Nigeria author, Chimamanda Ngozie-Adichie, known for her books that cut across geographical space, tribe or racial segmentation, was recently awarded an honorary degree by the Duke University of United States, California.
Ngozie-Adichie was awarded the degree alongside other luminaries like General Motors chairman and chief executive officer, Mary Barra; former Durham Mayor William Bell; the lead architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Dr Phil Freelon; Professor of Medicine at Dana-Faber Institute and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Havard Medical School, William Kaelin, and Russel M. Robinson II, who is an attorney, community leader and philanthropist.
A citation posted on Duke University read out by Duke President Vincent E. Price at the conferment ceremony reads: “Duke is proud to recognise the contributions that this distinguished group has made to society. They each have been bold leaders in their respective fields, and their work has enriched and improved our lives. I am delighted to have the honour of awarding their degrees, and I am certain that the graduating Class of 2018 will be inspired by their example.”
As expected, it was Ngozie-Adichie who stole the limelight as an African writer who, against all odds, has had her ingenuity defying long held stereotypes about Africa and black women in general.
Recognised as a voice of both contemporary African and global Anglophone fiction, Ngozie-Adichie is the author of three novels -- “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006) and “Americanah” (2013).
“Americanah” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named one of The New York Time’s Ten Best Books of the Year. It was also chosen as the first-year summer reading assignment for Duke’s Class of 2018.
Ngozie-Adichie earned a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001, a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins in 2004 and a master’s degree in African Studies from Yale in 2008.
Being given an honorary degree is not a mean achievement for the Nigerian author who is on schools reading lists and counts Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce Knowles as her fans. She has indeed made Africa and her native Nigeria proud by her excellent creative work and her stand on striving the debunking of stereotypes that have over the years stifled social, political and economic mobility of women worldwide.
At a PEN lecture in Manhattan last month, the novelist is reported to have taken Hillary Clinton to task for beginning her Twitter bio with “Wife, mom, grandma” and yet her husband doesn’t begin with the word “husband”. Hillary promised to change how the bio starts.
Why wouldn’t Hillary not listen to an international bestseller whose first book, “Purple Hibiscus”, was published when she was just 26 years? The book was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker; and she went on to win the 2006 Orange prize for “Half of a Yellow Sun” and was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, something next to a genius grant, and her work is now a fixture on American schools reading lists.
Most track Ngozie-Adichie's phenomenal rise to stardom to her sensational 2013 TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”. It was that TED talk that firmly thrust her as avowed feminist and an authority on issues to do with women experiences.
Ngozie-Adichie is a complex character. She lives in both Maryland and Lagos and has an explanation for that. “I couldn’t be happy living entirely in Nigeria or living entirely in America,” she says of her duo “homes”.
On writing “Americanah” Adichie says the inspiration came from her American experience. She “became black” when she moved to the US as a student because there was not that consciousness when living in Nigeria.
Ngozi-Adichie has had such a strong impact on young women across the globe particularly with her; “Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions" (published in paperback) in which she writes that she is angrier about sexism than she is about racism.
“I don’t think sexism is worse than racism, it’s impossible even to compare,” she explains.
“It’s that I feel lonely in my fight against sexism, in a way that I don’t feel in my fight against racism. My friends, my family, they get racism, they get it. The people I’m close to who are not black get it. But I find that with sexism you are constantly having to explain, justify, convince, (and) make a case for.”
It would be difficult not to like this little book, which glitters with all Adichie’s usual warmth and sanity and forthrightness. Her friend Ijeawele had asked her how she could bring her baby daughter up as a feminist and in response Adichie wrote the book.
“It felt like too huge a task” and “she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing”.
Ngozi-Adichie made a list of 15 suggestions. One of them is that Ijeawele must be a full person and not let motherhood alone define her: she should go back to work if she wants to, and love “the confidence and self-fulfilment that come with doing and earning.”
She should share childcare equally, and not thank her husband for changing their daughter’s nappy, nor complain about the way he does it, either. They should never tell their daughter not to do something “because she’s a girl”; they shouldn’t encourage her to aim at getting married, as if it were an achievement in itself.
One of the most compelling injunctions in Adichie’s manifestos is to encourage girls to “reject likability”.
Unsurprisingly, language, for Adichie, is a feminist issue, at its most sneaky when it comes to pregnancy and parenting, a verb she dislikes. She despises words such as “baby bump” as “diminishing”, preventing proper discussion of serious issues such as the gender pay gap and maternity leave.
Adichie says so many women have been pushed down by pregnancy and calls for a clause in every job that a woman who gets pregnant gets her job back in the exactly the same way. And for her, gender is a social construction: “I don’t think I am more inherently likely to do domestic work, or childcare…It does come pre-programmed in your vagina, right?”
It is my humble submission that the honour bestowed by Duke University by giving her an honorary degree befits her contribution in shaping public opinion of critical issues like gender and marked stereotypes that shape people’s sensibilities.