15 Jun IT IS OBSCENE: A TRUE REFLECTION IN THREE PARTS
When you are a public figure, people will write and say false things about you. It comes with the territory. Many of those things you brush aside. Many you ignore. The people close to you advise you that silence is best. And it often is. Sometimes, though, silence makes a lie begin to take on the shimmer of truth.
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.
Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it, as Jonathan Swift wrote.
Take the case of a young woman who attended my Lagos writing workshop some years ago; she stood out because she was bright and interested in feminism.
After the workshop, I welcomed her into my life. I very rarely do this, because my past experiences with young Nigerians left me wary of people who are calculating and insincere and want to use me only as an opportunity. But she was a Bright Young Nigerian Feminist and I thought that was worth making an exception.
She spent time in my Lagos home. We had long conversations. I was support-giver, counsellor, comforter.
Then I gave an interview in March 2017 in which 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.)
I was told she went on social media and insulted me.
This woman knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalized 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.
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.
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. But I mostly held myself responsible. My spirit had been slightly stalled, from the beginning, by her. My first sense of unease with her came when she posted a photo taken in my house, at a time when I did not want any photos of my personal life on social media. I asked that she take it down. The second case of unease was her publicizing something I had told her in confidence about another member of the workshop. The most upsetting was when she, without telling me, used my name to apply for an American visa. Above all else was my lingering suspicion that she was a person who chose as friends only those from whom she could benefit. But she was a Bright Young Nigerian Feminist and I allowed that sentiment to over-ride my unease.
After she publicly insulted me, it was clear to me that this kind of noxious person had no business in my life, ever again.
A few months later, she sent this affected, self-regarding email which I ignored.
Friday September 15 2017 at 4.35 AM
Happy birthday. I mean this with all my heart, even though I know I have fallen (removed myself?) from your grace. It would be impossible for me to stop loving you; long before you gave me the possibility of being your friend you were the embodiment of my deepest hopes, and that will never change.
I think of you often, still – stating the obvious. I grieve the loss of our friendship; it is a complicated sadness. I’m sorry that I caused you pain, or to feel like you can no longer trust me. There’s so much that I wish could be said.
I pray this birthday is the happiest one yet. I wish you rest and quiet and abiding stability, and of course more of the kind of success that means the most to you.
I hope mothering X is everything you hoped and prayed for and more.
Have a wonderful day today.
About a year later, she sent this email, which I also ignored.
Thursday November 29 2018 at 8.42 AM
I realise this is long overdue and vastly insufficient, but I’m really sorry. I’ve spent so much time going back and forth in my head and my email drafts; wondering whether to write you, how to write you, what to say, all kinds of things. But in the end, this is the thing I realise I need to say.
I’m sorry I disappointed and hurt you by saying things publicly that were sharply critical, unkind and even disrespectful, especially in light of all the backlash and criticism you experience from people who don’t know you. I could have acted with more consideration towards you. I should have, especially given the privilege of intimacy that you had offered me. There are many reasons why I chose to behave the way I did, but none of them is an excuse. And I clearly realise now, after many, many months of needless sadness and angst and hurt and actual confusion, that I did not treat you as a friend would—certainly not as someone would to whom you had offered unprecedented access to yourself and your life.
You’ve meant the world to me since I was barely a teenager. It’s been very hard navigating the emotional fallout of the past several months, knowing you were displeased with me but truly not quite understanding why, then deciding I didn’t care, then realising that would never be true. I’ve always cared. But I was too mixed up about the situation to be able to make sense of it, or properly see past my own justifications. I’m sorry it took me so long to grasp how I let you down.
I realise that I don’t have room to ask anything of you, but I would be grateful for a chance to say this in person. Still, even if I never get that, I really hope you believe me.
Congratulations on restarting the workshop, and on all the other amazing successes of the past several months. I think of you often; it would be impossible not to. You look so happy in your pictures. I really hope you are well.
All my love,
I hoped never to hear from her again. But she has recently gone on social media to write about how she “refused to kiss my ring,” as if I demanded some kind of obeisance from her. She also suggests that there is some dark, shadowy ‘more’ to tell that she won’t tell, with an undertone of “if only you knew the whole story.”
It is a manipulative way of lying. By suggesting there is ‘more’ when you know very well that there isn’t, you do sufficient reputational damage while also being able to plead deniability. Innuendo without fact is immoral.
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 aggrandize 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. It is obscene to tell the world that you refused to kiss a ring when in fact there isn’t any ring at all.
I cannot make much of the hostility of strangers who do not know me – fame taints our view of the humanity of famous people. But the truth is that the famous person remains irretrievably human. Fame does not inoculate the famous person from disappointment and depression, fame does not make you any less angered or hurt by the duplicitous nature of people. To be famous is to be assumed to have power, which is true, but in the analysis of fame, people often ignore the vulnerability that comes with fame, and they are unable to see how others who have nothing to lose can lie and connive in order to take advantage of that fame, while not giving a single thought to the feelings and humanity of the famous person.
And when you personally know a famous person, when you have experienced their humanity, when you have benefited from their kindness, and yet you are unable to extend to them the basic grace and respect that even a casual acquaintanceship deserves, then it says something fundamental about you.
And in a deluded way, you will convince yourself that your hypocritical, self-regarding, compassion-free behavior is in fact principled feminism. It isn’t. You will wrap your mediocre malice in the false gauziness of ideological purity. But it’s still malice. You will tell yourself that being able to parrot the latest American Feminist orthodoxy justifies your hacking at the spirit of a person who had shown you only kindness. You can call your opportunism by any name, but it doesn’t make it any less of the ugly opportunism that it is.
When I first read this person’s work, which was their application to my writing workshop, I thought the sentences were well-done. I accepted this person. At the workshop, I thought they could have been more respectful of the other participants, perhaps not kept typing dismissively as others’ stories were discussed, with an air of being among people below their level. After the workshop, I decided to select the best stories, edit them, pay the writers a fee, and publish them in an e-magazine. The first story I chose was this person’s. I wrote a glowing introduction, which the story truly deserved.
They sent this email.
Fri, Aug 7, 2015, 8:20 AM
Thank you so much for that introduction. It means so much to me and I’m going to keep reading it to get through the rest of my stay at Syracuse. I sent it to my mother and she got nervous about the piece because you said ‘it disturbs’, said she’s not sure how she’s going to feel when she reads it. But she’s also one of those ‘let’s leave the past in the past’ people. My sister approved, which meant a lot because our childhoods were each other’s.
All that to say, I’m so grateful you gave me the space to write the short version of this piece, the encouragement to write the longer piece, and now, a platform for it. I definitely have plans to write more about Aba.
Thank you, with all my heart.
PS- I wanted to sign off gratefully + gracefully in Igbo but I said let me not fall my own hand 🙂
About a year later, they sent another email to let me know that their novel would be published.
Wed, Jun 8, 2016, 8:20 AM
I hope all’s been well with you this past year. Belated congratulations on the baby’s arrival, I hope she’s being a delight (I’m sure she is), and on the Johns Hopkins honors.
I was thinking about how this time last year, I’d just received the email from you about Farafina and I wanted to reach out with a quick update. I’ve just accepted an offer for the novel I excerpted as my application and it feels like the workshop was a catalyst for the events that’ve led me here. So, thank you, for the workshop and your words and the Olisa TV series and listening to me babble on about my story at the hotel. I deeply appreciate all of it and you.
All my best,
Before the novel was published, I spoke of it to some people, to help it get attention. I had not been able to finish reading it. I found the writing beautiful, but the story false-hearted and burdened by bathos. When I spoke of the novel, however, it was the former sentiment that I expressed, never the latter.
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.
Still, I took no action. I ignored the public insult.
When this person’s publishers sent me an early copy of their novel, I was surprised to see that my name was included in their cover biography. I had never seen that done in a book before. I didn’t like that I had not been asked for permission to use my name, but most of all I thought – why would a person who thinks I’m a murderer want my name so prominently displayed in their biography?
Then I learned that, because my name was in the cover biography, a journalist had called them my “protegee” and they then threw a Twitter tantrum about it, calling it clickbait, viciously disavowing having received any help from me.
I knew this person had called me a murderer, I knew they were actively campaigning to “cancel” me and tweeting about how I should no longer be invited to speak at events. But this I felt I could not ignore.
I sent an email to my representative:
From: Chimamanda Adichie
Date: Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 2:06 PM
I’m writing about X
She attended my Lagos workshop two years ago and I selected hers as one of a few pieces I published after the workshop.
Apparently I was referred to as her ‘mentor’ and/or she was referred to as my ‘protege,’ in some articles, which led to her tweeting about it. Her tweets were forwarded to me by friends. In them, she reacted quite viscerally to my being called her ‘mentor’ and her being my ‘protege.’ To be fair, she is not technically my ‘protege,’ and it is perfectly fine that she feels this way, but her ungracious tone and the ugliness of the energy spent on her tweets surprised me.
I recently received her book and noticed that my name was included in her official book bio. I was stunned. Surely if she is so strongly averse to my being considered a person who has been significant in her career, (which is my understanding of the loose use of protege/mentor) then it is unseemly to make the choice to include my name in her bio. I found it unusual, as I don’t think I’ve seen it done before in a book bio, but I also now find it unacceptably cynical.
It is only reasonable for a person who sees my name as it is used in her bio — ‘her work has been selected and edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’ — to assume some sort of mentor/protege relationship.
To publicly disavow this with a tone bordering on hostility and at the same time so baldly use my name to sell her book is utterly unacceptable to me.
I’d like you to please reach out to her publishers and ask that my name be removed from her official book bio. I refuse to be used in this way.
After contacting her publishers, my representative wrote:
They have asked whether your preference would be to remove the Acknowledgment to you in the back of the book also, in future reprints.
I don’t think that is my decision to take, and so will not answer either way, although it would be ideal if she herself made the decision to do so.
On the subject of how to go about it, I was absolutely determined not to be used by this person, but I was also sensitive to the costs the publisher might incur, as this was not in any way the publisher’s fault. Instead of pulping the already printed copies, I asked that the jackets be stripped and rebound. To my representative I wrote:
I’m completely determined that I not be used in this opportunistic and hypocritical way. But I want to make sure to proceed reasonably.
I was assured that my name would be removed and I moved on.
But from time to time, I would be informed of yet another social media post in which this person had attacked me.
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.’
This person has asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me.
This person began a narrative that I had sabotaged their career, a narrative that has been picked up and repeated by others.
The normal response would be to ignore it all, because this person is seeking attention and publicity to benefit themselves. Claiming that I have sabotaged their career is a lie and this person knows that it is a lie. But if something is repeated often enough, in this age in which people do not need proof or verification to run with a story, especially a story that has outrage potential, then it can easily begin to seem true.
My addressing this lie will indeed get this person some attention – may they bask in it.
Here is the truth: I was very supportive of this writer. I didn’t have to be. I wasn’t asked to be. I supported this writer because I believe we need a diverse range of African stories.
Sabotaging a young writer’s career is just not my style; I would get no benefit or satisfaction from it. Asking that my name be removed from your biography is not sabotaging your career. It is about protecting my boundaries of what I consider acceptable in civil human behavior.
You publicly call me a murderer AND still feel entitled to benefit from my name?
You use my name (without my permission) to sell your book AND then throw an ugly tantrum when someone makes a reference to it?
What kind of monstrous entitlement, what kind of perverse self-absorption, what utter lack of self-awareness, what unheeding heartlessness, what frightening immaturity makes a person act this way?
Besides, a person who genuinely believes me to be a murderer cannot possibly want my name on their book cover, unless of course that person is a rank opportunist.
In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.
I find it obscene.
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.
People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’
People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy – sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy.
People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence. (How ironic, speaking of violence, that it is one of these two who encouraged Twitter followers to pick up machetes and attack me.)
And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.
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.