Lauded Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie headlined Meliora Weekend on Oct. 7 with a wide-ranging autobiographical talk — and, somewhat unexpectedly, there was no protest outside.
Adichie has published numerous award-winning novels, nonfiction books, and short story collections that often draw from her experiences growing up in Nsukka in Nigeria, immigrating to the United States, and navigating American academic, urban, and elite circles.
Her works touch on culture, race, feminism, religion, and politics, and reviewers have sung praises at her incisive commentary and complex storytelling. Her talk mirrored her writing. It moved without stutters from humorous personal anecdotes to analysis of American culture and tribalism to statements on politics and literature alike, and her messages were delivered in the elegant, image-conjuring prose that marks her art.
But, despite her accolades, Adichie’s Meliora Weekend invitation drew controversy. This was due to her past comments about transgender women, which a coalition of student organizations (spearheaded by UR’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter) and many other groups and people worldwide have derided as transphobic.
A demonstration was initially planned to counter the talk — but, after an alleged student group schism, it gave way to a teach-in on the “harms of trans exclusion” hosted Oct. 4 by the University’s Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SBAI). The protest and teach-in were planned after statements on Adichie’s comments and trans rights were exchanged between the University and the student group coalition. That discourse led to tangible gains for LGBTQ+ students — but not Adichie’s disinvitation.
Read on for a full breakdown.
Adichie’s controversial comments on trans women stretch back about six years.
She was first asked to discuss the subject during a 2017 interview with Cathy Newman from Britain’s Channel 4 News. The two were discussing feminism when Newman questioned how trans women fit into the picture.
CATHY NEWMAN: Staying with this issue of feminism, feminity — does it matter how you’ve arrived at being a woman? I mean, for example, if you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: So when people talk about, you know, are trans women women? My feeling is trans women are trans women. 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, switch 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. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. 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. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.
Critics contended that Adichie’s statement dismissed the womanhood of trans women and the oppression that trans women face even before transition. The reception prompted Adichie to clarify her views on her Facebook page.
In that statement, Adichie said she supports trans rights and that peoples’ criticisms were valid, but she reaffirmed her opposition to conflating “the gender experiences of trans women with that of women born female,” though she also said that acknowledging differences between the experiences of cis and trans women shouldn’t elevate one group’s experiences over the other’s.
“I think the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream,” the statement reads. “Because by making them mainstream, we might reduce the many oppressions they experience. But it feels disingenuous to me. The intent is a good one but the strategy feels untrue. Diversity does not have to mean division.
“Because we can oppose violence against trans women while also acknowledging differences,” the statement continues. “Because we should be able to acknowledge differences while also being supportive. Because we do not have to insist, in the name of being supportive, that everything is the same. Because we run the risk of reducing gender to a single, essentialist thing.”
While the response to the statement was mixed, the majority of the reactions were negative, The Guardian reported in 2017.
Adichie was again criticized as transphobic in 2020 after she defended an essay by J.K. Rowling titled “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” In that essay, Rowling criticized “the new trans activism” on a number of grounds, particularly for, in her words, “doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to [sexual] predators like few [movements] before it.”
Adichie called the essay “a perfectly reasonable piece” in an interview with The Guardian, sparking backlash — including from fellow Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi, who graduated from Adichie’s writing workshop and whose work has been edited by Adichie.
Adichie, in turn, published yet another response in June 2021. This time it was an essay titled “It is Obscene: a True Reflection in Three Parts” in which she discussed her personal relationship with two unnamed graduates of her writing workshop, Emezi being one, who criticized her for her comments.
Adichie called them “opportunistic,” noting that they could have reached out to her personally rather than levying public criticism.
“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,” Adichie wrote.
She finished the essay by blasting as “obscene” their and others’ use of social media to call people out, among other things.
Then, in Nov. 2022, Adichie caught flack for yet another interview with The Guardian — this time in an opinion article by Zoe Williams wholly centered on censorship, self-censorship, and public criticism.
“So somebody who looks like my brother — he says, ‘I’m a woman’, and walks into the women’s bathroom, and a woman goes, ‘You’re not supposed to be here’, and she’s transphobic?” The Guardian quoted Adichie as saying.
Williams, the interviewer, then suggested that Adichie’s brother would “look different if he were living as a woman.”
The following is how The Guardian quoted and paraphrased her response:
“But that’s the thing,” she says. “You can look however you want now and say you’re a woman.” And, she adds, anyone who might take issue with this is “outdated” and needs “to have the young people educate [them]”. I [Zoe Williams] suspect she’s taking an argument – that trans people don’t want to be policed for how they dress and what stage of transition they’re at – and reducing it to the absurd. So I tack another way: “Imagine your brother did want to live as a woman. You would support his endeavour with love, right? You’d probably think treating him with dignity and respect was more important than where he went to the toilet?”
“But why is that?” she asks. “Why can’t they be equal parts of the conversation?”
“Maybe because dignity is more important?”
“Not if you consider women’s views to be valid. This is what baffles me. Are there no such things as objective truth and facts?”
I’m not having that. “You couldn’t objectively say, ‘All women are threatened by trans women.’ I’m also a woman. That doesn’t reflect my experience.”
“No, of course not. And it would not reflect the experience of many people. I think that’s different from saying, ‘Women’s rights are threatened by trans rights.’”
Invitation and backlash
UR announced Adichie’s Meliora Weekend invitation in June, and UR’s SDS chapter published a statement Jun. 15 highlighting Adichie’s past remarks, rebuking them as transphobic, and demanding UR revoke the invitation.
SDS then worked to assemble a student group coalition to back the push. On June 30, that coalition — composed of 23 student groups from the River Campus and Eastman — published a joint statement that they then sent to the University administration.
“The lives and humanity of transgender people are not academic fodder to be debated,” the statement reads. “Allowing a trans exclusionist to speak on campus not only spreads dangerous rhetoric, but it also denigrates the academic discourse of this supposedly progressive institution.”
The letter prompted a response on July 14 from University President Sarah Manglesdorf, Provost David Figlio, and Senior Vice President for University Advancement Thomas Farrell ‘88, ‘90W. They announced that a dialogue was being opened with the coalition.
This kicked off a series of meetings between coalition members and administrators to discuss measures to support trans people in the University community, all culminating in a Sept. 13 statement issued by Mangelsdorf, Figlio, and Chief Diversity Officer Adrienne Morgan listing a number of these existing and upcoming initiatives. They include the creation of an assistant position to aid the campus’ director of LGBTQ+ life and an increase in the number of all-gender bathrooms on campus, among other things.
Protest gives way to teach-in
Despite the discourse, Adichie’s invitation was not rescinded, prompting SDS to post flyers around campus advertising a protest during the talk’s scheduled time. But, in a sudden reversal of course, SDS directed students towards an Oct. 4 teach-in in lieu of the demonstration slated for Oct. 7.
The teach-in was a seminar titled “Avoiding the Harms of Trans Exclusion: A Necessary Conversation” that was hosted in the Humanities Center by the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies (FDI) and the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SBAI).
The event drew a crowd of about 30 people, including undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and staff from both UR and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The conversation was split pretty evenly between discussion of Adichie and her comments, support for trans students on campus, and general issues faced by trans folks in society at large.
Dr. Jeffrey McCune, associate professor of English and Black Studies and chair of faculty programs and departmental initiatives in the Black Studies department, was one attendee. He said that he saw the administration and University community’s struggles to navigate complicated intersectional conversations — particularly ones involving intersections between feminism and the trans and Black rights movements — as downstream from the University’s lack of support for Black Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s studies.
“I was conflicted because I had context for the moment that most people are talking about where I feel like even Chimamanda was being asked to be an expert in an area that she has no expertise, which is what we keep doing as academics,” he said after pointing out the University’s small number of trans faculty and how resources to FDI and SBAI have hardly increased in his 18 years at the University. “We keep saying, ‘hey, can you take on this? Can you teach Black feminism?’ Like, that’s not your area. Why are we doing this, right?”
The group also discussed how faculty can best support LGBTQ+ students in the classroom, and many attendees offered personal accounts of their experiences feeling unsupported as LGBTQ+ students on campus on a variety of fronts — particularly as it pertains to all-gender bathrooms, normalizing pronoun-sharing, and intersectional student organizing.
At one point, an attendee asked how many people present would be attending Adichie’s talks. Only two raised their hands.
It was unclear for some time after the teach-in whether a protest during Adichie’s talk was still being held. SDS clarified a few hours before the speech on their Instagram story that the protest was canceled.
“The coalition received feedback that an outright protest would send a different message than the one we wanted to,” an SDS spokesperson told the Campus Times. “Some members received comments saying that an outright [protest] would be seen as an attack on Adichie herself rather than a criticism of her comments. From the beginning, the coalition’s goal was to reassure the safety and acceptance of trans students on this campus, and we decided that a teach-in would be a better method of achieving that goal.”
SDS’ initial story post cancellation, which was later deleted and reworded, hinted at a rift between their group and others over the demonstration.
“Remember: Adichie is an out and about transphobe and certain groups on this campus chose to defend her rather than self reflect,” read the initial story post. “Our cause is just and history will absolve us.”
The amended statement, posted almost immediately after the other post was published and quickly deleted, read as follows: “Adichie is an out and about transphobe who’s rhetoric is in no way defensible. There is no defense for transphobia, hateful rhetoric can come from anywhere and must be excised from our culture.”
An anonymous undergraduate student familiar with the coalition’s organizing gave some insight into what the initial post was referring to. The student said that, back in July, Queer Students of Color and the Pan-African Students Association had concerns about the coalition’s June statement.
“They criticized the lack of nuance that the issue was presented with, and the lack of African students involved in the coalition,” the student told the Campus Times. “QSOC had also been mistakenly listed as one of the endorsers on the statement, because a non-E Board member had spoken for their entire group.”
The student said the criticism was followed by a joint Zoom meeting between the groups where miscommunications were worsened, leading some of the groups to fall out of talks with the coalition.
“In my opinion, the coalition’s fatal flaw was that its members did not change or even reflect on their methods after receiving the criticism from African and African American students,” the student said. “Additionally, organizing progress was stunted by mockery and bad-faith interpretations from other student orgs.”
After an effusive introduction by Provost Figlio, Adichie took the Strong Auditorium stage and overlooked a fully-packed, multicolored sea of attendees. She began digging for the roots of her perspectives and her passion for writing by recounting her childhood — much of which was spent living on the University of Nigeria’s campus, where her father worked, in a house formerly occupied by fellow Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.
“It was a happy childhood, but I’m not sure that I knew at the time that it was a happy childhood,” she said. “It seems to me that happiness is something we often recognize only in retrospect. Now, as an adult, I have come to realize that much of the confidence I had in pursuing my desire to write came from the joy and the love that was so abundant in my childhood.”
She recounted gobbling up books — particularly romance and crime novels — and growing up with her father’s Igbo storytelling that artfully wove together anecdotes, proverbs, wit, and humor. She also detailed how Nigeria’s colonial history haunted aspects of her youth, from local religious divides to language itself. She grew up speaking both Igbo and English in her house, but she saw Igbo get discouraged in “professional” contexts.
“I look back now at the absurdity of it and also the great sadness of it, how colonialism’s most insidious legacy is its ability to make you denigrate that which is yours,” she said.
Despite this, Adichie retained a great pride for her culture, but she also began early to question elements of her culture that “dismissed the humanity of women.” These tensions were most apparent during her trips back to her father’s ancestral hometown. It is her attachment to that hometown, she said, that serves as a springboard for her writing.
Her talk then shifted to her experiences moving to America.
“In my first days, I watched and read and learned,” she said. “I was struck by the excess of everything, by the newness of everything, by the flagrant contradictions. But mostly, I was struck by how much identity as an idea shaped so much of American life.
“America is indeed unlike every other country in the world,” she continued. “Not in the kind of triumphalist manner of those who speak of ‘exceptionalism,’ but because — while it was created from violence like many other modern nations — it also claimed plurality, which is an unusual notion in founding a nation.”
In Nigeria, divides existed along the lines of class, religion, and ethnicity, but it was in America where Adichie said she came to see herself as “Black” and developed an admiration for Black American history. America is also where she published her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” and where people received her writing as “sociopolitical” work more than fiction, which was not her intention.
She hypothesized that this reception — why some works are seen as “political” and others are not — is tied mainly to the personal history of the writers and the way that African fiction, given external audiences’ lack of exposure, is sometimes received more like cultural anthropology than stories. She contended, rather, that all fiction is political and shaped by sociopolitics.
Choked up, Adichie finished the talk by noting that she is still struggling to process the recent deaths of her father and mother.
The event then shifted to a Q&A hosted by Trustee Lance Drummond ‘85S.
The first topic of discussion was ongoing political efforts to restrict the teaching of Black American history, which Adichie saw as an opposition to honest storytelling, but the conversation quickly shifted to discussion of “cancel culture” or “wokeism,” as Drummond put it.
Adichie dismissed the terms as “loaded” in the way that they induce an automatic recoiling among some people, though she also said that they describe a real thing. She pointed to book banning on the right and a related phenomenon on the left that she called “an authoritarianism that doesn’t want to call itself authoritarian.”
She hypothesized that these trends are rooted in the growth of social media, which, she said, has changed us more than even the printing press. She recounted with concern conversations she has had with young people who read and reread their tweets out of fear of being called out by their friends.
“I know people who say things like, ‘well, if you said something terrible, then you deserve it,’” she said. “Nobody deserves the kind of horror that can come from that being turned on sort of using the tool of social media. There are people who have been driven to suicide.”
She suggested that social media should be treated like a public utility because of its “outsized influence.”
The conversation also touched on freedom of speech. Adichie said she doesn’t believe in the concept, but that restrictions on speech should be limited.
“I think that every reasonable person knows that there’s no such thing as absolute freedom of speech,” she said. “It’s very childish, right? There just shouldn’t be, it doesn’t make sense, it’s childish, it’s not rooted in how we live, how lives work. I think maybe the question then is, we know that lines should be drawn, but where?”