Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and feminist, has condemned a “language orthodoxy” on the political left after she endured a vitriolic backlash over comments about transgender women.
The author of Half of a Yellow Sun plunged into a row about identity politics when she suggested in an interview last week that the experiences of transgender women, who she said are born with the privileges the world accords to men, are distinct from those of women born female. She was criticised for implying that trans women are not “real women”.
But Adichie defended her comments during a public appearance in Washington on Monday night. “This is fundamentally about language orthodoxy,” she told a sellout event organised by the bookshop Politics & Prose. “There’s a part of me that resists this sort of thing because I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.
“From the very beginning, I think it’s been quite clear that there’s no way I could possibly say that trans women are not women. It’s the sort of thing to me that’s obvious, so I start from that obvious premise. Of course they are women but in talking about feminism and gender and all of that, it’s important for us to acknowledge the differences in experence of gender. That’s really what my point is.”
The controversy erupted after a Channel 4 interview broadcast on 10 March in which Adichie argued gender is about experiences, not anatomy, and a person who has lived as a man – with the privileges according by society to men – before transitioning has experiences that cannot be equated with those of someone born female. In the face of a number of angry responses, Adichie followed up with a Facebook post on 12 March but described it as a clarification rather than an apology.
“I didn’t apologise because I don’t think I have anything to apologise for,” she said on Monday. “What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate.
“Had I said, ‘a cis woman is a cis woman, and a trans woman is a trans woman’, I don’t think I would get all the crap that I’m getting, but that’s actually really what I was saying.
“But because ‘cis’ is not a part of my vocabulary – it just isn’t – it really becomes about language and the reason I find that troubling is to insist that you have to speak in a certain way and use certain expressions, otherwise we cannot have a conversation, can close up debate. And if we can’t have conversations, we can’t have progress.”
Adichie distanced herself from academic feminism and said her new book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, is careful to avoid jargon. “I don’t really partake in that kind of language orthodoxy and there’s a part of me that really resists it. So I resist to be coopted into it.”
A campaigner for LGBTQ rights in Nigeria, Adichie is a star of the progressive left and not accustomed to finding herself on the receiving end of its ire. She said: “It was unpleasant, and I think it was unpleasant not because of the sort of criticism and vitriol and hostility – which I’m used to, because I think if you make the choice to label yourself feminist publicly it just comes with the baggage – but in this case it came from my tribe, my tribe being women who believe in equality.
“But really, my position remains: I think gender is about what we experience, gender is about how the world treats us, and I think a lot of the outrage and anger comes from the idea that in order to be inclusive, we sometimes have to deny difference. I think that because human difference for so long, in all its various forms, has been the root of so much oppression, sometimes there’s the impulse to say let’s deny the difference, as though by wishing away the difference we can then wish away the oppression.”
This echoes over-optimistic claims of a post-racial society, the award-winning author continued. “In some ways it’s like the idea of colour-blindness, which is, I think, just a really hollow idea that if we say we don’t see colour, then somehow all the oppressions will disappear. That’s not the case …
“I think there were people who felt I was somehow making a point about the Oppression Olympics: you haven’t suffered enough. It’s not at all that. It’s simply to see that if we can acknowledge there are differences, then we can better honestly talk about things.”
Adichie gave violence against transgender women, reproductive rights, participation in sport and the debate around same-sex schools as examples where such acknowledgement would broaden the feminist conversation. She insisted that she has always stood up for the rights of trans women and would continue to do so.
During a question and answer session, Adichie was asked about issues of “intersectionality”, the overlap of social identities such as race, gender and sexuality. She remained sceptical: “Speaking of language, even the word ‘intersectionality’ comes from a certain kind of academic discourse that sometimes I don’t know what it means.”
Feminism was a useful word to rally around despite understandable reservations, she added. “I think the history of western feminism is one that is fraught with racism, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and at the same time to say that feminism is not the western invention, that my great-grandmother in what is now south-western Nigeria is feminist …
“I think white women need to wake up and say, ‘Not all women are white’, three times in front of the mirror.”
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