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Must Read: New Non-fiction From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Feminine Mistake”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahWe Should All Be FeministsThe Thing Around Your NeckHalf of a Yellow Sun Purple Hibiscus

 
In a new piece titled “The Feminine Mistake”, written for More magazine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes her childhood admiration for her Aunty Chinwe, and how her feelings towards her aunt changed over the years, along with her changing understanding of what it means to be a feminist in a patriarchal society.

Adichie says her aunt had “an air of endless tolerance, of magnanimous grace”; she was an elegant, confident woman, a perfect wife and an excellent nurse.

When Adichie is 15, however, her aunt casually tells her to “Sit like a woman, my dear”, and she begins to realise that even her aunt is subject to the “rituals for which you received mainstream approval”.

When, at a large party held for her husband’s birthday, a woman “drunk from many bottles of Guinness stout” tells Aunty Chinwe about a secret son her husband has had with another woman, she remains outwardly calm, and only cries in secret. Adichie overhears family members praising her aunt for her restraint: “Why fight about it and raise more dust?”

“Why did her response have to be tidy to be admired?” Adichie wonders. “Why had she not raged at the world in her humiliation, and if she had, why would that not be admirable? It seemed to me more human, more honest. She asked nothing of the man she loved, and this was seen as praiseworthy. To love was to give, but surely to love was also to take. Why did she not take? Why dared she not take? Why did her perfection depend on her not taking?”

Adichie concludes:

My feelings toward Aunty Chinwe then began to curdle. The attributes I had once so admired now irked me. What I thought her ethereal niceness became merely an addiction to the shallow rewards that the world reserved for females who hid certain parts of themselves. Most of all, her experience frightened me, confused me, because she was not easy to explain.

I was 15 and naive, full of the uncompromising certainties of youth. I would come later to admire her again and seek her wisdom at different times in my life. I would come to realize that Aunty Chinwe was not the problem; our society was. It was not about individual women but about the forces in the world that made those women shrink themselves. Aunty Chinwe taught me that wealth did not shield a woman from those forces. Nor did education or beauty. She helped shape my resolve to live my femaleness as the glorious and complex thing that it is. To reject “because you are a woman” as a valid reason for anything. To strive to be my truest, most humane self, but never twist myself into shapes to court the approval of the world.

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Photo courtesy PEN American Center

 

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