Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On The Current Political State: ‘Democracy Is a Fragile Thing’
Beowulf Sheehan

Being sold out probably signified how excited attendees were to see Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah in New York for their Pen World Voices Festival at Town Hall, Wednesday night.

The backdrop of the discussion, almost six months after the White House changed administrations, was to talk about the importance of free speech in its most literal definition. The freedom to tell stories in specific context of their experiences as African authors, with largely White audiences, was a resounding theme of the evening.

“I don’t think as myself as an immigrant in U.S., I think of myself as a Nigerian who lives in America.” Adichie said when responding to her post-election New Yorker essay “Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Were Actually Talking About”.

“I grew up under military dictatorship… So growing up in that political space. We had a really big house and a large yard. And the doors were closed and my parents were whispering, because we were talking about the government. And I remember thinking, ‘Why are they whispering?’ And it stayed in my mind as an example of what it means to live in a dictatorship. And having come here I very quickly realized America’s democracy has not ever really been tested.”

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Adding, “I think because of that there’s a kind of complacency that can result. And so when the person who’s president was elected, I was struck by how very quickly people.. sort of this rush to try and find the bright side. People started talking about his strategy, which were unhinged rantings… It showed this incredible American discomfort, with discomfort. Americans don’t like to be uncomfortable and I think it’s linked to this optimism.”

Adichie and Noah went on to talk about how America was perceived growing up in the Motherland versus their experiences living and working here. Like Adichie, Noah released a book detailing his experience as an African, but in Johannesburg as a mixed-raced child in, “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood”.

While Noah has been criticized for having an optimistic perspective of President Donald Trump’s win to office, he didn’t mince words about resisting. 

“Where I differ slightly from Chimamanda is that I agree with the aspiration. I don’t think that negates the ability of a nation or people, to take multiple steps backwards,” Noah said.

He went on to reveal that having grown up with charismatic but vapid political leaders, he saw early on that Trump had the potential to win— but his focus is to unite people in not being fooled into letting it happen again.

“I struggled to hold on to the narrative that there shouldn’t be optimism because I look at numbers. I still have to look at and acknowledge how most Americans voted for Hillary. I don’t think it will rain forever, so it’s time to figure out how to patch the leak in the roof.”

In addition to politics they also talked about their books, acquiescing to global audiences (they don’t) and Noah’s amazing mother who he talks about in the book.

“Let’s talk about Trevor’s mother,” Adichie said. “Trevor’s mother is such a remarkable woman. Oh my goodness! I want to meet her, I’m in awe of her. Seriously, I just think you’re so fortunate.”

“I read your book and something she said that was so powerful was, ‘I choose to have you.’ And that fact that she’s an ordinary Black South African woman who found something in herself to make this incredible, extraordinary decision… there’s nothing more beautifully feminist than that.”