For the month of March, Chimamanda Adichie has been sharing her fashion outfit of the day [OOTD] pictures with Vogue UK and her fashionista fans around the world. But a new interview with Olisa.tv, in which the award winning writer speaks about a misunderstanding with writer Elnathan John, has sparked controversy amongst the Nigerian literati.
Elnathan is also a Nigerian writer, well known online for the satirical pieces on his blog, including How to Show Nigerian Love and others. He is also a famous Twitteratti, and among his viral tweets is an episode where he ranted about Chimamanda's natural hair campaign.
On another occassion, he responded to her calling him 'one of her boys' in an interview with a flurry of tweets and a blog post calling her condescending and writing about how he had fawned over her and been rebuffed harshly. These happened in 2013, and at that time, Chimamanda did not respond publicly to his public outrage.
But now she is in this new interview with Olisa.tv where she also talks about being hurt by the Guardian publishing her personal memoir about Depression, and being sampled by Beyonce. When asked about the episode with Elnathan, Chimamanda goes into a lot of detail, though no names were mentioned, as she talks about why she chose not to speak out at that time. Below is an excerpt.
On where she was when the controversy raged and her response;
I remember I was at home when a friend came by and saw me having dinner with family and friends and he said – ah you are here laughing and eating while they are talking about you online. I remember later being amused because I thought: so now I’m not supposed to eat?
I asked him what was going on and he told me that this person who had been at my workshop the year before had written a misogynistic, insulting piece about me because he was angry that I had referred to him as ‘one of my boys at the workshop’ in an interview. I was very surprised.
First, I have to give some background: This person applied to my workshop and was accepted. I was interested in one of the early pieces he wrote at the workshop, which was about homosexuality and was progressive in tone. He was from the North and I have always particularly wanted to support writers from the North because I think we don’t have as many stories coming from Northern Nigeria as we do from Southern Nigeria and if we are going to make any sense of Nigeria as a nation, we need more stories. More human stories, not just check-the-box journalism. Especially from the minorities in the North, because it is easy to think of the North as one huge monolith.
So it was the major reason I chose to support him. I remember telling him at the workshop that a lot of his work was about provoking for the sake of provoking which I thought was hollow. He seemed more focused on the response he could elicit than on the integrity of the story he was telling.
I also remember that he often acted very superior to the other workshop participants in a way that was unpleasant. As far as I was concerned, if you choose to apply to a workshop that I am teaching, then you are a student like everyone else. And all the students are there because they have talent, you can learn from anyone and you really should save your superiority until you have actually published something worthwhile.
Anyway, after the workshop, another workshop alum sent me a story that this person had written, which the alum thought I should see because it was good. I also thought it was good. So I took my time, read it and sent this person an email saying he needed to make some edits but that I thought he should get it published. Time passed. He wrote me from time to time. I did not always reply because I am often overwhelmed and am quite terrible with emails. But I wrote back a few times, to send him my good wishes, to encourage him to keep writing, that sort of thing. His emails were always very polite. Mine were always warm and encouraging. He sent me a collection of stories that he had finished writing. I then decided to introduce him to my agent.
On introducing workshop attendees to her agent;
I certainly don’t do it often. And by the way, I don’t do it anymore. I asked my agent to please contact him and to look at his collection. She read his stories and thought he still needed to do some more work on them. The idea was that if he revised them or wrote something else, he would send to her. He now had the possibility of being represented by one of the best literary agents in the world. For this story to continue making sense, we have to go back to another story about natural hair.
On the relationship between the natural hair controversy and the ‘one of my boys’ controversy…
Well, yes, because it was the last communication I had with this person before he turned into an attack dog. After somebody put out that headline about weaves and low self-esteem, I was told that people were tweeting this quote that I had never said, and that this person had tweeted it as well.
So I wrote to him and told him I expected better from him, that I was disappointed he would join a bandwagon in repeating what I never said. I expected that somebody like him would be astute enough to go and read the actual interview.
He wrote back and was very apologetic, effusively apologetic, and said he had not actually been referring to me and that his tweets had been misunderstood. I believed him.
That was the last communication I had with him. Which is why I was astonished to hear, later, that he had written this attack piece about how I had called him ‘boy’ in an interview. He knew that there was no way I meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way. It was a playful and affectionate way of saying that he was a protégé of sorts. Which at the time he was.
This was somebody I had been helpful to and supportive of. This is somebody who once knelt down in front of me as a greeting, in public, to show how grateful he was for my support. He didn’t have to write a public attack piece, he could have written me himself if he genuinely minded the ‘boy.’ I don’t often use the word immoral but I think what he did was immoral.
What he wrote was apparently so full of ugly innuendo that people said to me that there must be some “back story.” There was of course no “back story.”
Some of my friends told me that I should release all the emails I had ever exchanged with him. Because to anyone who saw those emails, seeing that he had spent months being (in hindsight) falsely extra-nice and borderline sycophantic, it would be obvious that his ‘outrage’ about being called boy was a cynical attempt to grab attention for himself. But I decided against it. It just wasn’t worth the emotional energy. I also didn’t want to feel that I had to ‘open’ my private space because of this person’s cynical action.
I cannot blame the public for their response. To be honest if I were an observer I think I too would have taken on that outrage of ‘how dare she call him boy.’ I used to automatically think that there was virtue in the non-famous person and vice in the famous person. If you read the interview in which I referred to him as ‘one of my boys’ in its proper context and with an open mind, it is clear that I am being very pro Nigerian nationalist and also mocking Nigerian nationalism at the same time. But I can easily see how people would take on an outrage. We live in an age of easy shallow outrage. It’s a case of ‘what is the twitter outrage of the day?’ Many people don’t even read the original article that is being referenced before they join the outrage bandwagon. And remember the source of outrage was not my actual referring to him as ‘one of my boys’ but his own piece about it. I am sure many people read his piece and so I can’t blame them at all for then attacking me. I am told he referred to me as a cocoyam of some sort. An unfortunate choice of metaphors, by the way. I had hoped he might have learned better at my workshop.
El-Nathan John has responded to the online back and forth with a series of tweets as follows;
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is, and will remain one of the most important writers and personalities of our generation.
— Elnathan John (@elnathan) March 12, 2015
Few friends. Very few friends. Good friends. Very good friends. That is all one needs.
— Elnathan John (@elnathan) March 12, 2015
Why I am on Twitter: 1. Attention 2. Laughs 3. To promote my writing 4. To talk about my body But mostly attention. Love it.
— Elnathan John (@elnathan) March 12, 2015
He also pinned this past tweet of his to the top of his Twitter feed;
Chimamanda Photo Credit - Vogue UK