Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the acclaimed Americanah and numerous short stories. Her fiction tackles themes of immigration, African colonialism and womanhood. I’ve never read her books, but I am fascinated by Adichie’s views on artistic liberty and literature.
A few days ago, the prize-winning author wrote an essay on her site. She recounts her negative experience with a student at a writers workshop. Near the end, she contextualises her thoughts with social commentary.
“I find it obscene… People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Read the whole essay: it’s brilliant and much needed in times of cancel culture, mob outrage and crude, moralising behaviour. But what’s excellent about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is how she advocates for art, especially literature. Check out her answers to questions (by other established authors) from The Guardian.
“And it’s because there is a new liberal political orthodoxy that I believe will stifle art, particularly literature, in America. Will Trumpism be the subject of literature? I’m sure it will be. But will it succeed as art? I doubt it. Because it would require, for example, the acknowedgment of a Trump-supporting character as fully human, and I can already imagine a fiction writer getting panicky at the thought of a social media backlash for the crime of “enabling the evils of Trump” or something of the sort. Ideological purity is dangerous and is becoming the lens through which many approach storytelling in America. The idea that Trumpism is “not us”, which is a mainstream idea among those who produce and consume literature in America, will also probably make it difficult to engage honestly with Trumpism.”
This was certainly satisfying to read. If a writer, who dislikes Trump were to create a fictional counterpart, they’d have to empathise with him, as well as give Trump sympathetic and redeeming qualities. This would be a sharp contrast to all the times Trump was called evil, equivalent to a virus. Realistically, most depictions of a Trump like figure are entirely unflattering, more of a caricature than a character, and lacking complexity and nuance.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alludes to: this isn’t the makings of great American literature.
The greatest novels are not afraid at sympathetic characters who aren’t ‘on the right side.’ One of the reasons why I read fiction is to explore morality. Fiction allows for great depth, and provokes profound emotions and unique thoughts that wouldn’t exist in a non-fiction context. As I’ve said many times on Snowy Fictions, it’s important fiction remains challenging.
Without going off-topic, I spent my late teens and early twenties getting angry at nuanced and flawed characters. To name a few: Buffy Summers (from Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Margaery Tyrell (A Song of Ice & Fire), Maggie Greene (The Walking Dead) and Hermione Granger (Harry Potter). Yes, all were female. But it wasn’t ‘internalised misogyny.’ No. I was harsh on these characters because they were reminders of myself. They made me angry, because I hated the thought of complex morality.
But, as the great writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
This is silly, thinking about it now. But I got into many ‘fandom fights’ over fictional characters on social media. The years went by, and I studied history and literature. I became enchanted by redemption arcs: ranging from Rodion in Crime & Punishment to more mainstream fair, like Star Wars. I remember reading how Leo Tolstoy, on his first draft of Anna Karenina, made the titular character one-dimensional. It wasn’t until more redrafts and rewrites did she become more human. Of course, neither Rodion, Anakin Skywalker or Anna pass ‘ideological purity’ tests. No one does. I don’t, the female characters I hated don’t, Solzhenitsyn doesn’t, and neither does any writer.
Humans have both good and evil. The amount of ideological purity demanded on young writers is disgusting. From morality clauses in contracts, to publishers dropping authors. Many book-reading communities (such as BookTube on YouTube) are eager to call any author as ‘problematic.’ Like a black mark against him / her. But authors are real people, with flaws and strengths. In the case of Adichie, her strength is her empathy, her thoughtful analysis on humanity’s flaws and vulnerabilities. She’s wise enough to not pick easy answers to anything. She sees the situation with a sharp focus, and the full knowledge that literature is going down a dark path when fear rules over honesty.
I will check out more from her. If you have any recommendations, please share.