#100PENMembers No. 35: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘I used to joke, many years ago, thank God for PEN because if the Nigerian government ever throws me in prison at least somebody will care’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Photo: Manny Jefferson

Our 35th PEN Member needs no introduction. Award-winning novelist, activist, feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has used her platform to draw attention to some of the biggest issue of our times, from Black Lives Matter to feminism, #metoo, to what it means to be an African writer.

Whilst her novels have been incredibly successful – Purple Hibiscus, her debut, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2004, Half of a Yellow Sun won her the Orange Prize in 2006 and Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle award in 2014 – she is also known for her outspoken TED talks, public speeches and essays.

Her 2013 TED talk We Should All Be Feminists was so popular that it was published as a pamphlet, distributed to all 16-years olds in Sweden and even sampled by Beyoncé in her song ‘**** Flawless’.

PEN awarded her the 2018 Pinter Prize in recognition of her ‘outstanding literary merit’ placing her alongside writers like Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard, but also marking the tremendous contribution which she continues to make to global debates. To coin an instagram phrase, Adichie is a literary influencer, instantly recognisable not only for her signature style but for her ideas, which capture the imagination of millions almost every time she speaks.

She even chose to bring these two roles together in 2019, for the mutual benefit of each by pairing with New York jewellery brand Foundrae to design a ‘Free Expression medallion’ in aid of PEN America. The collaboration raised $120,000 but also brought PEN’s work to a whole new audience allowing Adichie to appear in platforms from Marie Claire to Teen Vogue discussing human rights and free expression. 

In explaining the collaboration, she pointed to her shared interests with the organisation: ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, PEN supports writers who are imprisoned by governments—things that are important to me also’.

‘In this age of the privatised, marketised self, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the exception who defies the rule,’ said Maureen Freely, chair of trustees for English PEN. ‘Sophisticated beyond measure in her understanding of gender, race, and global inequality, she guides us through the revolving doors of identity politics, liberating us all.’

Indeed, Adichie’s Pinter acceptance speech touched on the issues connected to this platform, from her own sense of responsibility as a writer, to PEN’s history, debates around the relationship between writing and politics and between citizenship and creativity, to the writer’s role and identity in the world.

‘Artists are also citizens’ she states. ‘It is in some ways true that art is a thing apart because unlike politics art functions in great spaces, art humanises, it goes below the surface. But we also live in a world in which the nation-state dominates, in which the value the world gives us as human beings can be determined by the passports we carry.’

‘I did not choose to speak out about social issues because I am a writer, but my writing gave me a platform to speak about issues I have always cared about.’

Her ongoing relationship with PEN allows her to use this position to bring these issues to new audiences and to highlight the organisation’s work for a new generation of supporters.