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At the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, held 15-17 April, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about “a powerful man in the media” who sexually harassed her in 1994. (Read the full transcription below).

She was only 17 then, had just finished poetry collection she describes as “really bad poetry,” and had taken it to the man to help her promote it. The man praised her for writing a book at 17.

And then.

“He got up from his desk and walked to where I was seated, and he stood behind me. And in a move as swift as it was shocking, he slipped his hand under my buttoned-down shirt, under my bra, and squeezed my breast,” Adichie says.

“I was so taken aback that I did nothing for seconds, then I pushed his hand away, but gently, nicely, because I didn’t want to offend him. Later that day, I broke into a rash, on my chest, my neck, my face, as though my body were recoiling, as though my body was saying what my lips had not said. I felt a deep loathing for that man and for what he did. I felt as if I didn’t matter, as if my body existed merely as a thing to done with as he wanted.

“Yet I told no one about it, and I kept talking to him, being polite, hoping he would help with my book.”

She later revealed that it was the first time in 24 years that she was sharing the story.

Watch the video above. Adichie is introduced at 3:42:00. Hers was the closing keynote address at the event.

As this had happened in 1994, we are unsure if this “book of really bad poetry” was Decisions, her first published book back in 1997.

Adichie is the second high-profile writer to add her personal story to the #MeToo movement, after Dominican novelist Junot Diaz who, last week, wrote about being raped by a man at 9 in an essay in The New Yorker.

***

Full Transcription of the Stockholm speech: 

When I was 17 years old, I wrote a book of poetry, really bad poetry, that I now hope that nobody will every read, but true to the delusional ambition of youth I thought that this was a wonderful book. In Nigeria, when a book is published, it is customary to have a book launch to introduce the book to the public and so I set about planning a book launch for this terrible book of poems. There was a powerful man in the media who I knew would help with this book launch and so I found my way into his office in Lagos, and I told him about my book. “Would he please support the boo?”I asked.
 
He was very impressed, he told me. While other teenagers were hardly reading at all, I was serious enough and focused enough to have written a book. He was pleasant, avuncular, warm. And then he got up from his desk, and walked around to where I was seated and stood behind me and in a move that was as swift as it was shocking, he slipped his hand under my buttoned-down shirt, under my bra, and squeezed my breast. I was so taken aback that I did nothing for seconds. Then I pushed his hands away but gently, nicely, because I didn’t want to offend him. Later that day, I broke into a rash on my chest, my neck, my face as though my body were recoiling, as though my body were saying what my lips had not said. I felt a deep loathing for that man and for what he did. I felt as if I didn’t matter, as if my body existed merely as a thing to be done with as he wanted. Yet I told no one about it, and I kept talking to him, being polite, hoping he would help with my book.

I was a feminist long before I knew what the word meant. I didn’t read feminist texts. I just simply watched the world. I knew that the world did not give to women the same dignities that it gave to men. I was aware of how much the socialization of women was focused on men. Don’t wear a mini skirt or a man would rape you. Learn to cook and clean so you can keep a man. Don’t be too ambitious so you don’t intimidate a man. Don’t always say what you really think so that you can protect a man’s ego.

I’ve felt heartened by the #MeToo movement because it means that finally women’s stories are being believed, because there are now real consequences for the men who harass women, because for too long women did not tell their stories because they felt that they would not be believed or that they would somehow be blamed. But much as I am happy about the consequences men now face I increasingly find myself thinking about the women. How do we think about restitution? Is restitution even possible?

I know a woman whose professor at university asked her for sex in order to give her a passing grade. She was very intelligent and very hard working. She turned him down. She was sure he couldn’t possibly give her a failing grade because she would do too well on the exam. But he did give her a failing grade. It was her final year in university in Nigeria. She needed a certain GPA to apply for the job of her dreams, but she didn’t have that GPA because of the failing grade. And today she is an unhappy person, working at a job she dislikes but has to keep because she has to earn a living. Now if that man had not done what he did, what would she have been today, I sometimes wonder. Might she have become a successful and fulfilled person? Because of that man’s action, because of the injustice that this woman faced resentment will always be a part of her life story. How do we measure resentment? How do we measure the complexity of women’s experiences?

We are after all human beings. We are not a collection of logical bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. Our motivations are not easily measurable or easily quantifiable. For me, it is the story, the narrative, that can begin to reach these subtler and necessary parts of women’s experiences. We should change laws that diminish women but changing mindsets is as important. We should enact policy that supports women but changing cultural attitudes is even more important.

Why didn’t I speak up right away about that man in Lagos? Why haven’t I spoken about it until today? It is infuriating to me to hear men and some women who respond to a woman’s story of her harassment with the question why is she coming out now?  Or the question why didn’t she report it right away? Why didn’t she do something earlier? And maybe it makes logical sense, the kind of logical, bloodless sense that is completely lacking in context, to immediately report an episode of harassment, but of course the reality of lived experience is very different.

While I’ve been very happy, if happy is a word that one can use about the #MeToo movement, about #MeToo, I’ve also felt concerned about the way it’s been covered in the media and by the abstract language often used in the media. In the US, I would read the news and think “what does sexual misconduct mean exactly?” I wanted the story. I wanted the detail. Because it is storytelling that creates context. It is the story that provides a kind of detail that can educate people. And it seems to me we all need some education in the subject of sexual harassment. It is the story that makes it difficult to silence women. It is storytelling, all of its nuance and all of its complexity, that can make clear the difference between sexual harassment and what isn’t sexual harassment, that can make clear that when sexual harassment happens, it is much about power than it is about sex, and I think it is storytelling that can make clear that women know the difference between what is consensual and what is not.

I was also troubled by how much of the media coverage of women was done in ways that aligned with the tradition of what a woman should be: women crying, women helpless. Yes of course there were women who were crying and helpless, but there were also women who were filled with cold rage. But the media coverage didn’t show that. I feared that it risked infantilizing women and that it aligned with that idea that for a woman to be deserving of sympathy in a subject like sexual harassment, she has to be as non-threatening as possible. I hope that the #MeToo movement would become the beginning of a real revolution, one that would end with women finally, finally being full autonomous human beings in the world.

But there is still so much work to do. It’s wonderful to have laws that expect a father to take time off to care for a new child, which I hear happens in the Scandinavian region. But how does society really think of that man who takes a lot of paternity leave, that man who stays home while the woman works. Do we really see it as completely neutral? Is domestic work really gender neutral? Or do women still do a majority of it? The politics of domestic arrangement matters very much because the discourse around women and work is really about domestic work. If the traditional expectations were not that caregiving and domestic work were primarily for women then there would be no need for us to have conversations about “can a woman have it all?” Because we never speak about whether a man can have it all.

I have a friend who is in an ostensibly equal marriage. Both of them work. Both of them are progressive, but she does most of the childcare, the cooking, and she handles the children’s school arrangements and that sort of thing. And she said she was fine with this until one evening when she realized that her husband did not know where the children’s socks were kept. And that was the moment she felt enraged. But she also said that when he did try to do the housework she sometimes felt uncomfortable or overly grateful or certain that he wouldn’t get it right.  And then she’d be full of resentment. How do we measure this insidious and lingering effect of social conditioning that women go through? How do we account for the ways in which societal conditioning holds women back?

Literature is my religion, and I’ve learned from literature that all of us human beings are flawed, and I’ve also learned that all of us have the possibility of redemption. We can remake the world. I believe that. We can remake masculinity. We can change it from this narrow cage that traps men into an inhumane idea. We can expect men to be vulnerable. We can give men the language of emotion. We can teach men to respect the autonomy of women. We can encourage little boys to cry. We can create a world where women can be full sexual beings, where slut shaming never happens, where women face no backlash for being bold, for being angry, or for being aggressive, for being ambitious. We can create a world where there are many women in real positions of power because representation matters. I think Sweden might have started off fairly okay, but there is still a long way to go. There is such a thing as a female Prime Minister, Sweden.

We can make a world where there is no such thing as a pregnancy penalty for a woman who works. We can make a world where we all collectively support those human beings whose bodies do the difficult and physical work of ensuring that the human species does not become extinct. I have a two and a half year old daughter. And I really hope that she lives in a world that is better than the world that I live in. Thank you.

 

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OTOSIRIEZE is a writer, literary journalist, former academic, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. A judge for the 2019 Gerald Kraak Award, he is an editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective which has published two volumes: WE ARE FLOWERS and THE INWARD GAZE. He is the curator of ART NAIJA SERIES, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness: ENTER NAIJA: THE BOOK OF PLACES (October, 2016) focuses on cities in Nigeria; WORK NAIJA: THE BOOK OF VOCATIONS (June, 2017) focuses on professions in Nigeria. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and the Gerald Kraak Award, both in 2016, and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. He attended the 2018 Miles Morland Foundation Creative Writing Workshop. He has completed a collection of short stories, YOU SING OF A LONGING, and is working on a novel. He is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He combined history and literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. When bored, the boy just Googles Rihanna. Find him at otosirieze.com, where he accepts editing and writing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze.

4 Responses to ““I Pushed His Hand Away…Gently”: Chimamanda Adichie on Being Sexually Harassed at 17” Subscribe

  1. Moo 2018/04/19 at 08:32 #

    Firstly, wow and secondly Adichie is so right; rape is never about rape but about men controlling women,about “putting them in their place”, and saying you can be as feminist and strong and wonderful as you want and make all the gains, but I’m going to find a way to make this-your moment of glory, your life-about me, to leave you with a memory of me that two decades later, you will recall.

    That’s what people don’t understand about gender based violence. The effects remain with you forever-and even if you integrate that trauma and let it make you stronger you must still live with the often infinitely re-wound opening trauma of everyday sexism, this subtle reminder again that no matter who you think you are or what justice you individually may have gotten-I, the man still run the world and because me and my friends run the world I am free to do to you as I please without your consent.

    That said, the rape and the trauma, the abuse will not end… unless men stop…but in this society they have absolutely no incentive, moral will, or self reflection to and have thus far not demonstrated any significant commitment or revolutionary thinking capacity to doing so-especially heterosexual, heteronormative men sorry to say.

    So- it’s time to create a society without them, a society centred on women and women’s own vision of themselves and their lives and their world and to include men (and all those women who get by on oppressing other women) this society rather than the other way around, rather than women having to adapt-to become “strong”, to “heal”, to “get over it/”-a society that values vulnerability over FALSE strength (true strength comes from being comfortable with vulnerability-with speaking your mind and how you feel and think and listening and understanding other), creativity and creation over destruction and the forms of ‘rationality” that have created them (from weapons to legal-rational judicial systems that are based not on morality but on maintaining the status quo-never truly punishing those people and things that actually harm others like ABUSE of power vis a vis gay marriage etc), a world where love and relationships amongst both men and women and men and men are not about dominion or conquering, or showing off, but about freedom and allowing each other to be and giving rather than just taking through this gross sense of entitlement.

    This all means many things in the (somehwat) practical sense beyond holding men accountable for the short term:

    -Changing what we teach children in school and young adults in universities, and centering curriculum on contributing to the world rather than going out and making it out for yourself and polluting the planet. In this curriculum Art should be compulsory-self expression and connecting to others and one own’s emotions-nurturing the propensity to create. In this curriculum their will also be a lot of group activities, and personal engagement in these group activities so say a term long project where you have to create a cheap and safe alternative to paraffin stoves or write a piece on something. I dunno.
    -Rewarding and incentivising companies and nurturing “industries” that also contribute to rather than take from society and I’m not talking about donating here and there or fake “social entrepenurship”, i’m talking about industries (like the Arts) for instance where a key requirement of the job is to treat people as people (improve, care for and contribute to their lives in a serious way-includingn colleagugues), and to come to work and just be a person, and to create (even though of course in the Arts we find people who as Adichie points out do such horredous things and are susceptible to such small-minded objectification-hence it starts with thought again)
    -I want to say changing the law but I think changing the essence of the law is better-not a law based on individual rights or property, or surveilance but on a communal understanding how we want to live together-on Social Justice, on ensuring all human beings live a dignified life and that we have in place a SYSTEM that allows this and holding our leaders accountable when they try to impose a system that does otherwise-“law focused” not on punishment but on pro-actively changing society and helping people become better humans. So not even law but agreement amongst people and not the state and individual, and decided by the people.

    The me too movement is not only important because it’s about OUR experiences but also it opens up so much conversation about the society we’re in right now in the sense that violence against women and the way women are treated post-violence says so much and is a culmination of all the other violence of our time-including the way were are taught to think. If there was a movement and moment that could really make a change and shift in consciousness-it’s this one.
    We have so much work to do and maybe some of us are dreamers but I think it’s possible.

    And again this is where literature is so beautiful and so important-helping us see people for what they are-people, complicated but capable, and dreaming of a different world.

    Nothing will change unless everything changes, honestly-and we’re getting there!

  2. FAITH ADIELE 2018/04/19 at 12:01 #

    My #metoo story (published in Ake Journal in November before the Me Too movement) alluded to being sexually harassed last summer by a high-profile Nigerian author with whom I was presenting. I was scared to go public, but my essay has gotten no traction. I’m hopeful that these accounts by my friends Chimamanda and Junot will help start the conversation.

  3. Moo 2018/04/20 at 02:42 #

    @FaithAdiele interesting you mention that. one thing I think about is that it did take celebrities, but maybe a particular moment to really get this going-I know many of the young women I know have been sharing there stories for a long time at the hand of lecturers, bosses, familly members etc .I recently also read a story by also a very prominent American author (though outside the context of the me too movement the story is about something else but when I read it that lept out to me as really just very). Maybe there would be a way to compile the stories in particular of authors or women in the publishing/writing/intellectual industries just as models, actresses etc have done?Why not have a literary magazine dedicate an issue to sexual harassment/sexism and the experiences of womn (nd men) in the literary world.
    And wishing you all the best.
    xxx

  4. Moo 2018/04/20 at 02:57 #

    Or maybe publications running wmn’s work more frequently etc so that this isn’t just a moment, and so that the conversation expands beyond just movement but women speaking about all their experiences from their perspective…but that’s just me.
    xxx

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