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Vileine translates: honouring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

BEELD (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)

Vileine is going intersectional and intergalactical, international! For our global brothers and sisters, content from the Netherlands you can actually read and Google Translate won’t destroy. This week: the touching speech Simone van Saarloos welcomed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with at the Institute for Women’s History, Atria, on the 15th of October.

This is a one perspective, one directed story.

This is a story meant for a white audience. Looking into this room, I think they might be the minority today. I am saying ‘they’, where I probably should say ‘us’ or ‘we’, since I am not planning to color up my voice like Naomi Wolf did when she visited Amsterdam to represent her latest book Vagina: A New Biography.

When Wolf was criticized on the fact that she didn’t voice a very intersectional, inclusive feminism – a feminism including queer and trans women, a feminism including non-white, non-secular and non-western women – she expressed her grief in quite a particular manner. She started to sum up the ‘foreign’, or non-western, elements in her genes, claiming her ancestors traced back to Turkey, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The point she wanted to make here was that you cannot always see a person’s identity. She underlined this by revealing that she suffers from chronic back pains, which allows her to speak about disability as well, even though her handicap is not visible. She stresses that there are non-visible truths in this world. I praise this. I think it encourages us to look for a more narrative-based-approach to understand the world. Not what you are, but what you experience is important. However, the non-visible should not become a strategic guerilla tool in fighting about who can and cannot speak. Her eagerness to claim all possible identity roles and to belong to every ‘us’ and ‘we’ by summing up her ancestry, is somewhat perverse. It pretends as if there isn’t another option: for example, making space and sharing the floor.

Unlike Naomi Wolf, I have no clue what my exact background is, as I have never been asked: “No, but where are you really from?” Or: “Where are you from from?”

I started by saying this is a story for a white audience. But you – as a non-white audience – did not turn a deaf ear. I imagine that a non-white audience is used to listening to stories meant for white audiences. (We know from Adichie’s The Danger of A Single Story that she wrote her first stories about snow, even though there was no snow in Nigeria, just British literature.)

The white story is a general individual’s story

Yes, sometimes (or maybe often) ears are closed to ignore a woman’s voice, but my voice has never been ignored because it is a white voice. What being a white voice means is that the meaning of the whiteness in a certain story is not even questioned or analyzed. The same as gender is not questioned in a story about a male protagonist. The white story is seen as a general individual’s story (mark the paradox there).

A little while ago I got a call from Atria Institute. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was coming to the Netherlands. Did I want to interview her? Of course, I said, honored. Of course, I love her work. But, I questioned, am I the right person to do it? The organizer told me: “if any white person, it should be you.”  I don’t know what this means, but if someone says “if any, then you,” it always sounds like a great and undeniable compliment.

I said yes. But it occupied my mind.If I was the white person to interview her, why did it need to be a white interviewer in the first place?

Thankfully, Anousha Nzume contacted Clarice Gargard, who is today’s moderator. Anousha said that she wanted to contact Atria and question their line-up. It is not my job to voice Anousha’s critique, but since she helped me formulate what I had already felt uncomfortable about… in short: during her visit, Adichie has two public performances – one today, and one yesterday at Brainwash – and both public interviewers were led by white writers. Last night, Niña Weijers, me, this afternoon. This, Anousha underlined, was not a onetime thing. In November, the international acclaimed author Zadie Smith will be in Amsterdam and publicly interviewed by Joost de Vries. He is a white male. Anousha mentioned that white interviewers and media makers are keen to interview international acclaimed non-white writers, but they pay little attention to Dutch non-white writers. (Gloria Wekker and Nancy Jouwe pointed out that the same was happening decades ago, when Alice Walker and Toni Morrison came to The Netherlands). Also, Anousha mentioned the Anton de Kom lecture, which is held yearly in honor of the Surinamese writer and activist. The lecture will be held by a white man. For the sixth time in eight years. Gender ratio the same: six males on eight lectures. I don’t know what organizers are thinking.

From my perspective as a freelance author and white feminist, I have heard the arguments about all-male or near-to-all male line-ups in academia, media and politics:
They are just not there.
They all say no.
The capable ones are scarce.
I am sure there are capable ones, but they are not very good in formulating their ideas calm and clearly.

Now when you do say no indeed (maybe because you don’t feel like being the token woman at the table about a subject you know little about), you are told you should take one for the team. Well then: invite the team. When you do say no, they will say: all women always say no. Did they really ask all women?

I am sure similar excuses circulate when it comes to all white or near to all white panels, talkshow tables etc. But there are lists of names – diverse in color and in gender – circulating through the hands of organizers and committees. So every ‘they are just not there’ accounts for a ‘there is a systematic blindspot there’.

Invite the team

But I promised to keep this a one perspective story and I cannot speak as an organizer or policy maker. So I question: what can a white media maker do? I admit: I have mostly been a yes and yeah sayer. I have not so often said: invite the team. Invite all women.

I said yes, when Atria called. I was honored. When Anousha called to express her questions and criticism, I was grateful. Together with her, Clarice and Nancy, we decided with Atria Institute that Nancy Jouwe should perform as today’s interviewer.

My earliest feminist awakening came from reading American feminists like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. I heard them say: “Speak out, let your voice be heard.” Or Audre Lorde: “Tell people who you are, write your own story, don’t let others write it for you.”

Recently I was at the Opzij Top100 event. To enlighten Chimamanda here: Opzij is a Dutch feminist magazine and the makers select the hundred most influential women of the Netherlands annually. In the hallways, the portraits of the hundred women were printed and displayed. Maybe they printed the pictures in black and white to cover up the fact that nearly all acclaimed ‘influential’ women were white. At the Opzij Top100 event, they too spoke about ‘speaking out’ and ‘owning your space’. The discourse of white feminism is: claim your space. But does taking space also sometimes mean: making space? Or: sharing space?

Dear white audience, should we not ask also: when and where do we have the power to say no? Is power being able to say: invite the others (anyway, the power of being the one able to invite is generally underestimated)? Call the team.

As a youngster, in my favorite sports, ice hockey and rugby, I would encounter rapid growth within the team and on a national level, because there were ‘so few women’. In school, I would be selected for doing speeches or debates because ‘most girls’ had soft voices and kept quiet. Even before I knew about political structures of inequality, I grew up thinking that I gained from someone else’s lack or absence. I do not believe this can be the meaning of success. In a world with many people, the presence of others must never be a synonym for competition. The presence of others itself must become the meaning of success.

The presence of others must become the meaning of success

Happy peacemakers are often heard saying: focus on the similarities instead of the differences. But those who live and study difference close enough, will experience the connections between differences, instead of forcefully making something that’s different similar to what they already know – which is a process of identity appropriation, but can also be called: the homogeneous sauce.

I warned you that this will be a one perspective story. Let me be stupid and make a claim on behalf of us, here in the room, young media makers. This is a remark for the committees and curators that depend on independent thinkers and freewheelers. Please do not ask us to share your event on ‘social’ (even if it is a product that we love, like a book). You are monetarizing our innate willingness to share.

If we like something, we will spread the word. If we applaud something, we will make it be heard. If we have ideals, we will convince others. Please do not curb our enthusiasm with your yearning to make profit.

Then, as a final remark. There was some hesitation beforehand that these remarks about the process behind this afternoon would overshadow the conversation with Chimamanda Adichie. I would say: no conversation can ever happen without the structures making it possible – language, people, questions, careful listeners, room at the table and moving chairs.

Thankfully: a conversation doesn’t allow for a one perspective story.

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