Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to headline CityLit Festival, where issues of equality will be at forefront

The Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spends part of each year living in a state — and nation — that's been having a wide-ranging public conversation about racial prejudice in the two years since the unrest that broke out after the death of Freddie Gray.

But when Adichie appears in Baltimore on Saturday to headline the 14th annual CityLit Festival, she'll tell her audience that the misogyny she encounters among relatives and friends disturbs her more than being discriminated against because of her skin color.

"I don't think sexism is worse than racism," the 39-year-old Adichie said during a chat in her Ellicott City home. "But when I experience sexism in my own personal circle, it makes me angrier.

"The people I love all 'get' anti-black racism. They never ask me to prove it or say, 'Oh, that isn't racism.' But when I talk about sexism to the people I love, that happens very often."

At the CityLit Festival, Adichie will discuss her most recent book, "Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions," which she wrote after a friend asked her advice in raising a feminist daughter. She has always gone her own way, said what she really thinks and made her own rules.

She's likely the only winner of a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship to serve as the face of a major cosmetics brand, Boots No7. "You can be a feminist and still care about your appearance," she says. "That's the way I was raised."

Adichie's one of the few critically acclaimed novelists (she won a 2007 Orange Prize for "Half of a Yellow Sun" and a 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for "Americanah") to make Vanity Fair's International Best-Dressed List — and Adichie made it in 2016 while bucking fashion trends that dictate that black women should straighten their hair. ("From the time I was very little, I did the expected thing and wore a long, straight weave," Adichie says. "Then I became awake and realized I wanted to wear my hair the way it's made. When I go home, I still get critical comments from my family.")

And few intellectuals have as easily traversed the divide between academic acceptance and popular culture. "The Danger of a Single Story," Adichie's 2009 TED Talk, still ranks among the 25 most-viewed of these videos. Then, Adichie's follow-up TED Talk, "We Should All Be Feminists," was sampled by Beyonce in her 2013 song "Flawless."

Recently, Adichie was embroiled in a controversy after she was interviewed on a British television show. Asked if she considers transgender women to be "real women," Adichie responded: "Trans women are trans women," and added that she has a hard time equating the two because women who have transitioned have had different life experiences than women who have not.

Her remarks touched off a firestorm among transgender activists, who viewed them as an attack. Some confronted the novelist at speaking events, telling her, "You're killing trans women."

This was Adichie's first experience with being publicly censured in the U.S. — and she was particularly wounded because she has campaigned for LGBT rights in her native Nigeria.

"At first, I felt very defensive," she says. "I was being criticized by my own tribe, and that's never good.

"Later, I felt liberated — and I mean that sincerely. Being on a pedestal is a terrible thing. Before, I was just another feminist voice who had to be fit into every ideology at hand. Now I'm seen as a more textured person."

Though Adichie is the CityLit Festival's marquee attraction for 2017, she's far from the only writer slated to appear who has a unique world view or a penchant for making provocative observations. Festival attendees can mingle with writers such as the American Book Award winner Susan Muaddi Darraj, local stalwarts Bret McCabe and Tariq Toure, and Charlotte Shane, the pseudonym used by the author whose "Prostitute Laundry" details her former life as a sex worker.

Festivalgoers also can choose from free panels with such titles as "Writers Resist," "Coming of Age in the Other America," "Writer as Activist," and "Raising Our Voices: Womanist & Feminist Writers Speak."

New for the 2017 CityLit are two intensive seminars for aspiring writers. Participants can pay $10 to have their work critiqued for 30 minutes by an established author and editor, and an additional $10 to participate in a master class lead by Ethiopan-American novelist and MacArthur Fellowship winner Dinaw Mengestu.

Carla Du Pree, CityLit's executive director, expects to draw at least 2,000 people to the daylong event at the University of Baltimore.

"I can't tell you how excited I am about this festival," she says. "There are a lot of great colleges and universities in the area, but they're costly. This is a chance to spend 90 minutes with a MacArthur award-winning writer for just $10. That's a chance most people never get."

A writer of Adichie's stature receives many invitations to attend nationwide literary events. But she said she agreed to headline the relatively small CityLit Festival because she's become attached to Baltimore, the city where she wrote "Half of a Yellow Sun," her epic novel about the Nigerian civil war.

"I have a history with Baltimore," she says. "The city has a lot of emotional significance for me."

But Nigeria will always be where Adichie's deepest heart lies. Because the novelist spends part of each year in southern Nigeria and part in the U.S., she's ideally positioned to observe the manner in which male-female relations differ in the two countries.

She writes that in Nigeria, for instance, there's immense pressure placed on young girls to learn the cooking and cleaning skills thought to be necessary for securing a husband.

"I think it gets slightly better for women in Nigeria as they age and slightly worse for women in the U.S.," she says. "In Nigeria, getting older is not viewed as entirely bad or as something you run away from. In Nigeria, the worst possible combination in terms of getting respect is being young and female."

But she was badly shaken by the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

"There's a lot of misogyny in this country, and I think that Hillary Clinton suffered from it," Adichie says.

"She had to straddle so many lines because of her gender. She had to be competent, but she couldn't be a [witch]. She had all those things in her head, so she came off as overly calibrated, in some ways almost robotic. It then became easy for people to label her as a liar."

Writer and Towson University senior Bilphena Yahwon, who was born in Liberia and raised on the Ivory Coast, thinks that some Western feminists wrongly assume they're more progressive than their counterparts in Third World nations.

"Some Western women think of African feminists as backwards and submissive," says Yahwon, who will participate in a CityLit panel on writers who identify as womanist or feminist. "American feminists see their issues as more structural, as being bound up in institutions. African women see their issues as more economically based. Not only are they women, but they're poor, they don't have enough food and they have no access to health care."

Darraj's award-winning short story collection, "A Curious Land: Stories from Home" explores the lives of Palestinian men and women living in a small West Bank village. At CityLit, she'll be discussing Middle East-style feminism with Mejdulene Shomali, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the writer and editor Eman Quotah on the panel "Writing Identity: Arab American Women's Literary Voices."

Darraj, an English professor at Harford Community College, agrees with Yahwon that many of the differences between American feminists and those elsewhere are rooted in class and politics. Darraj says that Arab culture, unlike the U.S., doesn't define an individual's worth based on how much money he or she earns. As a result, some problems that plague American parents are more easily resolved in the Middle East.

"Arabs consider being a mother — being a parent, really — as a very important job," she says.

"They don't look at it in the capitalist way, in which someone is denigrated if they aren't earning an income. As a working mother with three children living in Maryland, I really struggle sometimes when I have a sick child. In the Middle East, there would be a neighbor or family member who would help out, or the employer would be much more flexible."

Though Adichie has spent her entire life thinking about the different cultural roles allotted to men and women, these issues take on a new urgency now that she and her husband, a physician at the University of Maryland, are the parents of an 18-month-old daughter, who, like them, will occupy different cultures.

"Obviously, the world is not a feminist place, and it is not easy to raise a feminist child in it," Adichie says. "I am aware that my life is never going to perfectly match my ideology. But I'm going to see how close I can get."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The 14th annual CityLit Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of Baltimore's business center, 11 W. Mount Royal Ave. Free. citylitproject.org.

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