Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Feminist Platform

Yesterday I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk on feminism. NOT because Beyonce told me to (although I admit I did learn about the Ted Talk because of her music video featuring the author). Before Bey, I only knew about Chi’s first Ted Talk about the danger of a single story.  But the one I watched yesterday had nothing to do with writing. It was about feminism. It was an incredibly insightful, accessible and on-point discussion of feminism.

I find it interesting that Adichie’s work as a novelist put her in a position to be an authority on feminism. Interesting but not surprising.  Anyone who sits down and writes a 300-page work of fiction has thought about something a lot. Adichie happened to come to conclusions about the expectations placed upon women (and men).  But all novelists, I believe, inevitably develop a strong opinion on a person or group or society because to write their books they are forced to deeply consider things like what motivates people to do what they do.  Or, what in someone’s background would make them act a certain way.  What experiences would force a person to change?

Somewhere in the midst of these noveling thoughts, Adichie started having feminist ideas and eventually chose to share them with the world.  Not just through art, in an abstract sense.  But also through a Ted Talk, in a direct, intellectual sense.  Without necessarily studying feminist theory, she evolved into somewhat of an expert because she thought about it deeply while writing her novels (I assume). She became an authority not just on writing, but on something completely different.

This made me realize that all authors probably become sort-of-experts on whatever they choose to focus on in their work be it human behavior, politics, relationships, a specific culture, a specific race, or anything else.

There’s a lot of discussion about how, in order to get published, you need to build a platform.  But what about the platform you build after you’ve been published?  What about the issues you’ll have the opportunity to discuss when you’ve reached a stature that leads people to actually listen?  I wonder, when Chimamanda wrote her first novel did she think she would become an authority on feminism?  Does she wish she had?

Anyway, both of Chi’s Ted Talks are definitely worth viewing—seriously. She’s clearly brilliant, but she doesn’t speak to show you how smart she is; rather, she discusses the topic in way that you can easily understand. Below is the Ted Talk on the danger of a single story.

Inspiration: Finding a Story in a Painting

pearl earringThe other day, I came across a link to 13 inspirational TED talks for writers. I enjoyed many of them. Chimamanda Adichie and Elif Shafak talk about fiction and identity politics—for example, how fiction can shape our view of an entire culture. Or the expectation of the “multicultural” (i.e., minority or raised in a different country) author to represent entire communities. Others, like  the writer of Finding Nemo and Toy Story asked the question, what makes a great story? His talk left me with some concrete tools to guide me through my novel.

As impressive as all the talks were, today I am dedicating my post to Tracy Chevalier’s TED talk “Finding the Story Inside the Painting.” Tracy wrote the novel turned movie “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” which is based on the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. It sounds very high brow, I know. But her talk didn’t come across as inaccessible at all—in fact quite the opposite. She explains that she  saw a picture she liked and basically went with it. For years, she found herself drawn to the colors in the painting and the expression in the girl’s face until finally she decided to do some research. She discovered that almost nothing was known about the girl or the circumstances surrounding the image. So she made it up. During her presentation, she talks about the clues she found in the painting and elsewhere to ultimately create a fictional love story behind it.

Tracy’s approach to the writing process was unique to me and ultimately, incredibly inspirational. I’m not a big art person so as far as I’m concerned, she started with a painting that meant nothing to me. Yet during the discussion, Tracy somehow brought it to life right before my eyes. She saw something that I didn’t and conveyed it to me in a way that I could relate to and enjoy. It gave me a new appreciation for at least one piece of art.

The other thing I liked about Tracy’s talk was that it demonstrated that you can find inspiration for a story anywhere. She reaffirms my conclusion that you don’t, necessarily, need to write about “what you know.” Rather, you should write about the thing that draws you in—the thing you can’t stop looking at/thinking about/trying to figure out. In more ways than one Tracy simply followed her passion, which led her to great success. It was 14 minutes of my life well spent: