I recently had the great fortune of hearing her speak live! I left feeling her grace, humility and culture. Here are some highlights:
The Danger of a Single Story is alive and well
When asked if the subject of her important TED talk was on the wane (seriously, I couldn’t believe anyone would ask that!), Chimamanda spoke about how Africa is still mentioned as a country, written about in terms of war/poverty/violence and the only referenced in women’s magazines is when a celebrity goes to an African country to “help”. She strengthened her points about the press being especially irresponsible when writing about African countries, despite there being a tsunami of information available as a result of the internet and social media. She feels that access to the web provides even less of an excuse for poor writing.
“Labels are not quite value free”
This was Chimamande’s perfect reply when questioned about how she identifies herself – as an African writer or Nigerian writer. (My response, as a Melibee, was frustration at the question. Why does she need to be labeled?) And like a true Melibee, she answered that she does not associate with anything but writer. Apparently, we both agree that labels can be limiting! What inspires her to write? Sometimes it is rage; she gets so angry that she has to write about it. I could definitely relate to that too! She also talked about identity being “fluid” and how it changes depending on where you are and the emotions that you’re feeling.
She likes her personal space
I had the pleasure of asking her to share a story based on reflecting on her experiences with culture shock as a student in the United States. (Chills! I got to ask her a question!) I am still laughing at her response – it was as authentic as they come! She said that when you have an accent, the locals forget that THEY also have accents too! She said every time she met her international student adviser, the woman would talk to her very slowly and over-enunciate. Chimamanda thought at the time, “Why is she talking funny to me?” and guessed that her adviser thought she was an idiot! Then she put on a horrifically playful American accent and mimicked her adviser, “Ah-MER-i-cans like their personal space.” Chimamanda said that she thought to herself, “Well, so do I!” The audience laughed hysterically and I smiled, knowing how many times I’ve seen that type of conversation in colleges over the years.
Why Service Learning is a problem
Chimamande once again channeled Better Abroad when she spoke about how many Americans go abroad to “aid” – but don’t pay enough attention to WHY they’re interested in serving abroad, which she says is often to “feel good.” She asked some provocative questions to challenge the notion that Africans are helpless such as – “Can’t Malawians build a well themselves – do they really need to import college students?” She referenced the countless issues of privilege that exist in this type of programming and then hit it home by telling us the truth: showing up for 10 days and leaving isn’t helping anyone.
There is nothing quite like being able to thank an author for putting their words onto paper for the world to see. Her book of short stories, “The Thing Around Your Neck” is one of my favorites – and I reread it again after hearing her speak. If you haven’t read Chimamanda’s writing yet, it is a great book to begin with. Click here for a link to the book on Amazon.