’s statement implied that she didn’t view trans women as women. However, the author of Half Of A Yellow Sun and Americanah clarified that in a Facebok post, stating: “I see how my saying that we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female could appear as if I was suggesting that one experience is more important than the other.”
Chimamanda would however defend her comments later. ‘I said that a trans woman is a trans woman, (the larger point of which was to say that we should be able to acknowledge difference while being fully inclusive, that in fact the whole premise of inclusiveness is difference.”
As Chimamanda said in that essay, which was very revelatory, she was taken aback by those series of attacks and what she calls, “the public performance” that Emezi put on. She regards Emezi’s actions as tantamount to playing to the gallery and feasting on her fame. “No, there isn’t more to the story. It is a simple story – you got close to a famous person, you publicly insulted the famous person to aggrandize yourself, the famous person cut you off, you sent emails and texts that were ignored, and you then decided to go on social media to peddle falsehoods,” she said.
According to her, the flurry of attacks against her personality was one taken too far and calls into question the values of intimate friendship and loyalty in the age of social media. Perhaps that explains her anger not just with Emezi but what she calls the display of “emotional aridity”, unfeeling, hardheartedness and self-righteousness, on social media.
“There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter.
“People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class …
“The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene,” Chimamanda averred.
As Chimamanda pointed out, she believes that whatever Emezi’s concerns with that statement were, she was stunned by the “public performance” she put on, adding that she should have found a way to reach her privately via emails, calls or by texting rather than branding her a transphobe on social media, given the friendship both of them had cultivated over the years.
“Of course she could very well have had concerns with the interview. That is fair enough. But I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead she went on social media to put on a public performance,” Chimamanda regretted.
“After I gave the March 2017 interview in which I said that a trans woman is a trans woman, I was told that this person had insulted me on social media, calling me, among other things, a murderer. I was deeply upset, because while I did not really know them personally, I felt they knew what I stood for and that I fully supported the rights of trans people, and that I do not wish anybody dead.”
Chimamanda also said in that essay that Emezi, in a desperate move to mend fences, sent some apologetic emails to her in 2017 and 2018, which she ignored. “I hoped never to hear from her again. But she has recently gone on social media to write about how she “refused to kiss my ring,” as if I demanded some kind of obeisance from her. She also suggests that there is some dark, shadowy ‘more’ to tell that she won’t tell, with an undertone of “if only you knew the whole story.”
Chimamanda also spoke about how she got to know that they mentioned her name in the author bio of their first novel, Fresh water, she objected to it and demanded that her name be removed.
“When this person’s publishers sent me an early copy of their novel, I was surprised to see that my name was included in their cover biography. I had never seen that done in a book before. I didn’t like that I had not been asked for permission to use my name, but most of all I thought – why would a person who thinks I’m a murderer want my name so prominently displayed in their biography?”Chimamanda wrote.
“You publicly call me a murderer AND still feel entitled to benefit from my name? … You use my name (without my permission) to sell your book AND then throw an ugly tantrum when someone makes a reference to it? What kind of monstrous entitlement, what kind of perverse self-absorption, what utter lack of self-awareness, what unheeding heartlessness, what frightening immaturity makes a person act this way?
“Besides, 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,” she maintained.
Emezi herself claims that two days after their debut novel, Freshwater, was released, Chimamanda asked “that her name be removed from my bio everywhere because of my tweets online.” They added: “Most were about transphobia.”
“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.”
However Emezi has refused to back down and has reacted to Chimamanda’s essay via an essay on Instagram, saying that the emails were published without her consent, and that the piece was “designed to incite hordes of transphobic Nigerians to target me.” In a later post, Emezi criticized the publishing industry for championing Chimamanda.
“Adichie’s social capital originated from the publishing industry,” wrote Emezi, whose memoir, “Dear Senthuran,” was published last week. “You in the industry continue to platform her, laud her work with no mention of the harm her views inflict on the trans community, and on other writers.”
“I am not going to read what home girl wrote and do like a blow-by-blow rebuttal of it, because I am not even going to read it. Because it doesn’t affect my life,” they said. “I am just going to poke my head in, remind us that we matter, that we are important, that our worlds are fucking bigger than anything that these people can ever imagine and that we don’t ever have to be legible to them. We don’t have to be validated by them.”
Still, a careful reading of Chimamanda’s’s essay as well as a reappraisal of her earlier position on gay rights and the rights of other marginal people across the globe would give a clear picture of who the writer really is, whether she is a transphobe or not.
“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. And that I am a person who reads and thinks and forms my opinions in a carefully considered way,” she maintained.
That Chimamanda has always been fiercely supportive of gay, LGBTQ rights and difference in general is clearly not in doubt. In 2014, she wrote an article entitled, Why Can’t He Just Be Like Someone Else, criticizing the Nigerian government for enacting the anti-gay law. She says: “The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems.
“We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it. A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria.”