Discover more from From Prathyush
On Chimamanda Adichie's Eloquent Dismissiveness
Is a writer not responsible for the hatefulness their perhaps well-intentioned words encourage and validate?
Last week I wrote about MF Husain, an artist I love to read about more than look at his paintings. That is a very interesting way to feel about an artist — moved more by their myth than their art. Maybe it’s because I have only seen one MF Husain painting up front, and that too was in a greasy cafe in a dense, hot city. It’s hard to be moved by anything in that context.
This week I wanted to write about the Chimamanda Adichie essay that everyone has been ranting and raving and retweeting about. It has that quality of a polemic — to strongly agree or disagree with — so the reactions aren’t surprising. Vox published a retort where they argue that Adichie’s tirades against cancel culture mask what prompted her reputation to be at the progressive gallows — her shaky statements on trans women. Here I am neither interested in calling her names, nor in rehabilitating her image. I am trying to think through some of her statements.
I think we are at an interesting point of time, when as a writer, writing isn’t enough, because reactions, counter-reactions, counter-counter-reactions are made in swift floods so immediately that it is easy for the original words to not mean anything, or indeed, mean something very different from what was intended i.e. a writer must, in addition to their words, however harmless they may be, have a compassionate sense of how those words are received, co-opted, and plugged into spaces of vitriol. This piece is about that. Write to me with your thoughts. With Adichie, everyone seems to have an opinion.
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s tense but spare An Artist Of The Floating World, set in post-WW2 Japan, I sensed an anxiety that, perhaps, every generation has felt as it ebbs towards extinction. The first-person narrator of the book is the artist Masuji Ono, a respected, revered even, artist of the 1930s who painted propaganda-patriotism through the war, only to be held responsible by a newer generation of post-war youth, frustrated at the bloodbath and the instant melting of flesh in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, blaming him and his generation for what they did, and what they didn’t. Ono's unreliable first-person narration gives all these young people the burnish of an ideologue, filled with rage. But Ono understands their aversion, having lost loved ones in the senseless bullet barter, and there is that muffled guilt that outlines his every declaration. But he is equally perplexed by how easily the newer generation is willing to part ways with any remnants of Japanese pride or nostalgia for the imperium, swerving decisively towards an American industrial proclivity. His own grandchild now watches and enjoys movies about cowboys. What happened to the Japan of the Meiji Restoration, the first country in the world to bring the “West” to its knees in the Russo-Japanese War? In a Paris Review interview, Ishiguro noted the seed for the story was simple, “An old teacher who has to rethink the values on which he’s built his life.”
But it’s not just the frame of the story that is interesting. It was how the book ends, not on a note of rancour, but a note of restrained hope. Ono is seated outside a bench of one of the buildings that sprung up in what was called the “Pleasure District” in his time. He looks at the young office workers, enthusiastic, strapped, industrious, hustling, and he only wishes them well.
This moment has stayed with me for the past few weeks since I read the book. When you don’t entirely understand where someone comes from, where their rhetorical rage comes from, can you still wish for them the best?
This book came hurtling back into my viewfinder when I read Chimamanda Adichie’s incredibly articulate and scorched-earth piece where she agonizes over the “cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give” of “certain young people”. It’s a piece that outlines how two of her students, to whom she had extended grace, kindness and mentorship, took to Twitter to outrage against her statements that they deemed trans-phobic. (Her site, where she uploaded the piece crashed because of the heavy traffic) The piece is not about what she said or what they said, as much as it is about the disjunct between the private and the public – and how the social media era incentivises us to have a virtual personality distinct and often different from who we are.
But when anyone levels a criticism against “young people” as a category I am always a little sceptical— is this coming from an older generation that is unable to place itself among the moral mores of a newer generation, like every other older generation has been unable to place itself among the moral mores of a newer generation?
Similarly, when anyone uses the word “woke” ironically, my alarm bells ring. When anyone uses the word “woke” unironically, however, I roll my eyes. I find myself part of that in-between generation where I empathize with the urgency but also am often frustrated with the reliance of rhetoric to make a moral point.
Coming back to Adichie’s piece, there is a shrillness to her eloquence here, as should be expected. She’s a gifted writer, her turns of phrases have a quality that leave you salivating. Here too there is that. But it also seems that she has weaponized (a word she hates) her eloquence, to distract you from what she's actually doing. These two specific instances irked me because Adichie, of all people, is nuanced enough to not flatten rhetoric and metaphors into literal clickbait pitchforks and then cry victim.
Adichie noted that one of her students, the writer Emezi (they/them), “asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me”. This was a reference to a Twitter thread in which they wrote: “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & [J.K.] Rowling seek to perpetuate. I, however, will be in my garden with butterflies, trying to figure out how to befriend the neighborhood crows.” Read in the context of the tweet thread, are we really expected to believe Adichie takes this to mean a literal call to violence?
Adichie noted that Emezi “believes me to be a murderer”. Emezi’s Tweet was, “When you try to deny children access to healthcare, you are trying to kill them. That's what Rowling supports, FYI, and by endorsing her, that's what Adichie also supports. Whether you want to admit that or not.” The leap of logic Adichie made to make a sensational point is quite frankly, disappointing.
What really pissed me off was at the end of her piece she asks for “the assumption of good faith”, and yet lends her flattening interpretation of rhetorical statements. What also irked me was how so many people have taken these two statements to be a literal call to arms, in brandishing their support to Adichie. Emezi, based on her writings online, is often prone to rhetorical excesses, and this is probably why I won’t ever read her books (4 books in 3 years!). Having seen her Instagram lives where she calls upon spirits and uses metaphors like it’s on wholesale discount, it’s easy to see that her statements too were exactly that — rhetorical excesses. Adichie weaponized, yes weaponized, this literary chink in Emezi’s armour and ran with it till her anger burned from the pages.
Womanhood As A Category Of Pain
Grace Lavery, a professor of Victorian Literature at Berkeley, who is trans and proud and whose saucy memoir Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis comes out next year, wrote a cutting (and quite, in parts, academic) response to JK Rowling’s Tweets and essays. What this piece does is, I think, shift the lens of the dialogue a little bit. And I want to use that lens. That instead of discussing Adichie’s “banal” takes, we see what kind of a system she has fostered with these takes. Because here, there’s less uncertainty.
I want to conclude with a contention of my own, for which I have no more evidence than a hunch and a few dozen conversations and anecdotes shared with my friends and allies in the LGBTQ community against whom, for whatever reason, you have declared war. We mostly don’t care whether “trans women are women,” and we have many positions on that. We mostly don’t care whether femaleness resides in the sexed body, or what “femaleness” is, or what “the sexed body” is, or what it means for a property to “reside” in a predicated object. We simply don’t believe you when you claim not to be transphobic, not because of these positions, but because of your failure to notice that your apparently blameless movement of frustrated common-sensers, has been infiltrated at every level by the kind of vicious, hostile bigots whose entire business is to defame and degrade the lives of trans women. From Maya Forstater to Graham Linehan, through the Heritage Foundation to WoLF, you have failed to address the hatred in your own ranks, and it is for that reason, and nothing to do with your banal opinions, that you must be called to account.
One of the reasons I love this characterization is because it broadens the scope of a writer. Like I noted in the introduction, as a writer in the plugged-in world we are in, to see the vitriol with which one’s opinions are used and weaponized by others, providing fuel to trolls, and to say nothing about it, makes it hard to believe in Adichie’s good-faith feminism. Indeed the fact that the two writers she noted, trans people, have been at the heckling call of transphobic Twitter mobs this entire week (Emezi’s new book is going to press soon, and she is dealing with this instead) is testament to this. The fact that Adichie thought JKR’s piece was “perfectly reasonable” in worrying about what will happen “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman” makes it hard to believe that she even cares for the trans community in a tangible sense that improves their lives.
A clarification here vis-a-vis Adichie, though. She noted that “trans women are trans women” and not that “trans women are not women”. A lot of the people calling her transphobic are conflating the two, which she has clarified on her odd Facebook post. She noted that trans women are different from cis women and while the intent to bunch them under the single category of “woman” for larger mainstream acceptance is good, we should be comfortable with diversity and not be “disingenuous”, and thus differentiate between cis woman and trans women. It's a fair point. There is nothing to gain by believing that cis and trans women are the same, and have the same needs.
I used the word “odd” about the post because, as my friend noted quite eloquently, her entry point into feminism seems to be only loss. She seems to define womanhood and femininity entirely in terms of lacking, a category of pain. Of course we have often asked ourselves “What makes me a boy or a girl?” growing up, and the answers would often be inadequate, because boy/girl is a social category which is protean, shapeless, and takes the form you want it to, contingent on the society you grow up in. But to define oneself entirely in terms of deprivation?
“Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning.” — Adichie
She uses this framework to then argue that trans women are first, born into make privilege. This is calculated, because male privilege as an abstract idea cannot be quantified. But the truth is is that privilege is reflected, and indeed is based on a reality that can be captured, somewhat, in statistics. And if she were to use statistics where a woman’s lack of privilege is reflected — suicide rates, murder rates, sexual assault, domestic violence — she would realize that trans women are perhaps winning the competition of despair. Nor does she note how lack of female privilege itself isn't uniform, that variables of class, caste, gender presentation, networking, education all play a role. (Because if she did, biological sex at birth would just be another variable of this privilege, trivialising her argument) But she chooses to root her argument in the abstract, instead. Why an argument about real people’s lives being lived on the margins is being made in the abstract, is a good question. (A comment on her Facebook post made a nice comparison, that you wouldn’t call a gay man in the closet living with heterosexual privilege. Then why this?)
That trans women need to be accorded basic privileges of using the restroom they feel comfortable in, to not be fired from jobs, to be able to even be hired for jobs, to have access to healthcare, higher education, mental health resources, and that for this to happen they need to be mainstreamed and that Adichie feels uncomfortable about this because of the semantic sadness of the word “womanhood” is a little, well, odd. Her intent is not to hurt or abuse trans people, but her words are encouraging exactly that kind of behaviour, and she has nothing to say for it, the same way JKR has nothing to say when Graham Linehan, for whose support she is “grateful”, spews the most vile hate towards a trans woman. Which makes what Lavery says about JKR true for how I feel about Adichie. I simply don’t believe her when she says she is not transphobic.