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PEN World Voices Festival As It Happened: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Freedom to Write Lecture

By Kay Iguh

For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here

It’s no small coincidence that this year’s PEN World Voices Festival theme was “On Africa.” Given the films celebrated at this week’s African Film Festival, and the literature, food, fashion, and striking visual arts coming out of Africa today, the continent really does seem to be entering a renaissance. It’s also no coincidence that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered this year’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on May 10, the festival’s closing night. As I scanned the Great Hall at Cooper Union, I saw that every type of person was represented: gay men and women, interracial couples, Africans and Asians, the old and the young, Americans and foreigners. I, like Adichie, am Nigerian, a woman, and black. When Adichie took the stage, the reception was not the demure clapping one expects at literary events; rather, it was a reception fit for the Beatles or Rolling Stones. The place was electric.

It speaks to the transcendence of Adichie’s work that such a diverse group of people should receive her so fondly. When Nigeria passed its so-called Anti-Gay Bill in 2014, Adichie spoke out against it. Her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” was sampled on a Beyonce album, and at a TED Global event, Adichie warned us of the dangers of a single story. Having such strong views, especially in a country as conservative as Nigeria, does not go without consequence. Yet, as a citizen, and especially as an artist, Adichie refuses to censor herself. “There is already enough silencing in public discourse,” says Adichie, and this is certainly true when the topic is race, and especially when the conversation is in America.

It is our addiction to comfort that demands our silence regarding certain truths. Too often in America, Adichie claimed, “the goal of public discourse is comfort, not truth.” Comfort, Adichie said, also demands “international digestibility,” a reduction of complicated stories to a simple narrative. In the lecture, Adichie also warned of the silencing that is sometimes a product of social media outrage. When Boko Haram kidnapped an estimated 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, social media rang round with the chant “Bring Back Our Girls,” and yet somehow this had the effect of closing the conversation on Boko Haram. This condemnation is reductive because it doesn’t acknowledge Boko Haram’s countless other victims. The catch phrase became a metonym for the terrorist group, and because we understood the phrase, we felt we also understood the group and its activities.

Adichie equates censorship to telling half a story, neglecting context, and forcing a new story into pre-existing molds. When a foreign news agency tells an African story, it lacks the specificity and nuance an African could bring to that same story, and it is a great disservice to those receiving the story. The Western gaze stifles the discourse on Africa. The antidote Adichie calls for: “African stories told by African people.” This shows that there is need for a renewed sense of African citizenship and responsibility. As Africans, the burden falls finally on us to tell our own stories.

Video of the lecture can be found on the PEN Website.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Rahma Abdul Majid's "From Mace Mutum" (WWB's October 2013 Issue) 

For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here

Published May 13, 2015   Copyright 2015 Kay Iguh

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