This event was clearly highly anticipated. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nicola Sturgeon are welcomed to the stage with the loudest, and longest, cheer I’ve ever heard at the book festival. It appears they have both been anticipating the moment too. The first words out of Sturgeon’s mouth are ‘I am beyond excited right now’. Adichie is an author that she has admired and been inspired by for some time, and it seems the admiration goes both ways.
Adichie has been trying to cut down on travel to focus on writing, often saying no to events just like this. When first asked to come she was unsure, until Director Nick Barley called. He hadn’t finished his question asking if she would do an event with Sturgeon before she was saying yes. Sturgeon is clearly flattered and laughs that she will dine out on that story for a long time.
The piece of Adichie’s work Sturgeon begins with is a letter to her friend about raising her daughter as a feminist. It was originally written as a private letter but has since been published as a small book. It’s a book about the practice of feminism, rather than the theory, about how to live in a way that can influence the world. Adichie is interested in actually ‘changing the damn world’, not simply talking about it.
She feels some important elements are often lost in the theoretical debates. Feminism is really about making everyone happier and better off, not just women. Men are given a lot of privilege in a patriarchal system, but even privilege can be a cage. Masculinity needs to be reformed and remade; we need to make emotion and vulnerability equally accessible and accepted for everyone. Adichie wants a world where men no longer feel the need to measure certain parts of their anatomy to prove their worth.
For progress to be made the idea of the ‘morally better’ woman also needs to be tackled. Adichie wonders if this idea is why women in positions of power are so criticised. People want and expect perfection (though that ‘perfection’ comes with utterly conflicting requirements) and resort to much harsher criticism when perfection is not achieved. Sturgeon herself has been criticised for everything including ‘not smiling’ and ‘being too serious’. Both criticisms that were not fired at Salmond, Cameron, Brown, any other male Prime/First Minister.
Adichie does not believe in the unquestioning sisterhood model of feminism. There are some women she just cannot support, Sturgeon can certainly think of at least one, but she will always attack unfair judgements. As she says, there are some who will claim a reason for injustice is the sun, moon, or even the Cookie Monster, anything to not admit it is gender.
People have already tried to deny that Hilary Clinton’s loss is even remotely related to her gender but Adichie does not agree. She’s heard so many people talk about how engaging Clinton is to talk to, how warm and passionate she can be, and yet in the public sphere she can seem almost robotic. Penned in by ‘be perfect’, ‘don’t be angry’, ‘don’t smile too much’, ‘smile more’, ‘don’t be this’, don’t be that’, the Clinton of the public debate and campaign trail has no room to express anything. Adichie also dismisses claims that Clinton lost because the ‘poor and ignorant’ voted for Trump. The groups in most economic distress largely voted for Clinton. Trump’s voters have the education to know better, a side of the story dismissed because it’s too uncomfortable for most.
Part of the problem with sexism in the west is that it has become so subtle and multilayered. Adichie finds the in your face sexism of Nigeria almost refreshing because it’s so much harder for anyone to argue against it.
Racism can be subtle in similar ways. Adichie was not ‘Black’ until she first arrived in America. At home she had simply been Nigerian and she continued to think of herself as ‘Nigerian, not black’ for some time. Now she is always aware of the number of black people in the room. She remembers a class in college when a professor waved her paper, claiming it was the best he had read and wanting to know who had written it. When she raised her hand there was a moment when he was very clearly surprised. This was the moment she began to understand how racism affected everything.
One of the things Adichie enjoys about travelling is seeing how racism manifests itself differently in every country. And in every country people tell themselves different stories to pretend it’s not there. In Germany for example, they don’t even have the language to express it and it’s definitively viewed as a problem of the past. Similar problems can be seen across the world. Adichie points out that in the States a fight that appears to be about confederate statues, is in reality a fight about how history has been told.
Every country buries the portions of its past that it is uncomfortable with. You cannot discuss history without also discussing politics. Storytelling has always been about power. Stories that undermine power are suppressed and dismissed. Eventually you get people claiming much older origins for statues that are less than a century old and crumple like paper because they were mass produced to undermine black communities. Both Adichie and Sturgeon agree that the solution is to call out racism wherever it is seen, and in whatever form, and to have the uncomfortable discussions of history that so many would let slide.
Governments can set the tone in such situations. Trump’s America is proof that anxiety provoking rhetoric from the highest level trickles down into every corner of society. Adichie now worries about travelling, scared that her green card would be dismissed and she would be denied entry because something changed in the White House while she was away. Shortly after the election she had a viscerally anxious moment of wondering which, if any, of her neighbours had voted for him, wondering if she was safe.
The first question from the audience somewhat reflects the discussions of anxiety. A psychologist who works with young people wants to know their advice on building resilience. Sturgeon reflects that she had to learn resilience early on in politics. She had to keep returning after lost elections, keep showing up when she knew others wished she wouldn’t, keep getting back up and learning from failure. She still has moments of self-doubt but she feels so privileged to be in her current position that these are few and far between.
Adichie feels resilience gets easier with age. You gain experience to draw upon and your skin starts to feel like your own. Then she says, one day you ‘look in the bag of fucks to give and find it’s empty’, a phrase Sturgeon loves and plans to steal. Sometimes people need to learn that difficult is a part of life. Adichie worries that current parenting concerns about self esteem could be overdone. Effort needs to be seen as ordinary, if it is overly praised then the resilience serious effort requires is harder to maintain.
However, part of resilience also involves leaving room for curling up in bed with a tub of ice cream and being realistic about mental health. Sturgeon says she needs to read fiction to be happy and healthy, managing at least a few pages before bed every day. Adichie, like many others in creative fields, suffers from depression. In Nigeria mental illness is viewed as something that happens to white people. She spends time talking about depression to try and demystify it and make it easier for others to talk about. There is strength in seeking help rather than weakness and she would love for the act of talking about it and seeking help to be utterly ordinary.
By the end of the event Adichie and Sturgeon seem to have moved past mutual admiration and into burgeoning friendship. Adichie jokes about becoming her unofficial advisor and they hug before leaving the stage accompanied by cheers and a standing ovation. Director Nick Barley waits to guide them out, looking rather like a cat that wasn’t sure he would get the cream and is overwhelmed to find he did.