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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

July 29, 2019

Stories

We Should All Be Feminists 31 minute read

All clothing and accessories by DIOR
All clothing and accessories by DIOR
All clothing and accessories by DIOR
All clothing and accessories by DIOR
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a writer of beautiful novels and beautifully balanced essays on feminism, a thinker of lucid brilliance, a speaker of gentle force and a feminist we can all look to for insight and inspiration. Here, she talks to activist, Sarah Sophie Flicker, about making real change, maternal guilt, and why these days she really wants to talk to boys.

Sarah Sophie Flicker

Interview Sarah Sophie Flicker

Photography Yelena Yemchuk

Styling Leith Clark

SHello, this is Sarah Sophie, is this Ms. Adichie?

CYes. Hi, Sarah, how are you? 

I’m excited to be talking to you and I’m just going to warn you that I’m alone with six kids right now. I’ve given them pretty clear instructions, but we’ll see how well it goes.
What’s the age range?

Three of them are not mine, but I have a daughter who’s eleven and two sons who are eight and five. But, you know, as I was giving them all instructions on how to behave over the next period of time, I realised I was leaning really heavily on my daughter, ’cause she’s the eldest. I thought of all the ways in which that was gendered and all the ways in which I rely on her in very gendered ways. And here’s some of them now—‘You all, I’m on the phone…’ Okay, hopefully I think I’ve terrified them enough to not come in again.
[Laughs.] It’s fine. It’s absolutely fine.

I have a whole slew of questions. I’m not a journalist, I’m an activist and an artist. So if you feel like I’m not progressing in a journalistic way you can steer me in the right direction at any point. I’m just hoping it can be more of a conversation.
Sure.

I’m one of the founders and national organisers of the Women’s March. Leading up to the march we had these huge lists of all the people we would want most to speak on the stage that day. I hate public speaking so I was shocked that so many people wanted to speak at all. It was interesting because there was a lot of fighting going on about who we wanted to speak and who we agreed on, and you were the only person that everyone could agree on. And so we emailed you relentlessly and somehow we never got through. So, I just want you to know.
Really?! [Laughing.]

[Laughing.] Yes! In a room full of women yelling about who we could agree on, you were it. I mean, other than, like… Okay, we’ll say bell hooks, Angela Davis, Delores Huerta and Gloria Steinem were all on the ‘yes’ list as well, and then you. So, thank you for all that you’ve done—
That is terrifying. It’s okay.

So considering how hard it was to schedule this, I guess my first question to you is, how do you stay grounded with this intense stream of obligations and asks that are always presented to you?
I am still trying to find a way to have that perfect balance, but I’m starting to realise there is no such thing. A woman who sat with me some time ago, she said you have to make room for chaos. And I just always held that close. It’s been maybe a year since she said that to me. I just find myself in a very interesting and strange place where what I really want to do is read and write. But at the same time, I also quite like speaking. I quite like that my writing’s giving me an opportunity to talk about what I care about. I have writer friends who hate speaking about things, but I don’t mind it at all. But it’s not my first love. And of course, it pleases me just to be home because I want to be with my three-year-old daughter. I want to be the primary influence in her life. I feel quite possessive about her. She has a wonderful father in my husband. I don’t know if that increases my level of possessiveness or not. So, there are times when I will just have my agent say no to everything, because I want to see her, and there are times I want to say no to everything, but I think I might be missing out on something really fun. [Laughs.]

It’s a hard thing to balance, and I noticed that you said possessive over the time you spend with your child versus guilty about not being with her. That’s something as a mother I struggle with a lot. I don’t think it’s something that my husband struggles with at all, my husband is a feminist, a work in progress, like we all are. I just wonder how many men feel that sense of possessiveness or, as I often experience it, guilt. Men have been taught to be entitled to their work and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
I’m fascinated by how we’re raised. I’m fascinated by how women and men are raised differently. I really think that men in general, parenting is just different for them. Before I had my daughter, I knew intellectually about guilt and how important it was not to think of parenting as guilt and all of that. But the minute I had my child, I was racked with guilt.

Yeah.
I felt guilty for the times when I [was] bored. And I was bored sometimes.

Me too, every day, yes. [Laughs.] No one ever talks about that.
I felt guilty. I didn’t go anywhere or do anything apart from just be with her for the first three months. And then I wanted to go and do something for me. I found myself feeling guilty.

Sure.
I had family members, not my husband—who I have to say was very supportive—who said, ‘My god, you’re going to Paris for two days without the baby!’ And I thought, yes! But it was important to me because it’s so important to me that I be a full person outside of my being a mother. Becoming a mother has been… It really has been delightful. I mean, I cannot tell you how happy it’s made me, but at the same time, it’s changed so much in my life. It’s changed that idea that I own my time completely. It’s been an adjustment process for me, and also made me realise how important it is for me to hold onto the things that make me a person outside of being a mother.

Yes, and as your daughter gets older. I imagine similar to my kids, they push back on your work and agency, not knowing that, in the future, they’re going to be so grateful that you held onto that.
I’ve heard that so often, you know, the resentment of children. It’s also interesting to me because often women will tell me that children are much more resentful of their mother doing ‘me time’ and doing their own thing than they are of [their] father doing their own thing.

I have to imagine that those are cultural clues they pick up on, that it doesn’t matter if my work helps organise 5 million people to march across the globe or write a book or, you know, whatever it is—they still see the work my husband does as more serious.
But also, it’s because the mother is supposed to be sort of the nurturer, that our work is not just the physical grunt work of domestic work, but also the emotional work. I think just we’re socialised to expect mother to be perfect at this thing called emotional work. Which I think is something women learn—but I think it’s something women learn because they’re expected to learn.

It’s a hard thing to balance, and I noticed that you said possessive over the time you spend with your child versus guilty about not being with her. That’s something as a mother I struggle with a lot. I don’t think it’s something that my husband struggles with at all, my husband is a feminist, a work in progress, like we all are. I just wonder how many men feel that sense of possessiveness or, as I often experience it, guilt. Men have been taught to be entitled to their work and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
I’m fascinated by how we’re raised. I’m fascinated by how women and men are raised differently. I really think that men in general, parenting is just different for them. Before I had my daughter, I knew intellectually about guilt and how important it was not to think of parenting as guilt and all of that. But the minute I had my child, I was racked with guilt.

Yeah.
I felt guilty for the times when I [was] bored. And I was bored sometimes.

Me too, every day, yes. [Laughs.] No one ever talks about that.
I felt guilty. I didn’t go anywhere or do anything apart from just be with her for the first three months. And then I wanted to go and do something for me. I found myself feeling guilty.

Sure.
I had family members, not my husband—who I have to say was very supportive—who said, ‘My god, you’re going to Paris for two days without the baby!’ And I thought, yes! But it was important to me because it’s so important to me that I be a full person outside of my being a mother. Becoming a mother has been… It really has been delightful. I mean, I cannot tell you how happy it’s made me, but at the same time, it’s changed so much in my life. It’s changed that idea that I own my time completely. It’s been an adjustment process for me, and also made me realise how important it is for me to hold onto the things that make me a person outside of being a mother.

Yes, and as your daughter gets older. I imagine similar to my kids, they push back on your work and agency, not knowing that, in the future, they’re going to be so grateful that you held onto that.
I’ve heard that so often, you know, the resentment of children. It’s also interesting to me because often women will tell me that children are much more resentful of their mother doing ‘me time’ and doing their own thing than they are of [their] father doing their own thing.

I have to imagine that those are cultural clues they pick up on, that it doesn’t matter if my work helps organise 5 million people to march across the globe or write a book or, you know, whatever it is—they still see the work my husband does as more serious.
But also, it’s because the mother is supposed to be sort of the nurturer, that our work is not just the physical grunt work of domestic work, but also the emotional work. I think just we’re socialised to expect mother to be perfect at this thing called emotional work. Which I think is something women learn—but I think it’s something women learn because they’re expected to learn.

I read a poem by Sharon Olds. There was this line about giving birth and I thought, my god, she understands me, and it’s such a lovely thing when that happens. She was writing about that feeling that there’s something almost animalistic in giving birth. To really get in touch with that part of you that’s just physical, the animal ... it made me think about how powerful it is when you read something, and it makes you feel less unknown.

Well you said—and I love this so much as I feel like this could be a language break-through—but when you talk about [how] boys are raised not to embody toxic masculinity, which is the word that gets thrown around right now, but instead, boys are often raised into a very specific kind of male fragility. Women then have to cater to that male fragility. I think about how to avoid this and the fact that motherhood is not always intuitive, at all.
Nope, not at all. Not at all.

It’s learned. If we’re in a heterosexual relationship—I’ve been with both men and women, and I’m not sure how different it is; I’m curious about that. Not only are we doing the emotional work of caring for our children, but the emotional work of even just getting the men on board to show up in significant ways. Which, so often, is met with defensiveness. I wonder if the term ‘male fragility’ would sit better with men—probably not? [Laughs.] Now that I say it out loud… Men might freak and say, ‘Are you saying I’m toxic? Are you saying I’m fragile? I can’t stand either one of those things…’ Ugh.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot more. I was actually talking to somebody about this yesterday and I said I want to go visit schools. I’m used to talking to young women, but I want to talk to young men. I mean, I really want to talk to young men. I want to know what they’re thinking. I want to know when that change happens. I want to know: when do they start thinking of girls and women in a particular kind of way. When do they start to think they’re kind of entitled to women’s bodies? What is it that scares them? Because I really think there is a lot of fear in men. I think about, why are they so damned scared of emotion, right? I just keep imagining what if the men who were cool and the men that the young boys look up to, the sort of men who are conventionally masculine, you know, maybe a football player or whatever, could say, ‘vulnerability’s a good thing’. I’ve been listening to some interviews by Jay-Z, who seems to me to have just had such an interesting journey towards a kind of vulnerability. He talks about things like vulnerability and emotion, and I think just hearing that—I’m sure there are some young black men who [would] think differently about this sort of thing. I think men listen to men.

I went from the Clinton campaign right into the Women’s March—
Oh, just wait, you worked at the Clinton campaign?

I did, I worked tangentially with them. We got to make some really cool stuff, and then a few days after the election I started to work on the Women’s March, and since then, I’ve been in room after room after room either talking to women, listening to women, speeches, whatever, or I’ve been organising. The really interesting thing about the last few years is, I kept assuming I was going to walk into a room where there was a preponderance of men, because, when an issue arises, whether it’s family separation, the trans military ban, or the Muslim ban, these aren’t inherently women’s issues. The interesting thing is that I’m working with just a handful of men and dozens of women, every single time. In the US, with this thing we’re calling ‘the resistance’, the statistics are amazing. Like, 87% of the calls going to our elective representatives are being made by women. 87%. So, I kept saying yes to all these speaking situations or panels, and in the last few months I haven’t wanted to do it unless I’m talking to men. And it’s not because I want to centre men and it’s not because I want to centre boys. I think it’s because, if we’re being honest, they’re [men are] the problem. And I’m tired of us having to tell our daughters how to avoid the problem. I’m much more interested in how we get men on board with all this stuff.
Boys are really not the problem. What do we change about our society and about our culture so that the boys being born today do not become the sort of men that do the things that hold women back? I don’t know the answers, which is partly why I want to talk to boys. I think it’s also the question of finding a way to talk to boys. My dream is to find a way to talk to boys and then in five or six years they will become the cool guys who the other boys listen to and who will all become, magically, feminists! That’s the plan.

Exactly! And we’re done. [Laughs.] I think that to be feminist, at least for me, is to constantly be in a certain sort of stage of warning. I feel a kind of sadness because I’m thinking about all the talent that the world has lost out on because that talent was born into a female body. I’m thinking about all the energy, the emotional energy, that women expend in dealing with things that have to do with simply being female. And I think about, oh my god, can you imagine the time that would be freed up? [Laughs.] The world would actually be a place worth living in.

I think one of the big victories, when we look back at the painful period we’re in, and not the first of many painful periods, at least as far as men go, but I do think that some of them are starting to understand. I remember so clearly when that Access Hollywood tape came out, the ‘grab ‘em by the pussy tape’; I’ve been a feminist for a long time and I was like, oh, I didn’t think we could complain about that. My husband was like, but you haven’t been grabbed by the pussy, have you?  I said, ‘Are you kidding, I can’t even count the amount of times, like, are you talking about the subway or walking down the street?’ That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I feel hopeful in that sense.
Yeah, so do I.

I reread your book on raising a feminist daughter and wished this book existed for boys, too. I love A Call to Men, an organisation working on redefining masculinity. We were talking about trying to put together a feminist toolkit for parenting boys, similar to your book, and have it out for Father’s Day. I was tasked with finding some notable men who are doing the work and talking about this topic, who are fathers. I skipped away from the meeting thinking, great, I’m gonna go do that work. I can’t find anybody. I know that there’s plenty of people who maybe aren’t famous who are doing it, I can find a few who are kind of famous and they both have three-month-olds. And I’m like, yeah, I don’t know how helpful that is. It’s so interesting, you know. I was wondering if you had ever thought about writing a corollary book for boys?
I have actually, and I think it’s also connected to my wanting to talk to boys. I just find myself increasingly interested in boys. My feelings are similar to yours, which is to say that we need to move men to something [we] feel optimistic about but in a way that is also cautious. The coverage of this movement, that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the movement itself—which bothers me—is the idea [that] we need to empower women to know how to deal with men who will assault them. And for me, it isn’t just the premise of that I find troubling. So the premise is that men will assault, right? What I want to talk about is, how is this happening? Why don’t we try and get men to stop assaulting? And I think that even the question of rape—the US tells itself that it’s quite progressive in certain ways, at least compared to other parts of the world, [but] they still have the same impulse in the US as in a place [such as] Saudi Arabia, which is to say that women’s sexuality is still something that we’re not comfortable with. I think women are still not allowed to be sexual beings. Women are allowed to be sexy in the West, but really not sexual. And I think it complicates the conversations around Me Too. It still makes women out to be sort of helpless and lacking agency. We talk about Me Too and we say, oh, she innocently went into his office and then he assaulted her. But I think it’s as important to talk about the narrative that she went to visit him thinking she might hook up with him or maybe not. And then she decides she doesn’t want to, and he assaults her. And she is still deserving of sympathy. It really bothers me that the women are the victims, but also, they are [seen as] responsible somehow. I want to talk about boys and men. I think, which I don’t think is popular among many feminists, but I do believe this: there are some men who genuinely do not know boundaries.

Absolutely.
They do not know because they have been raised to think that boundaries do not really exist. They have been raised to think that they’re entitled to women’s bodies. Boys are raised to think that you have to protect your sister. Even that there’s a problem with, because they are taught they are responsible for a woman’s body. And it doesn’t matter that it’s coming from love and being protective. We need to educate men, and not just say, ‘men should know better’.


I live in Brooklyn, it’s super progressive, and we were at a gymnastics class a few years ago. My daughter was doing gymnastics and my boys were watching her and an older woman said to them, how lucky my daughter is to have two brothers who can protect her. It’s so interesting that we never talk about these messages that boys are sent. Parenting boys has completely changed my relationship to men. I want everything for them that I want for my daughter.  I want them to have the full, emotional relationships that I want my daughter to have. And they aren’t taught how to do that. And then I think the interesting thing for feminists around Me Too is that it’s complicated. As Tarana’s [Burke, founder of the Me Too movement] work was finally being uplifted after all these years, all the feminists I knew had really complicated feelings around it. Because it’s not easy, and no one is taking joy in it, because it’s painful and complicated. It’s assumed that feminists feel a certain way about it. That we are taking some sort of pleasure in bringing men down, or that this is what we’ve all been waiting for. But the truth is, I have a lot of empathy. Men are being told that they were raised with this set of rules and now we’re changing them. And we don’t know what the rules are, but you need to figure out what they are. Alternately, I think the pushback for women, which I also have a lot of empathy for, is that we’re sort of being asked to indict the people who we’re most intimate with, you know, our husbands, our fathers, our sons, our friends. Rebecca Traister talks about this a lot, and it’s refreshing to hear. If we could be a little more nuanced and complicated and hold space for many truths at once, whether it’s systemic sexual violence or feminism, this mass movement will, hopefully, be like the next iteration of the feminist movement. We’re going to have to learn how to have hard conversations a little bit better.
Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes worry that one of the things about the present feminist discourse is it just doesn’t make room for complication and nuance. I sometimes worry that women don’t even feel that they can articulate the complications about these issues because very quickly you’re censured, and they find themselves in combat for sort of stepping out of line. And that worries me quite a bit. Even I find myself not willing to say yes to an invitation, even if it sounds interesting, because I’m going to say what I really think and then it’s going to come across as… The Me Too movement, for example, I’ve kind of not really wanted to talk about very much, just because my feelings are complicated. On the one hand, I feel quite pleased that women’s stories are finally being taken seriously. On the other hand, I just worry about several things, about the way that the Me Too movement is talked about. So here’s an example, a very dear friend, who I tease about being the president of the society of card-carrying feminists, she’s American, and she’s like, assault is assault, right? This conversation was around Al Franken...

That was a really complicated moment that has not been resolved.
I don’t think so either. But I feel that rage too though. I fundamentally want real change. I don’t want to live in a place of ideological purity. When real change doesn’t happen in the real world it means nothing to me.

I think there has been an over-fixation on the monsters. You know, the Harvey Weinsteins. I think that fascination is comfortable for people because it doesn’t require them to acknowledge the ways in which these things are systemic. If there was more of an acknowledgment of that it would be easier to have nuance, say, in the Al Franken situation, versus something much more egregious. If we had any sort of due process… But that would take an acknowledgment of a systemic problem, not just singling out monsters. It also takes an understanding that we’ve never collectively had these conversations. A few days after the election we started organising the Women’s March and the statistics of who voted for Trump started coming out, and the 52% of white women who voted for Trump, the sort of messaging we were pushing out, which I felt very comfortable with in that moment, was aggressively asking white women to hold themselves accountable, to go talk to their demographic—my demographic—and to question how we were complicit in all this. I think, in that moment, that sort of aggressive and unnuanced and sort of, ‘fuck it’ approach was necessary also because there were so many white women who were blindly walking through life [and] were only awoken after that election. I’m using it as some corollary that I’ve never really said out loud, so it may not work, but, two years later, the approach has changed a little bit. There’s a lot of white women in this country that I don’t feel are even worth going to talk to. I’ve tried. Many of those women are foot soldiers of the patriarchy, as Rebecca Traister has said, and their proximity to privilege is too close, and we’re never gonna get to them. Ever. Similarly, with Me Too, I do feel like these moments are born out of fire and they have to be hot and fierce and the flames have to be big and then we sort of wrestle down ways of talking about it that are, ultimately, more nuanced, and we gain some clarity. It’s unfair for us all to expect clarity around something that we’ve never had as a public conversation before. They are bound to be messy and people are bound to get caught in the cross hairs. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t have them. And eventually you get to a better solution.
Yes. Absolutely. It’s the newness of the dredges. It’s encouraging but it’s so uncharted, and it’s also emotional territory, right? Imagine that all human beings are driven by emotion and so sometimes it’s just having that complicated feeling of wanting it to be better and different but also kind of seeing why it isn’t. So when you say there’s certain white women that you think are unreachable and not worth trying with, do you think these white women care about white women issues? Obviously they’re committed to whiteness and their privilege. [But] do they care about white women’s issues?

I can just tell you my experience, and to be honest, I don’t have anyone in my family that voted for Trump, I am really in this coastal, East Coast bubble over here. For around 14 years I’ve helped organise this group of people who go to swing states and knock doors during elections. We were in Philadelphia the week before the general election and my daughter came with me and we knocked on about 600 doors. We talked to a lot of women who were opening the door, and I’m generalising, but you would see, like, a mess of kids, and different from the Obama election, you could just see from their faces that men in their homes were not excited about voting for a woman. And there was no way that they were gonna go on election day and vote for this woman at the risk of their safety—physical and financial. I think there are white women who are scared and I don’t think they see how those issues are in their best interest. Because their best interest is to be protected and paid for and cared for by the men in their lives. During the Kavanaugh hearing we were all in DC, and at one point I was down in the Senate cafeteria the day Kavanaugh was testifying, and half the room were Republicans and half the room were Democrats, and they were watching two different televisions—the optics were like exactly what’s happening in this country, like, getting almost two different sets of facts. And we had been feeling so good. We had been upstairs and we had been thinking, ‘Oh, he sounds terrible’, and then we went downstairs and there was this one table in particular of women wearing ‘Women for Kavanaugh’ shirts and they were cheering and they were thrilled and, I have a pretty mild temper, so I was chosen by our group to go talk to these women, and I said, ‘So I noticed that you seem really happy about the way this is going and I’m a little surprised and I’m sure we’re not going to agree, but can you tell me what it is about this that you think is going so well?’ And these women were like, ‘He is fighting back because you all are victims.’ And then this woman said, which just blew my mind, he said, ‘You all are victims. And I was assaulted as a teenager.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m really sorry.’ And she goes, ‘No. You know what? I wasn’t raped because I fought back, too. We’re fighters. And you all are victims. And you have feminised everything, and if I were a man I wouldn’t hire a woman anymore either, because…’ And she was just going on and on about how, you know, I’m killing my babies, and I was like, ‘I have three kids.’ And it was just like—
[Laughing.]

—and I was so like… ‘I did have an abortion as a teenager, but I now have three kids!’ And, ugh [laughs]. And then finally I just said, ‘Thank you so much and I guess we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree.’ But I don’t think there’s any way you can get to them. I just don’t.
People like that I really do wonder what’s really going on underneath, you know?

That gets to your point about culture—I think you can’t get to people like that through policy or even through politics. I think the only way you make any headway is one-on-one conversations, then also through culture. You said, ‘Culture does not make people. People make culture.’ Why is story and cultural change and narrative so important to you? A lot of injustice is excused and justified by using culture.
A lot of injustice can be explained within culture, but I don’t believe that we can justify injustice or refuse to change things because of culture. People sometimes act as if culture falls from the sky, and it doesn’t. I find that, increasingly, I want to read history to make that case. Which is to say, I want to talk about, here’s what happened in 1309… which stopped happening in 1760. To make the case that we can change things. Change can happen. It’s important to tell the truth that we can change things. We can, we can remake things. Here in Nigeria, my public image, initially, is being known as a novelist. And now I’m known as something that’s a bit of a cross between a crazy, angry, extremist feminist, and somebody who is just bad for marriage and girls [laughs]. And this is a theme that cuts across age. And for a long time, I thought, you know what, it’s proof to me that in Nigeria it lives in this culture. But now I find myself thinking, if I can be responsible for the smallest change, it will make me really happy. And so now I want to talk to Nigerians in a different way, right? There’s misogyny everywhere in the world. Increasingly, I find myself having to use different language for where I am. Different language in New York, different language in Nigeria. And it’s all about that idea of remaking culture. In Nigeria, I want to talk a lot more about religion. But contemporary Western feminism doesn’t acknowledge the incredible hold that religion has on women across the world. Religion, for many women, is a source of comfort, it’s a ritual that gives them a sense of belonging. It gives them meaning. It’s what they turn to when they’re in abusive relationships. I’m now reading books about the history of the Bible. I’m doing that because I want to reach women for whom… it’s a kind of critical biblical injunction, right? ‘God tells me to submit to my husband. My husband assumes that he is the God of the family.’ I want to educate myself and get to a place where I can talk to them, not with the kind of language of Western feminism, but the language of religion and Christianity. But still making the same point. Which is to say, I want to try and be part of the journey of remaking that culture. I think policy is important. I think law is important, but I think, really, fundamentally, change will not happen unless you change the way people think. You have to change minds. You know that story about Will & Grace and how it changed so many people’s minds about gay people, just by normalising a relationship that they saw on TV? I think stories are powerful. I think novels can change the way people think. I think that when you talk in terms of stories rather than in terms of abstractions or numbers, we reach people more. What I would love to see is more nuanced, human stories about abortion.

Yes!
I think abortion is so politicised. Abortion is a caricature in the public imagination, and that is really bad for women. I would love to see more human stories around people’s experiences with abortion because I think a lot of people who oppose abortion don’t actually know stories of people who have had abortions.

Everybody knows somebody that’s had an abortion! I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, the scary thing in the US right now is, because Trump and his administration are failing on getting the racist wall, they are pivoting towards demonising and making false claims about abortion. And to the point of those women in the Senate cafeteria around Kavanaugh, the first place Republicans always go after you is abortion. It’s all just so connected. When you were talking about women and sexuality and Me Too, and my own complication around that was my own shame around my own sexuality, which we all just sort of absorb—the same goes for abortion. I had an abortion when I was 17 and my parents would’ve absolutely supported me had they known. I was just too ashamed to tell them because it felt like such a failure on my part. The way that patriarchy controls women by not allowing us to have agency over our bodies, whether it’s sex or reproduction or birth. We talked earlier about ‘Why are men so afraid?’ and a few days after my daughter was born I had a friend who came over and she was so in awe of the fact that this child had come out of my body, and she said, ‘This is why they’re afraid of us.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re right!’ [Laughs.] I mean, that’s gotta be part of it, right? We make people. Like, we can make people, whether we choose to or not. We can make people. Like, that is a superpower. What can they do? Like, nothing.
[Laughing.]

They barely even help… We don’t even need them anymore! That’s all I got. [Laughs.]
Maybe! A friend was telling me that she was talking to a bunch of men—she’s like, ‘Where did you come from?’ And they start telling her, oh, you know, I come from this town or this city. She’s like, ‘No, no, no. You come from a vagina.’

When you think about culture, you realise people may be watching two different news sources and getting entirely different facts, but they’re not turning off music. They’re still watching and going to sports. They’re still going to church. They are watching TV shows, movies, theatre, all of it, and, like, that’s where we get them.
Yeah. Absolutely. It really is.

I think abortion is so politicised. Abortion is a caricature in the public imagination and that is really bad for women. I would love to see more human stories around people’s experiences with abortion because I think a lot of people who oppose abortion don’t actually know stories of people who have had abortions.

I haven’t asked you any of the questions that I prepared, and we’ve been talking for quite a while! I’ve heard you talk a lot about growing up in a military dictatorship. How does that experience shape what we’re seeing in the US now? Do you think it explains the global rise of xenophobia, authoritarianism, nationalism… And what should we do about it?
Oh goodness.

I’m sorry! What a question!
[Laughs.] I don’t know how to explain this. I think that history is a cycle. This is what people in Europe in the early 1930s were thinking. I grew up thinking that there were certain things that could never happen in the US. And that has changed with this American president. It’s big things and little things. For me, the most eye-opening was the so-called ‘Muslim Ban’, and looking at the images at airports across the country, and this kind of chaos and this sense of lawlessness. A sense that anything could happen. And people didn’t know what they were doing. I just remember thinking, This is supposed to happen in the Nigeria of my childhood, not in present-day America. Other things, like having a president whose family members are actively part of the government, and it’s not clear why—that’s what happened when I was growing up. Nigerians knew that this was not right. But we also knew that we were in a government that was not right. That we were in a military dictatorship and so we didn’t have a say. Now that Nigeria has a democracy, that is obviously very flawed, but things have happened in the US that actually did not happen here. That kind of blatant, ‘All of my family members are going to get the highest security clearance.’ Nigerians would be up in arms. It just wouldn’t even happen. The government would be a lot more subtle about it. It’s been such a great disappointment, like, god, democracy really is a fragile thing. This isn’t just such a perfect democracy that we can look at and see as a shiny thing that will never go the way of others. Obviously, this can happen anywhere, but there’s something about it that is disorienting because I now have to, kind of, realign my ideas, you know? When I’m in the US I don’t want to read the news anymore because it’s exhausting. I just read poetry [laughs].

That was my next actual question! About poetry. I’m Danish. I was born in Copenhagen, my parents mostly live there, we go back and we visit a lot, and it was interesting, because—
Oh, really! You speak Danish?

I do. But nobody else does, so it’s not super useful.
Ah, do you teach your children Danish?

They know words here and there. It’s such a difficult language and it’s hard, once you’ve learnt how to speak English it’s almost impossible to pronounce words correctly, and when you’re there, everybody just speaks English. I mean, it’s a big failing as a parent [laughs]… But when we were there over the summer, I was so excited to get away and to not look at the news, and then we were in Europe, I was like, Oh shit, this is just everywhere. It’s everywhere and it definitely has to do with a pushback against globalism, racism and refugees. That’s where the conflict lies, and it’s so depressing. We should’ve taken Brexit as a bigger clue, I guess, into what was lying ahead. One thing that I’ve found to be helpful is poetry. This is an official question! Who are some of your favourite poets? Will you write poetry again?
No. I’m a terrible poet. I read poetry because I write fiction, and I just want to read poetry when I’m writing fiction. I’ve recently fallen deeply in love with Gwendolyn Brooks. Right now, next to my bed, I have a book by James Merrill, who I love. I think of poetry as nourishing language for my own writing.

I agree, it distils complicated emotions and explains them back to you in a really helpful way.
I read a poem by Sharon Olds…

I love her.
There was this line about giving birth and I thought, my god, she understands me, and it’s such a lovely thing when that happens. She was writing about that feeling that there’s something almost animalistic in giving birth. To really get in touch with that part of you that’s just physical, the animal, it was just such a lovely poem, and it made me think about how powerful it is when you read something, and it makes you feel less unknown.

YES! Adrienne Rich writes really wonderfully about motherhood and birth in Of Woman Born, I’ve been getting back into her lately, and Muriel Rukeyser is really someone who has been a touchstone lately.
Ah, I should read her.

I mean, they’re both such badasses and they were writing all this stuff, like, in the 60s and 70s. Adrienne Rich on motherhood is really powerful, and feminism has not covered motherhood, like, nearly enough at all or picked up much from where she left off. It’s still such a mystery.
I think it is for most people.

There’s a poet named Toi Derricotte who wrote a poem and one of the lines is that ‘joy is an act of resistance’, so from that we got really inspired and we created a chorus that is half activists and half professional singers, and we’re called the Resistance Revival Chorus.  It has brought me so much joy in the past two years. So, my question is, what brings you joy?
Um, books! Reading fiction, just in general, reading stories. But really, my family and my friends. I have a fantastic family and have five siblings who are very close knit. My father turned 87 yesterday.

Oh, congratulations!
I’m very much a Daddy’s girl. He is the loveliest man in the world. I think having that has really become more important, in a way, with being a public person and with the success. I have a small circle of friends and that’s really where I get joy from, you know, talking and laughing with people I love.

Yeah and not having to be a serious feminist all the time [laughs].
No, no, I am, in fact, not a serious feminist most of the time!

Me neither!
I often find that it can translate as pressure because there’s so much at stake in the world. Misogyny is front and centre everywhere and certain people tend to expect me to have all the answers and I don’t. I do have to say when you ask my family and friends, they will tell you, if I have had a glass of wine, and you say anything remotely critical of women, I will go ballistic!

[Laughs] And that’s fair. I think that’s totally fair. It’s been such a joy to talk to you and everyone I know is going to be super jealous and I’m going to rub it in… Just thank you for everything.
So nice to talk to you. It’s kind of made me feel better. I just like to know that people like you exist in the world, really.

Oh wow! And vice-versa. We’re all in it together. We’ve got to keep on keepin’ on. Well, hopefully I’ll meet you in person someday soon.
Yes, I hope so.

I hope so too, and enjoy your daughter and your wonderful family.