Two of my favorite authors Chimamanda Adichie and Zadie Smith came together at New York’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to discuss Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel Americanah, and the issues of feminism and race explored in the book. The conversation was, of course, riveting. The kind of dialogue you want to have over a glass (or bottles) of wine, and courses of sticky, savory goodness. The type of exchange you need to interrupt with saliva missile affirmations of “Amen!” or “Word!”, and “I hear you, but…” objections.
Watch and talk back to the screen, like I did.
“I think it’s very important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes.”
I hear you but… what it means to be a “hot babe” has been created and controlled by men to satisfy their own desires, and advanced by powers with an agenda to make money at the expense of women’s insecurities. I think it’s more important that women focus on brilliance than hotness, or better yet that brilliance be equal to hotness.
“I think it’s very easy to confuse something that’s badly written as somehow deep.”
Word! And also easy to confuse writing that isn’t deep as bad.
“I like to say that this is my ‘Fuck you’ book. …in some ways, ‘Fuck you’ to another version of myself. With Half of a Yellow Sun, I was very much — I was very dutiful. I think for so long, I’ve been a dutiful daughter of literature. I’ve followed the rules: ‘Show don’t tell.’ That sort of thing. With Americanah, I thought, you know what? I’m just going to write the book that I want to write.”
There’s been a lot of talk / debate about breaking away from the convention of the novel. In a 2008 essay I’m too cheap to pay for called “Two Paths for the Novel“, Zadie Smith “proposed …exposing [realism’s] foundations in white liberal thought, demolishing its bedrock assumptions about meaning, language, and selfhood.” And her latest novel NW was widely reviewed as her attempt to do just that. Likewise, Open City and Everyday is for the Thief author Teju Cole told the New York Times “‘the novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”
I don’t know that I think the traditional form or structure of a novel has to be totally thrown away. I think it’s about evolving the wheel, rather than reinventing it.
“It’s important for me to acknowledge my class privilege.”
Word. Up. As black women, we undoubtedly live outside the sphere of white male privilege, but as educated, middle-class women we do enjoy certain advantages. It’s easy to see how obtuse the powerful can be when you are in the underprivileged position, but easier to go blind when you’re in the power position. I know people, for example, who are quick to rail against economic inequality in the States, yet are happy to perpetuate it in Ghana so they can continue to hire labor for dirt cheap.
“You very quickly realize you are expected to play the good black, because you are not African-American.”
Yup. The “good black”. And then comes that dawning moment when you’re denied entry into a shop or killed for looking suspicious… and you realize you’re playing a losing game. Through the glass doors of a luxury boutique or on a rainy night, the only thing some people see is your skin — and the generations of stereotypes, junk science, and institutionalized bias associated with it.
“You can be in love in this country, and still be expected, if you go out, to individually pay for your own food.”
“Really, the only reason that race matters is because of racism.”
That’s right. Race is purely a construct, a figment. I recently read Dr. Yaba Blay’s (1)ne Drop Rule where she breaks down the 16 categories / designations of blackness in New Orleans and profiles people whose appearance don’t immediately indicate “black”. It drove home the point to me that blackness — and whiteness, and everything in between — are political and social identities that shape shift depending on culture, time, and space.
“I think there is a narrative that America likes to tell itself which is that all immigrants should be terribly grateful to have come and should therefore shut-up and not complain. And there are many good things about America, but it’s not perfect and people have trouble adapting and adjusting, and some people want to go home.”
Yes, indeed. One of the things immigrants’ rights opponents miss is that most people would prefer to live and work in their native country than start from scratch in a new land with little to no money, connections, contacts, or family support in most cases. If people really want folks not to come to America, they should start challenging foreign policy that cripples or compromises the economies of certain nations, and look at real reparations for nations that were literally robbed of their men, women, and children to work for free to build other nations. British slaveholders were given payouts when abolition outlawed slavery, and their descendants are still enjoying the financial legacy of this remuneration. What would happen–how would the globe’s economy be impacted–if the African nations that were plundered for the transatlantic slave trade were refunded for the loss?