At Warscapes, we felt that what promised to be one of the most exciting conversations in recent times was a little watered down and underwhelming. The original poster announcement - “Watch Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talk Postcolonial Lit” - was certainly misleading. In the entire conversation, there wasn't much said about postcolonial literature. Both Smith and Adichie, rather, had a candid chat about race in the US, about what it means to be a non-American black in the US, about writing real characters and about writing romances with deeper implications.
At the Schomburg Library event on March 19th, titled "Between the Lines," it was clear that both leading ladies of literature were having fun and were already part of a mutual admiration society. In the beginning of the program, Smith christened Adichie as “Chimi,” and Adichie (now Chimi) complimented her by calling her a “hot babe.”
Smith was frank in her admiration of Adichie’s crystal clear prose, and commented on the “psychological acuity” of her characters and the feeling that nothing stands between the reader and the characters when reading an Adichie novel.
Coming to the large question of race in the US, Adichie regurgitated her anecdote about her shock at being "racialized" by an African-American man when he referred to her as "sister." The conversation turned especially interesting when Smith remarked that no black person in the UK would call her "sister" in the next “millennium” or so, and that she was, in fact, pleasantly surprised to find a sense of community among black people in the US after moving here from the UK. Adichie said that she is now “happily black,” though she resisted embracing black identity because she didn't grow up with this in Nigeria.
Smith asked sharp, pointed questions that created room for a much deeper discussion, but Adichie often avoided engaging with them- for example when Smith read the excerpt below from Americanah, Adichie's latest novel (the excerpt is a post by her character, blogger Ifemelu):
"The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved."
When Smith then asked Adichie the meaning of this post, she responded by saying, "I didn't write it, she [Ifemelu] did." While this is a lighthearted comment, it seemed she didn't want to really answer the question. Smith smiled and nodded at the joke saying, "I know she did!" and waited. Adichie was compelled to proceed: "I don't think it's the solution, but I've noticed that romantic love - real romantic love - makes a difference in the way people understand what it means. Because - I don't know if you have a personal experience in this…" (crowd laughs). Adichie explained then that romantic love can be an antidote to the dynamics of "othering" in racial relationships but did not offer much more when Smith asked if any kind of love can be seen as a radical, philosophical intervention into racial differences.
Ultimately, the conversation seemed an opportunity lost on many counts. Much like Adichie avoided the references to Zora Neale Hurston's use of romance in Their Eyes Were Watching God in the beginning of the conversation, it felt like a lot of questions got diffused along the way. While Adicihie was playing to the gallery and got rousing applauses for being funny, we hoped she had more fully embraced the intellectual rigor presented by Smith. In her trademark style, she was anecdotal and funny, a place she seems to be most comfortable in.
While we may have some reservations, have no doubts that we were, like everyone else, crushing on these clever, fashionable, beautiful and particularly witty women throughout the event, and the fact that two international women of color have never captivated the popular American imagination in a way that these two have, is certainly not lost on us.