Words have always been political. But now, in our current climate of "fake news" and deeply divided readers, everything from fact-based journalism to bestselling fiction can feel like an overt political statement. This year's PEN America World Voices Festival is not interested in burying the lead: nearly every panel touches on the vital importance of literature and free expression under Trump. Last night, at New York City's Town Hall, National Book Award winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah sat down with moderator Chris Jackson to talk complex identities, writing, and resistance.
After all, there's no way to start a conversation about the world of writing without first acknowledging the elephant (or, as some put it, the "stinking corpse") in the room: Trump's election. Chris Jackson, editor-in-chief of the Penguin Random House imprint One World, began by asking Adichie and Noah to comment on their immediate, post-election reactions. Both Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Adichie and South African-born comedian Trevor Noah published essays in the wake of the election, lamenting the state of the nation and, more urgently, calling their readers to action.
"America's democracy has never really been tested," says Adichie. In her post-election essay, she argues that we must resist any urge to downplay or obscure injustice, and she's still firm in that forthright approach. "There's little cause for optimism," she says, adding that we must "drop that idea that we can't be uncomfortable."
Americans, Adichie has noticed, are none too comfortable with discomfort. We rush to find the bright side everywhere we can. But Adichie cautions against the kind of "Pollyanna-ish" optimism that leads to complacency.
Trump first made himself politically relevant by launching an "utterly racist campaign called birtherism," Adichie says. "People whose humanity was being questioned are now being asked to come together and 'heal.'" But there is no way to "come together" under Trump without giving legitimacy to his hate speech.
Adichie is glad to see that more Americans are becoming active in organizing and speaking out against Trump, though. "Resistance in democracy is a good thing," says Adichie, even if you have to "claw through the curdled layers of ridiculous optimism" to get there.
Trevor Noah agrees with the importance of active resistance, but he's not quite so negative about the whole idea of optimism. As he wrote in his New York Times essay, now is the time to unite against a common enemy (or at least, time for everyone who voted against Trump to unite). Donald Trump is a "stress test," according to Noah. He's the storm that shows you where the roof leaks. "I don't believe it'll rain forever," says Noah, "the gift of optimism is that it tricks you into trying to be better."
While they might not be equally optimistic, both Adichie and Noah agree that it's imperative to avoid becoming complacent. Especially when it comes to writing fiction, Adichie isn't interested in diminishing the truth or trying to pander to a wider audience.
"Literature is a universal language because it is specific," says Adichie. Particularly for writers with marginalized identities, Adichie argues against trying too hard to make a book "accessible." People will identify more with a story that's rooted in specific truth. With her latest book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, she says that people warned her that the name "Ijeawele" would be off-putting for global audiences. But she stuck with it, preferring to stay true to her own reality.
She wants to push back against the assumption that universal stories can only come from the most privileged corners of society. "Does it mean some nice person in Iowa won't buy it because the name is scary? Maybe. But I can live with that," says Adichie.
Noah agrees that the best writing avoids pandering to readers, but adds that for him, "the specificity is what's global." His new book, Born a Crime, explores that very idea, while also sharing funny, harrowing, and touching stories from his childhood. Growing up in the melting pot of South Africa, the product of an illegal interracial union, Noah's memoirs are inherently both global and specific.
"There are ways to use language, to use little stories to help you identify with my specificity," he says.
Adichie cautions to be careful of "explaining your world, rather than inhabiting your world," though.
"But can we talk about Trevor's mother?" says Adichie. "Trevor's mother is such a remarkable woman."
In the final moments of their conversation, Adichie wanted to bring up Noah's mother, as portrayed in his memoir, as an embodiment of the strength and resistance so desperately needed at this moment in history.
In particular, Adichie focused on moment in the book when Trevor Noah's mother tells him, "I chose to have you," as an ultimate expression of feminism. "There's nothing more beautiful to say about the act of reproduction than that," says Adichie, "There's nothing more beautifully feminist than that."