Could Have Doing More to Clarify

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently did a two-part interview with Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, in which she re-visited the “boy-gate” shitstorm that I was, inadvertently, the proximate cause for. In the second part of the interview, she suggested that I was partly to blame for what happened, because of the way I edited the interview. As she said:

“I think the journalist [ZZ: That’s me!] could have done more. The interview was long and so he edited it. The reason I said the Caine Prize was over-privileged was because he had talked for quite a bit about how he and his academic friends followed it and read each story and discussed it and what not, and my response was to challenge that kind of over-privileging of the prize. Which is a position I completely stand by. Because he edited out the part where he talks about all the attention he and his cohorts were giving the Caine prize, it read as though I had just said the Caine Prize was over-privileged, without the proper context. I don’t think there was any malice in his editing. But I do think he could have responded when it became such an obsession for people. He could have released the whole interview. He could have clarified that I had not meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way, because he could certainly tell from the tone and context. Also the bit in the interview where I said that I look in my email inbox for new African writing, which I’m told a number of people were quite exercised by, would have been clearer in context. Because I had told the interviewer that he and his group were over-privileging the Caine Prize, he then asked – “well where do you go to find new African writing?” His subtext seemed to be a kind of smug “if you don’t look at the exalted Caine Prize, which you really should, then where do you look?”

I’ll leave it to you to judge; I’ve put both versions of the interview below, so you can compare, if you’re interested. (I should add that I sent her agent the edited version for her approval before we published it. Adichie calls me a “journalist,” but I don’t follow normal journalistic practice when it comes to interviews; I treat interviews like collaborations, and I always want the writer to “own” the final product. She had the opportunity to approve my edits, and since I never heard back from her, I had assumed that she did).

A couple words, though. I don’t think the furor was ever really about what Adichie actually said. She only “looked bad” if you were looking for any excuse to tear her down, which it seemed to me that a lots of bruised male egos were looking to do. I wrote a blog post about that, and I stand by my sense that as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become the most famous and widely read Nigerian writer:

“she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.”

This is all about gender, obviously, and when it comes to literary criticism (especially in the popular press), the gendered double standard is a real problem. Which is why the words on the page were never the issue. For people looking to tear her down, what she actually said was irrelevant, and no amount of clarification from me would have prevented the haters from doing what they do. They could not have cared less what she meant because it was never about what she said, it was about what she represented to them.

At the time, I did try to clarify my sense of what she had meant to say. Kola Tubosun was kind enough to ask me what I though, so I told him. But again: the people who were attacking her were twisting her statement into something they could get upset with, and—I think—were pretty indifferent to what her original words and intent had been.

Perspective is important. I was slightly irritated this morning to learn that I was being partially blamed for what happened; it is slightly irritating to my delicate male ego to have it suggested that anything I do is other than wholly perfect. But after a bit of reflection, I don’t have much cause to complain. After all, if I’m annoyed that she has slightly misrepresented me, it seems like a very small thing next to how massively and viciously she was misrepresented. Given how shitty the thing that happened to her was, and given that I was the (inadvertent) proximate cause for it, I really can’t complain too much about getting a little shit splattered back on me.

Anyway, since she wanted the unedited interview released, here are both, so you can compare them.

Here’s the Boston Review version that was printed:

AB: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize. I find it interesting that so many Nigerians are on the short list this year—that it’s four Nigerians out of five . . .

CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.

AB: Well, none of them are you!

CA: Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop. But what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

AB: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.

Here’s the transcript that the Boston Review transcriber sent me (so nice to have someone else transcribe it for you), which I edited to produce the version above:

BR: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize, and I have to tell you that part of why I ask is I do this thing every year where I and a bunch of other bloggers read all the stories that are short-listed for the Caine Prize—this is the third year we’ve done it—and blog about it. I’m an academic, and it’s just a kind of fun thing to have a conversation with whoever wants to take part. And it’s an interesting experience, but it’s also one that’s made me kind of tired of the Caine Prize story, because they’re all interesting, but I find it so interesting that all the Nigerians are on the short list this year—it’s four Nigerians.

CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.

BR: No, no, no. None of them are you. I love Igoni Barret, and he’s not—it’s not that he—

CA: Did he enter?

BR: I don’t know.

CA: Well ___, Nathan was one of my boys in my workshop [44:20]. So?

BR: But I’m curious—

CA: What’s the overprivilaging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I also feel that—I suppose it’s a good thing—it brings attention and all of that, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been, and—yeah, I’m just not—I know that ___, and I know that ___, [44: 48] I saw her recently, is on the short list. But I haven’t even read the stories— I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

BR: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where a lot of my workshop people send me their stories. No, really. I could give you a list of ten— mostly in Nigeria— writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.