Award-winning Nigerian novelist honored by Annenberg

The Norman Lear Center honored award-winning Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with the 2019 Everett M. Rogers Award for her work in race, gender and identity. (Andy Jhong-Yi Hsu/Daily Trojan)

Award-winning Nigerian novelist and prominent feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was honored with the 2019 Everett M. Rogers Award for her contributions to discourses on race, gender and identity Thursday evening.

Adichie said her cultural background inspires her work in social justice and discussions about identity.

“I’m proud of where I come from,” Adichie said. “I think having that sense of cultural grounding was useful for me. I’ve never felt the need to apologize for who I am.”

Adichie’s award, which was presented by Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center, honors Rogers, a late Annenberg professor and renowned sociologist. The Center unanimously selected Adichie as its 12th recipient of the award, recognizing her influence on identity in mainstream dialogue.

“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses stories to grow our empathy and our aspirations,” said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center. “In her fiction and in her essays, in her novels and in her talks, she weaves her insights about gender, race and identity into the narratives of human experience.”

Adichie discussed the harmful removal of African narratives, particularly those of women, from mainstream dialogue. She encouraged inclusivity and discourse to bring together people with different experiences.  

Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” one of the most watched TED Talks of all time with over 17 million views. The talk focused on stereotypes and inspired the center to inquire how Africa is portrayed in American media. After analyzing 700,000 hours of news and entertainment last year, the Center’s findings confirmed Adichie’s argument that first-world narratives often stereotype African countries.

“Even though Africans are among the world’s most optimistic people about their future, Africa’s image in American media is, by and large, a single story of terrorism, corruption, poverty, disease, famine, war and western saviors,” Kaplan said.

One of Adichie’s novels, “Americanah,” tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who immigrated to America to attend college. The novel was named one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2013 and is now being adapted into a television miniseries by actress, women’s rights activist and playwright Danai Gurira.

Gurira said she deeply resonated with Adichie’s novels and felt as if the stories in them were taken from her own diary.

“Chimamanda broke the African female voice into mainstream consciousness and she did it without compromising,” Gurira said.

Adichie began her acceptance speech with an anecdote of her interaction with an unknown white man in an abandoned parking lot. She said she felt frightened by his presence and by the possibility that she could be the victim of a hate crime. According to Adichie, political disagreement should exist in democracy; fear, however, should not.

“Fear is a form of control,” Adichie said. “Fear is a tool that, without even consciously knowing, you use against yourself.”

Adichie also spoke about the political discourse in America and encouraged students to combat the multitude of problems gripping society through activism.

“My greatest fear is that this country is sliding into ugly ordinariness,” she said. “An ordinariness that makes it difficult for all of its citizens to feel seen. All of you young people, change that, please.”

After Adichie’s acceptance speech, she took questions from the audience.

Jordan Joyner, a graduate student studying strategic public relations, asked how young people can become more compassionate in the realm of social justice. Adichie said she wants young people to stop discounting those who have different views from them.

“Stop canceling people,” Adichie said. “It seems to me not a productive way of thinking about these things and also really not practical. We’re all flawed.”

In response to sophomore Aiyonna White’s question about how journalists can avoid telling a single story on marginalized communities, Adichie said she believes journalists have the power to humanize these groups by depicting their nuanced experiences.

“I think [journalism is] quite difficult because you have this enormous responsibility that your work can, in fact, rob people of their dignity,” Adichie said. “But also, it can do the reverse.”

In closing, Adichie said she wants black women, and all women by extension, to know they have power.

“You are enough,” Adichie said. “There is no need to apologize for anything. Don’t apologize for occupying space in the world. Don’t apologize for dreaming and wanting to do more. Don’t apologize for being ambitious.”

Lola Akinlade, a freshman majoring in journalism, said she related to Adichie’s experiences of feeling marginalized.

“She offers a different perspective that is not shown in the media or talked about,” Akinlade said. “I think it’s so valuable to learn from someone like her. I think it’s really important that her story is told.”

This story is part of the Daily Trojan’s special coverage for Black History Month. It will run periodically throughout February.