Today’s discussion of feminism is as robust as ever before. As millions marched around the world on Jan. 21 in favor of women’s rights, it became clear that there is no universal feminist experience. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—novelist, playwright, activist, and poet—knows what it’s all about. “Now is the time to remember that ‘women’ does not equal white women. ‘Women’ must mean all women,” she wrote in The New Yorker in November.
Adichie is proof that feminism does not belong to one culture or one race. She is a Nigerian immigrant, the author of the best-selling novel Americanah, and an outspoken feminist whose 2013 TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” became a Dior t-shirt, a book, and a lyric in Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” Yet, with all the angry stereotypes attached to the word “feminist,” Adichie remains a lover of high heels, colorful dresses, and lipstick. Just last year, she was named the face of makeup brand No. 7. Still, as embracing as she is of her girliness, she doesn’t straighten her hair to conform with Western aesthetics.
I first discovered Adichie when a professor showed me a video of her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” The speech took experiences from her own life as a Nigerian immigrant in the United States to explain how privilege can narrow our perception of the world. (And, let’s be honest, we’ve all been guilty of this at some point.) As a Nigerian, Adichie has faced many of the stereotypes forced upon Africa that portray the continent as “war-torn” and “disease-filled,” as a place dominated by hunger and poverty. Critics have said that her books are not authentically African for having characters that live like Westerners. To this, she has responded with even more lively characters who experience complex emotions that go much further than starvation and conflict. Adichie provides an alternate view of Africa, one that does not seek a white foreigner as its savior. She goes beyond the single story.
In her work as an activist, Adichie is also a storyteller. She often refers to events in her own life to highlight the blatant sexism she faced growing up in Nigeria. The first time she was called a “feminist,” it was meant as an insult from her male best friend. Many years later, she was advised by a Nigerian journalist not to call herself a feminist because the term was associated with angry women who couldn’t find a husband. Others went on to say, as she recalled, that feminism is not an ideology fit for an African woman, that those are Western ideas. In response, Adichie said to British Vogue that she finds more feminist heroism in “the nameless women in the market, who are holding their families together.”
But, even as she has waved the feminist flag around the world, Adichie remains critical of the movement for its inability to appeal to all women. “Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms,” she said at Wellesley College in 2015. To Adichie, feminism in the United States carries a level of privilege that excludes women like her who, as she described, “have the skin the color of chocolate.” She has even gone as far as saying that, “If Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barack Obama would not have won.”
It’s safe to argue that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is political in all her endeavors. And that is precisely why her message is so poignant. She is her message. Her novels are a way of reading her—not just her work, but her, Chimamanda. Americanah, which was optioned by Lupita Nyong’o to be made into a movie, is based on Adichie’s experience trying to grapple with being identified as black in America (In Nigeria, she said, people are identified by ethnicity, not race). Half the Yellow Sun was inspired by her grandfathers, who died in the Nigeria-Biafra War. One of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck was based on her experience as an immigrant in America attending college at Drexel University. We Should All Be Feminists is her personal manifesto on why and how we can change the world by transforming our conceptions of gender.
Recently, Adichie published Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, which she originally wrote in a Facebook post. It deals with the difficult question of how to raise a girl in a chauvinist world, an issue Adichie herself endured. “Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop,” she wrote.
This is her brand of feminism: the unstoppable belief that stories are powerful enough to transform the world into a place of acceptance, tolerance, and understanding; that the inherent equality of the sexes will take us far; that women should not be defined by how they look, but rather by their accomplishments and abilities; that chauvinism does not come from a place of evil, but from a constructed conception of privilege that needs to be reshaped by how we raise our daughters and sons; that interculturalism is a powerful tool; that lipstick, as she has said before, can brighten even the darkest days.