- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the 2015 PEN World Voices festival.
- She spoke about self-censorship enforced by peer pressure.
- The festival saw controversy over whether to give a freedom of speech award to Charlie Hebdo.
- She said her stories express a worldview and invites the reader to find their own moral.
She expected support. Men and women of the congregation spoke in private about the new priest’s dress codes and his long sermons about breasts. She was saying what many people were thinking. What she got was a barrage of personal attacks, aimed less at the substance of her complaint than at the temerity of a ‘small girl’ challenging a man of God.
Years later, Adichie told the anecdote when she gave the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the 2015 PEN World Voices festival She talked with her customary humour and insight about how censorship is not the preserve of the totalitarian state. The lecture itself runs from 7:45-40:40 of the video, after introductions and before a discussion with Andrew Solomon, president of the PEN American Centre.
Speech and silence
Most of us have had a similar experience to Adichie’s at some time in our lives. We said in public what everyone was saying in private, and looked around in shock as people we knew agreed with us looked away rather than standing next to us. For some of us, the first and last experience was in the primary school playground. We learned to conform so early that by the time we reached adulthood, we couldn’t tell the difference between what the people around us thought and what was right. Or at least what the people around us claimed to think in public.Some of us were more like Adichie and never learned to keep our big mouths shut. Once we learned we couldn’t depend on the people who agreed with us to stand beside us, our choice was between standing alone and remaining silent:
I don’t think of censorship as something imposed from without, but also something within. Self censorships, those pushes and pulls which every writer confronts in her work. And so, in general, I will not silence myself because…of the fear of consequences but I am willing to acknowledge the possibility of those consequences.
The horror of ourselves
Adichie’s first two novels did not flinch from the controversial. Purple Hibiscus is the story of a child beaten and tormented by her father, who is himself driven to his actions by his Catholic beliefs. Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran Civil War of 1967-1970, is among the best war novels ever written. It shows war from the perspective of the people embroiled in it, who have little idea of the big picture.The topics of religion and civil war are perhaps more controversial in Nigeria than is easy to appreciate for those of us who are not Nigerian, but her nuanced view of human behaviour is accessible to anyone. When the father in Purple Hibiscus scalds his daughter’s feet, his tears show he is not a monster but a man who thinks he is doing the right thing.
Half of a Yellow Sun gave us a teacher who exhorts her class to fight and die for a Biafran nation she genuinely believes in, even as she struggles to keep the people she cares about away from the front line.
When Adichie says:
We speak of the uglier sides of human nature as if we ourselves are inherently incapable of such ugly acts and because we are unwilling to recognise within ourselves the possibility of what horrifies us, it leads to a kind of silencing.
I suspect she is being somewhat disingenuous as I cannot see how a writer could create such sympathetic characters do terrible things without that understanding.
Who is Charlie now?
It is censorship to tell half a story. It is censorship to neglect context. It is censorship to force a story to fit into something that already pre-exists.
Part of the context of the lecture was a controversy around the Freedom of Expression Courage award that was given to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo at the same festival. Over 200 writers objected on the grounds that ‘PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world‘.
Enough of Charlie Hebdo’s content is available online to show that the satire is not directed at Islam or Muslims in general, but at violent Muslim groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. The sentiment behind the letter suggests the signatories would be the first to point out that distinction. I find it extraordinary that they were incapable of recognising that the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists made, and as far as I know continues to make, the same distinction.
Jenifer Cody Epstein gave some insight into the signatories’ sentiment when she retracted her signature, admitting she hadn’t done her own research and crediting Michael Moynihan’s Daily Beast article for enlightening her. The remaining signatories either did not become aware of the counter-arguments or lacked the courage Epstein showed in revising her position. In either case, they were heavily criticised by Salman Rushdie, founder of the World Voices Festival, who scathingly described the signatories as ‘authors in search of a bit of character‘.
I posted my own views on the Charlie Hebdo massacre before the award was announced, and I find it as distasteful now as I did then that so many intelligent and compassionate people responded by heaping as much criticism on the murdered cartoonists as on the gunmen who murdered them.
Lost in translation?
Perhaps the reason the views of Dominique Sopo, president the anti-racist coalition SOS-Racisme, were disregarded was because he described Charlie Hebdo as ‘le plus grand hebdomadaire anti-raciste‘ instead of ‘the greatest anti-racist weekly publication’. Five minutes of googling is enough to show that anyone who thinks Charlie Hebdo is a racist publication can neither read French nor use Google translate, or possibly they simply believed the received wisdom of others as Epstein admitted to doing.
If only the signatories had read Josselin Moneyron’s description of Charlie Hebdo’s satire, they might have understood what they were denouncing.
It’s also possible that in the minds of some of the signatories, Charlie Hebdo’s sin was not that it was directly racist but that its satire was vulgar and uncomfortable. For example, Stephane Charbonnier’s ‘Prends ça, Goliath’ cartoon, depicting an Israeli soldier gunning down a Palestinian woman while likening himself to David fighting Goliath, is uncomfortable. It’s easier to look away than to contemplate the questions that looking at it demands.
Comfort for whom?
Adichie speaks at some length about the defence of comfort, and what she describes as the American ‘addiction to comfort’ and its influence on public discourse:
The goal is not truth. The goal is comfort. Comfort for all, ostensibly, but in realty comfort for the more powerful.
As she points out, the USA has been at war somewhere in the world for most of the last hundred years, but most fictional depictions of the USA describe a country at peace with the world, even when they describe its internal divisions:
I think that a lot of contemporary writing, particularly in the US, hides behind art. D’you know, you think about America as a country that’s been at war forever but you look at the contemporary literature and you wouldn’t know it…stories are all, you know…
Yes, we do know.
Who wields the power?
She does not describe exactly what she means by the ‘powerful’, but when she talked about the powers that silence uncomfortable speech elsewhere in the lecture, she refers as much to crowd consensus than the formal structures of power. Her anecdote about the church’s dress code demonstrated how individuals who are powerless on their own can wield power when they become part of a consensus.Social media greatly enhances the political power of the crowd. Now everyone can demand to be protected from uncomfortable ideas. As Jon Ronson has described, such power is often hidden behind the language of victimhood even when the stated goal is to define the limits of what can be said, which is in fact a stark exercise of power.
Nobody is tortured or imprisoned by such consensus power, but the result is that:
The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish. Things are left unsaid. Questions unasked.
In the discussion after the lecture, Solomon asked Adichie whether she thought she herself was in a position of power. Where a lesser mind might have said ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Adichie’s answer was nuanced. She said her power is dependent on context:
There are times and places in my life when I’m powerful and times and places when I’m not.
Power versus influence
Adichie is a much admired writer and speaker, but she does not have the direct power conferred by government position or military rank, or indeed by an AK-47 in a building full of unarmed cartoonists. She exercises what power she has through influencing others.
She expanded on the former by talking about a conversation she’d had about whether literature should be useful. After the lecture, Solomon pressed her to expand on the subject. She said she didn’t think her novels had a moral, but rather expressed a worldview and invited the reader to draw our own conclusions. It was a statement that resonated strongly with me as it’s something I try to do in my own writing, though I can only dream of achieving it as successfully as Adichie.It doesn’t have an overt moral, it’s up to the reader. Which I still believe, although I do believe every novel has a worldview, every novel believes something. Of course, the moral lessons are not overt because we don’t want to go into the territory of propaganda.
The most uncomfortable passage in Half of a Yellow Sun is when Ugwu, an illiterate houseboy forced into the rebel army, takes part in a gang rape. Because I’d known Ugwu for perhaps two hundred pages, I knew he wasn’t an evil man before I read of the evil thing he did. Adichie didn’t let me take refuge in the comfortable response of straightforward condemnation. She forced me to ask myself whether I, or the people I trust and care about, might act as Ugwu did under the same circumstances. When Adichie robbed me of the comfort of dehumanising a character for the most inhumane act, she forced me to examine what humanity really means.
The best dictator we never had
Adichie said she wished she had more power, joking about ‘strains of dictatorship’ in her blood. By the time I’d finished listening to her, I wanted her wish to be granted. I have no doubt that the woman who composed and delivered that lecture would use it wisely and benignly, and it reminded me that I have no reason to put off the treat of reading her next novel, Americanah.
Her public speaking, like her fiction writing, shuns the polemic in favour of putting a view and inviting her listeners to draw their own conclusions. I strongly recommend the following:
The Danger of a Single Story:
We Should All be Feminists: