Between “Freshwater” and “Half a Yellow Sun”, the weather seems cloudy. But why…? Perhaps because of the rift over comments and counter-comments against and in defence of transgender and other LGBT rights by two award-winning authors who began as friends. In this write-up, Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME traces the discord.
At the beginning, the relationship between award-winning writers and author Half of a yellow sun Chimamanda Adichie and Emezi Akwaeke, author of Freshwater could be described as cordial. But, in the last few years, all that has changed. The exchange of scorching attacks by the duo on social media seems endless since Chimamanda’s interview on Channel 4 four years ago. This was the turning point in the friendship.
What were the controversial issues in the interview that resulted in Akwaeke’s series of attacks via Twitter against Adichie? What has Channel 4 interview got to do with issues such as LGBTQ, feminism, gay rights, and transgender rights, which literarily became the thrust of the attacks?
Akwaeke did not only brand Chimamanda a transphobe, she also called her a murderer. To set the record straight, Adichie wrote back in an essay entitled It Is Obscene: A Reflection in Three Parts published on her website on June 15. That essay has since generated a lot of reactions. Interestingly, many observers believed that Adichie has a right to defend herself and that her 2017 statement doesn’t make her a transphobe. To them, she has always been at the forefront of protecting gay and minority rights.
Emezi in her June 16 Instagram called for accountability in the face of what is widely being viewed as a renewed culture war wrought upon LGBTQ people. “I will keep pointing out true things because stories can also be war,” they wrote, “and silence is not a reasonable weapon for me when trans people are dying and being targeted for even more death,” she said.
Adichie in her essay revealed how Akwaeke attacked her on social media, following her interview with Channel 4 in 2017. “A trans women is a trans woman… I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then 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 in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
Akwaeke went on with series of attacks again in 2020 after Adichie praised an article bestselling writer JK Rowlings’ had written, saying it was “a perfectly reasonable piece,” but which many claimed was trans-phobic.
In her Instagram, Emezi posted a lengthy IGTV video responding to Adichie’s essay saying: “She wrote an incendiary post that she knew would send hundreds of trans phobic and homophobic people to our social media, flooding our mentions with violent comments,” Emezi wrote in one story. “What do you think her goal was with that? It’s not a coincidence that the writers she’s targeting are queer and trans.
“Here’s the thing, as we should all know by now. You can’t ‘both sides’ oppression. You can’t ‘both sides’ when one party has power and is punching down at a more marginalized party.”
According to Emezi, it was ‘designed to incite hordes of transphobic Nigerians to target me’ and that such views inflict harm on the trans community.
Many see Adichie’s statement as indecent, describing it as trans-phobic. Akwaeke recalled that “When she first made her trans-phobia public,”, “I speak for those of us who genuinely loved and looked up to her, that shit broke our hearts.”
The interpretation of that statement was that she didn’t view trans women as women. But, Adichie explained her position in a Facebok post: “I see how my saying that we should not conflate the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female could appear as if I was suggesting that one experience is more important than the other.”
Continuing, she said: “I said that a trans woman is a trans woman (the larger point of which was to say that we should be able to acknowledge difference while being fully inclusive, that in fact the whole premise of inclusiveness is difference).
“No, there isn’t more to the story. It is a simple story – you got close to a famous person, you publicly insulted the famous person to aggrandise yourself, the famous person cut you off, you sent emails and texts that were ignored, and you then decided to go on social media to peddle falsehoods,” she said.
In Emezi’s Twitter in November 2017, she noted that after the debut of Freshwater, Adichie had asked for her name to be removed from Emezi’s bio and promotional materials, ostensibly due to Adichie’s comments about trans women.
“I was okay with it,” they wrote, “because to be honest, I agreed that my connection to her shouldn’t be used to sell my work. We do not stand for the same things. I didn’t and still don’t want her name on my books,” she noted.
According to Adichie, the attacks against her personality was unwarranted; wondering of what essence was the friendship in the first instance.
“There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter.
“People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.
“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,” Adichie said.
Adichie was uncomfortable with Akwaeke’s outburst, saying that there are many ways to get across to her instead of branding her a transphobe on social media.
“Of course she could very well have had concerns with the interview. That is fair enough. But, I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead she went on social media to put on a public performance.”
“After I gave the March 2017 interview in which I said that a trans woman is a trans woman, I was told that this person had insulted me on social media, calling me, among other things, a murderer. I was deeply upset, because while I did not really know them personally, I felt they knew what I stood for and that I fully supported the rights of trans people, and that I do not wish anybody dead.”
But is Adichie a fan or foe of gay rights and the rights of other marginal people across the globe? “This woman knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalised people. That I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general. And that I am a person who reads and thinks and forms my opinions in a carefully considered way,” she said.
To show which divide she belongs, Adichie once wrote in 2014, an article entitled, Why Can’t He Just Be Like Someone Else, attacking the Nigerian government for enacting the anti-gay law. “The new law that criminalises homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems.
“We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalise it. A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria,” she wrote.
Akwaeke, 34, who had breast removal surgery in 2019, recalled that ‘they had been nervous to call Adichie out, because she holds such weight in the African writing community. ‘
Last month, Cleis Abeni of The Voice newspaper predicted that one day, Adichie will among others “apologise without equivocation for my transphobic perspective and statements. I am learning to be caring, supportive, and accepting of all people, including women of trans experience.” Time will tell. This controversy seems unpalatable for the literary family. One hopes it will soon be resolved in good faith.