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Chimamanda Adichie delivers message of empowerment

| Sunday, March 6, 2016

Though she was just a young girl at the time, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers her home economics teacher asking her “How could you not like needlework? Aren’t you a girl?” Such experiences with sexism only motivate the distinguished author to resist injustice and express her worldviews through writing, she said in a lecture at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night.

College president Carol Ann Mooney said Adichie serves as an example for students through her ability to inspire her readers and convey a message of hope.

“Her work echoes our mission to empower women and help them develop the compassion and empathy needed to make a difference in the world,” Mooney said.

Adichie said she composed her first book at age ten in her childhood home in Nigeria, a place that still serves as a central part of her creativity.

“Before [my family] moved into number 305 Margaret Cartwright Avenue, Chinua Achebe and his family lived there,” Adichie said. “I realize now what an interesting coincidence it is that I grew up in a house previously occupied by the writer whose work is most important to me. There must have been literary spirits in the bathroom upstairs … I often got story ideas after taking bucket baths in the bathroom upstairs.”

Adichie said she grew up surrounded by the effects a war that ensued from the establishment of Biafra, a short-lived country comprised of Nigerians who attempted to secede.

“I knew vaguely about the war as a child, that my grandfathers had died, that my parents lost everything they owned,” Adichie said. “I was aware of how this war haunted my family, how it colored the paths our lives had taken.”

Her mother suffered the harrowing implications of this conflict, she said.

“[My mother] spoke about making toast and scrambled eggs for her two little daughters before the war to standing in line and fighting for dried egg yolk at the Catholic Relief Center,” Adichie said. “If anything, learning about the war left me with a great respect for a generation who had the courage to believe so fervently in something.”

Knowledge of the war and endurance of its permanent consequences inspired Adichie to write a novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun.”

“I was aware that the book, would in the end, share my worldview,” Adichie said. “It would be a book that was concerned with the ordinary person.”

Adichie said the response to this novel shocked her, for many people embraced its message and related it to their personal experiences.

“At my readings, particularly in Nigeria, women would start to cry and to say thank you for telling the story and for finally making it possible to tell their families what they had gone through,” Adichie said. “Men would get choked up talking about how they had been conscripted as boys. Young people born after the war would get emotional talking about how they finally understood their parents, who had experienced and been affected by the war.”

Some readers who had not even lived in Nigeria at the time of the war still praised Adichie for her ability to transform their hearts, she said.

“An American woman told me, and I will never forget this, that ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was the reason she decided to start to identify herself as a pacifist,” Adichie said.

According to Adichie, her feminist ideals serve as an important component of her writing, for she was taught to embrace male attention and to aim to marry a rich Nigerian man.

“To be feminist is to actively unlearn many of the things I was taught,” Adichie said. “I wanted to dream for myself.”

She said she witnessed women forsaking their ambitions, which contributed to her quest for gender equality.

“I knew of so many women around me who had given up what they wanted to do or what they wanted to be because of husbands or children, and it made me wonder ‘What if fewer women had suspended their dreams? What would the world be like?’ Adichie said. “For me, to be feminist is not merely to criticize, but to suggest alternatives.”

When Adichie moved from Nigeria to the United States at age 19, she noticed that US women receive much more judgment on their appearances.

“There is no part of the world today where men and women are totally equal, and that is a grave shame,” Adichie said.

She said she remembers encountering a young woman who attributed her feminism to Adichie after identifying with Adichie’s lines in “Flawless” by Beyoncé.

“I asked her what it meant to be feminist, and she said that every day she would wake up and say to herself ‘I woke up like this,'” Adichie said. “Hearing her say that made me really start to think seriously about what it means to be feminist for young women today. What does it mean to say ‘I woke up like this, flawless?’ I like to think that it doesn’t actually mean that you’re without flaws, because God forbid that a human being would be perfect.

“To be without flaws would be inhuman. I like to think that for feminists, flawless means that you accept yourself the way you are, that flawless, in the feminist sense, really means a radical self-acceptance and the firm knowledge that beauty never means one thing.”

Adichie said she is grateful for the opportunity to express her beliefs, such as her feminist principles, through writing.

“I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write or to imagine or to dream,” Adichie said. “I write because I have to.”

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About Martha Reilly

Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

Contact Martha