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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I believe literature is in peril.”

ByFreddy Lowe

Feb 11, 2023
An image of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In November 2022, beloved Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a BBC Reith Lecture on “Freedom of Speech”. As an Edinburgh English Lit student, I found it a refreshing, enlightening, and inspiring speech that can have value for us
all.

Adichie’s premise is that public discourse is currently suffering from “social censure”. In her words, “we choose the most extreme and – often – the most inaccurate understandings of people’s positions”, and thus subject those people to vicious retaliation. “We are all familiar,” she says, “with stories of people who have said or written something and then faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism…and this kind of backlash.” She believes that, instead of endowing people’s statements with the most damaging interpretation possible, we should instead return to making our case respectfully.

Re: literature, she opines that “literature is in peril because of social censure”, because no line of work requires more freedom of expression than creativity. Aspiring authors are increasingly fearful of writing the “wrong” story. She takes great issue with the recent rise of “sensitivity readers” in publishing houses: people who
are paid to “cleanse” unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words. This “negates the very idea of literature,” she argues. “We cannot tell stories that are only light when life itself is light and darkness.”

A recent contribution to this climate of fear was the unforgivable attack on Salman Rushdie that left him permanently disabled. When 1989’s The Satanic Verses was published, the Iranian regime deemed it offensive, resulting in Rushdie having to go into hiding. Not only that, but his Italian translator was stabbed, his Norwegian publisher shot, and his Japanese translator murdered in Tokyo. Adichie confides in her lecture that she reread Rushdie’s books as “an act of defiant support”.

She also staunchly disagrees with censorship. American secondary school boards are “currently engaged in a frenzy of book-banning.” Adichie takes a nuanced view here; she admits that there are some books which she would “fantasise” about banning. I empathise. Speaking for myself, I feel the urge for censorship when I
read a book that denies climate change or the importance of vaccines: ie. anything proven by science. Adichie’s equivalents are books that deny history, e.g. the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide.

Nevertheless, Adichie resists advocating censorship. Here is possibly the most important line of the lecture:

“I cannot keep count of all the books that have offended me, infuriated me, disgusted me, but I would never argue that they not be published.”

I strongly support this philosophy. If we take the virtue-signalling route of banning books because we deem them offensive, we cannot ethically stop others from banning books on topics that ‘offend’ them, e.g. feminism, the fight for gay acceptance, or the battle against climate change.

Adichie’s words truly shine when she outlines her solutions to these problems. This lecture is not simply a barrage of complaints, but rather an inspiring call to arms for positive change. For instance, she says in another crucial line, “do not ban [books], answer them.” Rather than censoring books, she argues that we should engage with what they say, and if necessary, scrub from them any glow of truth they may have unjustly accumulated. But the first step in doing so is to write and read freely, without fear of writing or reading the wrong thing.

For example, when an anti-Black poster was put up at Arizona State University, a discussion forum was organised, upon which most students expressed their disapproval of the poster. Adichie believes that this was a far more effective way to fight racism than simply expelling the perpetrators. When we censor the bringers of
bad ideas, “we risk making them martyrs”, she says, “and a battle with a martyr can never be won.”

As mentioned, she greatly values the assumption of good faith. Though some people in the media are not of good faith, that doesn’t mean the assumption of it is wrong. “Speech is, by default, interpreted in the most uncharitable way,” Adichie argues, and instead we should do the opposite: assume that people mean well even if we disagree with them.

I believe that writers have always been at particular risk of targeted censorship. Dictatorships frequently burn books or attack authors of dissenting ideas (Nazi Germany as an obvious example). William Shakespeare set many of his plays in Italy because were they to be set in England and potentially be read as critiques of the monarchy, he could have been executed. However, Adichie doesn’t hide the fact that while Western social media abuse is terrible, elsewhere in the world, authors and journalists can lose their lives, which is ultimately the most appalling threat to freedom of expression.

She makes a case for “moral courage”: for every one of us to stand for freedom of speech, to “refuse to participate in unjustified censorship”, and to make much wider the boundaries of what can be said, written, or read. (She does make an exception to avoid free speech absolutism: incitement of violence or physical harm is not acceptable.) Both the study and creation of literature require free roaming of the mind and, when armed with our good faith assumptions, she believes this can be reinstated.

It is wonderfully refreshing to hear Adichie’s fierce advocacy for creativity, freedom, and the importance of literature. You will find that same inspiration in her other non-fiction (It is Obscene, The Danger of a Single Story). Her fiction (The Thing Around Your Neck) is equally wonderful. Allow this class act of a woman to inspire you with the lecture’s final line: “we can protect our future. We just need moral courage.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Cambridge April 2013” by Chris Boland is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival