You’ll recall that one of the biggest controversies in the African literary community involved Chimamanda Adichie and Nigerian blogger, Elnathan John. (click here if you missed it.)
In an interview with the American blogger, Aaron Bady, Adichie referred to Elnathan as “one of my boys.” He fired back with a set of tweets accusing Adichie of being condescending. But what really did it was the strangely racy blogpost he wrote titled “The Consequence of Loving Ngozi.” In the post, Adichie was a cocoyam-skinned femme fatale sending him “manhood-shrinking emails.” A piece she’ll later call “misogynistic” and “insulting”—which to be fair, it was.
This all took place in 2013.
Fast-forward to March 12, 2015—almost two years later—and this interview with Chiagoze Nwonwu surfaces online, in which Adichie opens up, calling Elnathan an “attack dog” and suggesting that he was an ungrateful protege.
So what did she say happened?
Like the masterful storyteller that she is, Adichie starts from the very beginning. [Click here to read her account]
The long and short is that she first met Elnathan at a Farafina Workshop, which she runs.
She took an interest in him, partly because he had promise and partly because he was a Northerner. “I have always particularly wanted to support writers from the North,” she remarks, “because I think we don’t have as many stories coming from Northern Nigeria as we do from Southern Nigeria.”
But she had her reservations. Apparently, Elnathan had a chip on his shoulder, and it irked her. “He often acted very superior to the other workshop participants in a way that was unpleasant.”
Workshop over. Adichie and Elnathan become email buddies…sort of.
From time to time, he’d send her drafts of his work. Her responses were kind but erratic. Some of his emails, she’d later say, were “falsely extra-nice and borderline sycophantic.”
Notwithstanding, in the spirit of literary mentorship, she ended up introducing him to her own agent—something she says she regrets and have since stopped doing.
Adichie’s agent—one of the best in the world—was interested in Elnathan’s work but didn’t seem to have been blown away. She suggested that Elnathan continue working on his writing.
What appears to be a cordial mentor-mentee relationship had its first hiccup when Elnathan tweeted a quote—written by someone else—bashing Adichie’s natural hair campaign. (Could this be what she had in mind?)
Anyway, Elnathan sent apologies after apologies. In his own account of the story, he “sent her three…manhood-shrinking replies, first denials, then explanations, then begging and groveling.”
It was after this episode that, according to Adichie, Elnathan went from being a protege to “an attack dog.”
Then came the infamous interview with Aaron bady, during which she says: “Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop.” [click here to read full interview]
She insists that she didn’t use the term, “boy,” in a demeaning way. She was merely being playful and affectionate.
Besides, Elnathan’s public grandstanding seemed to her a tad out of place. After all, she points out, “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.”
Given what she referred to as Elnathan’s “borderline sycophantic” gestures towards her, she felt that his “attack piece” was little more than a “cynical attempt to grab attention for himself.”
She also felt unfairly judged by onlookers. People just assumed she was in the wrong simply because she was more popular than he was.
To be fair to Elnathan, he has always been open about the power differential that defined his relationship with Adichie. He had put her up on a pedestal, it appears. In fact, in the so-called “attack piece,” Elnathan opens up about all what Adichie is saying here about his sycophancy. It might be that Adichie is trying to shame Elnathan by saying all this stuff about his sycophantic emails and how he has knelt down to thank her. But I’m not even going to throw shade on Elnathan for that.
What Adichie is calling Elnathan’s sycophancy is a reflection of the power play that defines the Nigerian society—a place where groveling and sycophancy are accepted and, sometimes, required ways of getting favors. It also says that there might be a bit of the god-father syndrome in the African literary scene—which would make Adichie this “oga at the top” doling out literary opportunities to people who stayed loyal to her. I’m not saying that’s what happened here or that Adichie sees herself as an “oga at the top.” But it does seem like it was pretty clear to both Adichie and Elnathan that their relationship was never one between equals.
On the other hand, I’m still reeling with confusing, trying to figure out why Elnathan handled things the way he did. He could easily have emailed Adichie to let her know that the “boy” statement pissed him off. After all, when Adichie had issues with his comments about her hair campaign, she didn’t take it public. She sent him an email. That’s how grown-ups deal with issues. The “attack piece” was clearly an overkill. It was undignified, sexist, and altogether unnecessary.
What do you guys think?