How Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Viral Essay Has Implications Far Beyond the Literary World
Last month, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie self-published a personal essay that went so viral it briefly crashed her website. The piece, titled “It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts,” addressed social media discourse, literary culture, freedom of speech and trans rights. In particular, Adichie referred to backlash she has faced in recent years from many who found public comments she has made transphobic, including a 2017 interview in which she said that “trans women are trans women,” rather than affirm their status as women without caveat.
Adichie, the award-winning author of books including Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, is believed to have referenced interactions between herself and the also award-winning author and activist Akwaeke Emezi, who identifies as nonbinary, throughout the essay—though Emezi is never explicitly named. Emezi responded to the piece on a post to their Instagram story on June 16, saying that emails between the two were used without their consent, and that Adichie “wrote an incendiary post that she knew would send hundreds of transphobic and homophobic people to [their] social media.”
Controversy immediately erupted over both Adichie’s views on gender and her argument that social media has become a breeding ground for toxicity. (A publicist for Adichie, reached by TIME, said that she would be making no further comment on the essay.)
The essay’s implications go far beyond the literary world, and are indicative of a larger conflict: powerful groups, from lawmakers to authors, implicitly—or, in many instances, purposely—denying the rights of trans people, even as the broader culture appears to become more inclusive. “Adichie’s social capital originated from the publishing industry right here in the States,” Emezi wrote on Instagram, “and that is what she is using to mobilize her fans to amplify her hatred of trans people and her attacks on the writers who called her in.”
“It seems to belong to a genre that has become quite familiar by this point: the genre of coming out as against cancel culture in some way,” adds Grace Lavery, an associate English professor at the University of California, Berkeley who edits the Transgender Studies Quarterly, of Adichie’s essay. “[I think there is] a great deal that is admirable and relatable,” she continues, “and I understand why people feel troubled and disconcerted by it.”
The cancel culture narrative
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attends the Dior Haute Couture show as part at Paris Fashion Week on Jan. 20, 2020 in Paris, France. Stephane Cardinale—Corbis/Getty Imag
Adichie’s essay opened by detailing what she describes as problematic interactions with participants at a writing workshop she hosted in Lagos, Nigeria several years ago—she writes of feeling taken advantage of, and of being “insulted” by their public criticism on social media of her 2017 interview. In a specific example, Adichie said she later received an early copy of a novel one writer who had attended her workshop was having published; surprised to find her name in the writer’s biography, she requested it be removed. “I knew they were actively campaigning to ‘cancel’ me and tweeting about how I should no longer be invited to speak at events,” she wrote. “This I felt I could not ignore.”
Last year, Emezi tweeted that Adichie had asked for her name to be removed from the author biography included in their debut novel Freshwater. (“I’m okay with that, Emezi added of the situation. “Like, by all means, let us not align. Take your ring away.”) Emezi has spoken about attending Adichie’s writing workshop, and has been publicly critical about the novelist’s remarks deemed transphobic—after Adichie told The Guardian that she found an anti-trans essay by J.K. Rowling to be “a perfectly reasonable piece,” Emezi posted a lengthy thread outlining their concerns as well as the consequences of someone with such literary stature having, and uplifting, such views.https://platform.twitter.com/embed
Marquis Bey, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University who studies Blackness, transness and Black feminist theory, says that it is possible to separate Adichie’s views from the influence of her work. “The work exceeds the author—they don’t have a totalitarian hold over it,” Bey tells TIME. “Adichie’s writing can do things that move people in different ways than her politics do.” Still, Bey wants to see the publishing industry hold authors accountable for expressing damaging views. That doesn’t mean they have to be “canceled,” though, Bey notes. They ask that the industry make its position clear: “Where do you stand in relation to this? You are not a neutral bystander. You are implicated in this as well. How are you going to redress all of this and attend to the harm that you’ve aided?”
In this context, narratives and essays such as Adichie’s often fit into a larger pattern of people critiquing cancel culture while obscuring transphobia or other discriminatory rhetoric. Lavery says many people who are afraid of being “canceled” are those who have access to various forms of institutional power. That power manifests itself in different ways across organizations and people; in the publishing industry, for example, it is often held by those with commercial and critical success. “Many of the people who are afraid of being canceled hold offices that have literally never been held by trans people,” Lavery continues. “In order to be afraid of being canceled, you have to have something to lose. One has to be speaking from a position of power or relative privilege.”
As they have such comparatively limited power and privilege to begin with, trans people are therefore both less likely to be “canceled” and, yet, closer to being “canceled” simply for being who they are. In a post on Instagram, Emezi called out the publishing industry for enabling Adichie’s behavior. “She abused her power, publishing personal essays from her former students without consent because we had the nerve to call her out on her bigotry toward trans women,” Emezi wrote.