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Why Nigerian author Adichie’s essay attacking woke and cancel culture has courted controversy

Adichie's essay written in response to a social media trial that called her a 'transphobe' and 'trans exclusionary radical feminist' has been redacted, but it drew widespread attention.

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New Delhi: Exactly a year ago, after intense backlash over her anti-trans tweets, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling had penned a 3,600-word essay responding to allegations of transphobia and being labelled as a ‘trans-exclusive radical feminist’, or TERF — seen as people who don’t want to acknowledge trans rights.

It is now the turn on another woman author, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has sought to publish an essay, in response to a social media backlash as she was called ‘transphobe’ and TERF.

The ‘Purple Hibiscus’ author’s 15 June essay, ‘It is Obscene’, has since been redacted, but not before it drew widespread attention as it also called out the language used by the left-liberal ecosystem on social media, especially Twitter, saying people are “choking on sanctimony” and that people denounce their friends for flimsy reasons to remain a member of the “puritan class”.

Incidentally, Adichie had supported Rowling on her views last year.

Arguably the most popular author from Nigeria after Chinua Achebe, Adichie has won Women’s Prize for Fiction, one of the most prestigious literature awards in the UK, for her 2007 book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.

In her three-part essay, Adichie, without naming anyone, called out two of her former students. One of them was non-binary — not identifying with either male or female gender — Nigerian writer Akwaeka Emezi who graduated from Adichie’s writing workshop. The Nigerian author organises an annual workshop ‘Purple Hibiscus’ where she trains hand-picked writers in the art of writing.

Emezi is the author of the critically acclaimed book, ‘Freshwater’, which was published in 2018. It’s not known yet as to who is the other writer Adichie called out in her essay.

In her concluding remarks, Adichie wrote: “I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.”

Also read: Adichie’s attack on ‘woke language’ is on point. But Right-wing cancel culture is real threat

Why Adichie’s essay is controversial

In March 2017, Adichie had given an interview to Britain’s Channel 4 in which she had said: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.”

She had gone on to say: “It’s (gender is) about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”

This line of thinking has long divided feminists as they debate what really constitutes womanhood. One section believes transwomen are not women, which is debated by the LGBTQ community and another more progressive section in feminism.

Adichie had also said: “I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women because I don’t think that’s true.”

Facing a huge backlash after this, the writer had soon taken to Facebook to clarify her stance.

“This (the interview) upset many people, and I consider their concerns valid. I realise that I occupy this strange position of being a ‘voice’ on gender rights and there’s an automatic import to my words,” Adichie posted.

“I think the impulse to say transwomen are women just like women comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream. Because by making them mainstream we reduce the many oppressions they suffer,” she added.

However, even in the Facebook post, Adichie said this equation is a disingenuous strategy for her, and that diversity does not mean division. “We can oppose violence against trans women while also acknowledging differences.”

While this apology was accepted by some trans rights activists, it wasn’t by others and the controversy went on.

This debate has acquired greater significance in the United Kingdom, where the Equality Act 2010 — which allows trans people to choose whichever single-sex space they want to but could be stopped from entering “if doing so can be justified as proportionate” — is under hot debate.

While Rowling had argued that transwomen are a ‘threat’ to women in bathrooms as allowing trans people would lead to any man under the guise of being a woman entering a bathroom on his whim to attack their target, others countered that chances of this happening are statistically low and in fact trans women are at greater risk of violence when they are forced to use men’s washrooms, and that trans inclusionary policies do not jeopardise bathroom safety.

Also read: JK Rowling has always been tone-deaf. Just look at the Harry Potter Universe

Why this essay now?

In 2020, the Harry Potter author had published a hugely debated essay, ‘TERF Wars’, after she was called out for mocking an article that sought to be trans-sensitive by addressing itself to “people who menstruate”.

Rowling’s essay was then termed a ‘Terf manifesto’.

Adichie had vocally supported Rowling’s essay, and in an interview to The Guardian in November 2020, called it a “perfectly reasonable piece”.

This refreshed allegations of transphobia against Adichie.

In her essay, the Nigerian author alleged that the comments made against her were disdainful as she recalled one particular comment in her essay that said: “This person has created a space in which social media followers have — and this I find unforgiveable — trivialized my parents’ death, claiming that the sudden and devastating loss of my parents within months of each other during this pandemic, was ‘punishment’ for my ‘transphobia’”.

While Adichie did not name Emezi, it was evident that she was talking about her writer and former student Akwaeka Emezi.

Criticism by two persons especially got to her. While one was Emezi, the other unnamed person she referred to her essay was an author, who Adichie felt betrayed her trust and took advantage of her fame.

Emezi had called out her former mentor on Twitter for her alleged transphobia.

In a Twitter threat, Emezi had written in April 2020: “The year FW (Freshwater) debuted, I lost the support of a prominent writer because of my tweets about them. I’m okay with that because they were being transphobic. Like, by all means, let us not align. Take your ring away. None of this is by force.”

This was followed by Emezi openly calling Adichie out in November 2020.

In January 2021, she wrote: “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & Rowling seek to perpetuate. I, however, will be in my garden with butterflies, trying to figure out how to befriend the neighborhood crows. Find me on the gram 🦋”

In her essay, Adichie said ‘lies’ against her have travelled too far and that she thought it was time to address controversies surrounding her. “In this age of social media, where a story travels the world in minutes, silence sometimes means that other people can hijack your story and soon, their false version becomes the defining story about you.”

This was the issue that led to her writing a lengthy, reactionary essay, addressing the controversy.

Also read:  Enid Blyton flagged again as ‘racist’ — here’s the latest controversy triggered by UK charity


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