You were invited to discuss the art of writing at the Berlin International Literature Festival. You personally started reading and writing at a very early age: What were the stories you wanted to tell?
When I started writing, I was maybe 5, and I was writing the stories that I was reading — mostly children's books from England. I lived in a small town in Nigeria, in a university community. I had never seen snow, I did not know what an apple was, but I was writing stories in which children were playing in the snow and eating apples, because that's what happened in the books I read. So it actually took a while before I started writing about my own experiences and my own world. I think I was maybe a teenager when I finally started to tell the stories that were familiar to me. Stories about my world.
After writing novels set in Nigeria, dealing with the history of the country, you changed your focus with Americanah. As an African author you then wrote about US society. How did Americanah change you?
It's a good question. I think it freed me. Americanah is a book that I wanted to write, and I didn't want to follow conventions. And in some ways I haven't seen anything like it, which is to say: The story of immigrants from Africa, but who are not escaping war or poverty. Who simply want more. Who have dreams in a way that human beings have had for centuries.
And I wanted to tell that story, because it is a story I know. That's the kind of immigration that I am familiar with. And it does not mean that the other kinds of African stories are not important, but simply to say that we can have a wider range of African stories that are told.
As a student, when you went to the US, you had to face many stereotypes, which you also discuss through your main protagonist in Americanah. That was during the rise of Obama. Now we are in the middle of the Trump government, and the situation is even more difficult for many people. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel, a post-Trump America?
No. The reason I am now kind of weary about any kind of speculation is because I could not have imagined Trump five years ago. And now it is happening and there is a part of me that is really reluctant to project anything in the future. I think there is a possibility that he will be reelected. I think that Trump is as much America as Obama is America. And obviously I think of myself as a person almost in grief for the idea of America that I used to have.
There is something about the present state of discourse in America that makes it almost impossible to think about hope. For me it is actually more about day by day. Every day I am a bit worried about reading the news, because I am thinking: "What now?!" There is a sense of uncertainty, because you have somebody in a position of power who has no level of predictability.
The Black Lives Matters movement seems to have led to changes on a cultural level. The stories of African-Americans are more visible in literature and Hollywood movies. Do you see a real fundamental change?
I don't know. It's just really hard for me to celebrate this sort of thing, because it is a reaction to something terrible. It would have been nice to see more visibility of black people without having a racist president.
If we can measure success in terms of what stories have become visible, then yes, it is a sign of success, but I am not sure about fundamental change, because there is a lot of work to do in the US. It seems to me that the US still hasn't fully acknowledged its past. And I don't mean slavery — but after slavery. There is a part of me that wonders if America will be fortunate enough to have as a next president somebody who is not racist, for example. I wonder what that would do to African-American stories.
Last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, you highlighted the importance of literature in times of darkness. What is the role of a writer? What makes you believe that stories matter?
Because I don't think I would want to live if I couldn't read. I think now more than ever it is important for storytellers to continue. This is what has always kept human beings going. We have gone from sitting around that camp fire, and now we are writing books. It is fundamentally the same thing. It is the idea of remembering that you are not alone, that human emotions are universal.
Now, in a world that is not just about that American president being unusual, but also there is this vote shift to the right in Europe and the world just feels very unsteady, I think it is just so important to tell human stories; not necessarily stories about politics. I find myself reading poetry a lot, because it's important for me after reading the news to just remember simple things. The sacrifices that a parent makes for a child; what it means to experience heartbreak. That kind of things. Hope, love.
You are known as a writer in Nigeria, but also now as an activist, a feminist; you are fighting for LGBT rights. How is the reaction in Nigeria?
Not good. I don't actually think of myself as an activist. I think of myself as just somebody who has opinions and sometimes people ask me and I share my opinions. I think activism is very noble and I'm really just a writer. You know I want to stay home and write poetry and dream. But there are things about the world that make me so angry that I then want to try and make a difference.
In Nigeria, to be gay is a crime. To write about being gay and to talk about being gay is a crime. I think that's inhumane. I don't think that citizens should be punished for being who they are.
And so I've spoken about this publicly and there's been a lot of backlash. People say that I'm un-African... that kind of thing.
In terms of feminism, there's also a lot of backlash because you know Nigeria's a very interesting place. On the one hand, there are things about which people are quite progressive, but there is a very strong conservative stream there and people are very hostile to ideas that challenge fundamental things. So everybody in Nigeria will tell you, "oh, we think women should work, of course." But the same people think that if a woman is successful, she has to first say that her husband made it possible. She has to say, "I am the CEO of a bank. But my most important role is to cook for my family."
So I think the backlash that I get is because I'm challenging the fundamental. I'm not saying "Oh let's let women go to school," because women go to school or, "Let women work," because women work. I'm challenging the fundamental idea and I'm saying women and men are equal. And people don't like that.
One of your TED talks, "We should all be feminists," was a huge success, and you started calling yourself a "Happy African Feminist." What is the recipe for that?
Boiled Yams! No — I actually said that as a response to a Nigerian telling me: "Don't call yourself a feminist because feminists are angry women who cannot find husbands." And at that point I wanted to tell him that actually I had found a husband. But then saying "happy" was a way of trying to challenge the idea that to be a feminist meant that somehow you were incapable of joy — because that's not true. When you're angry, you're angry at injustice. But you're capable of joy, as I think I am.
And then of course they said to me, "Well you can't be a feminist because it's not Africa. Feminism is a foreign idea." So then I thought, "Okay now I'm going to be an African feminist." So I kind of invented this thing where a happy African feminist is a woman who likes lip gloss and who dresses up for herself, and not for men. But it was more a tongue-in-cheek way of reaching out to young women to join this conversation; feminism is not the starchy thing where you have to be a certain way. It's not about being angry, and it isn't about whether you wear makeup or not. It simply means that you believe that men and women are equal and you want to work for it.