Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Part 2 of a 3 part feature on the historic conversation between Michelle Obama and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London. Here: the nay-sayers have been out in force, the role of writers in interviews, and rising above politics.
The cultural event of the century has happened. The chance to see the former First Lady in conversation with a genuine literary superhero does not come along very often. But, in the days leading up to the big night, a number of prominent figures in media and literary circles poured cold water over the ethos of the interview they expected.
Finally: In conversation in London (photo via the Evening Standard)
Even Afua Hirsch, the brilliant Guardian writer who normally writes everything that I’m thinking about race, culture and society, plus lots more of her own ideas, lol, suggested that we have all been getting a little over-excited about the visit of Michelle Obama. Hirsch introduced her Sunday Times opinion piece on Twitter with the question “Are we losing our decorum over Michelle Obama?” (No, she didn’t. She used an asterisked four letter word which I choose not to repeat here.)
Afua Hirsch bursting the bubble via Twitter
A few days earlier, Fatima Bhutto contributed a piece to the Guardian, where she slated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for giving Hilary Clinton an easy time when the pair met on stage in April 2018. Bhutto criticised Adichie for failing to:
“hold Clinton to account for her ruinous human rights record: her vociferous support for all the wars the United States has fought since 2001”
Fatima Bhutto's challenge to Chimamanda: Don't go easy on former First Ladies
Bhutto also chastised Adichie for getting all emotional about Clinton and for thinking of her as her “Auntie”. The journalist was worried that Adichie would give Michelle Obama an easy time too. This seemed harsh to me. I responded by reminding Bhutto and The Guardian that Adichie’s role at the Southbank Centre would be to 'moderate' and to get the best out of an evening with a fellow person loved by many. An evening that was never intended to be a political event, and one that would inspire millions through memoirs, not policies.
A previous former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, with Chimamanda in April 2018
Two days later, Mukoma wa Ngugi joined in the conversation. He too was critical of Hillary Clinton. In contrast, he praised his father Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o for standing up to President Uhuru of Kenya in 2015 by speaking the truth about colonialism and related problems with language and the economy. The subsequent headlines in the Kenyan press gave a distorted impression of this conversation. Mukoma has now called on Chimamanda to stand up for righteousness and to challenge any corruption she might come across, to justify all the privilege that comes her way:
“Certainly she climbs the celebrity cultural ladder, sits closer to power, gets increased book sales and more than likely commands a larger speaking fee.”
In return, Mukoma has asserted she must do:
“the one thing that literary writers should always do: question power”.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi taking a tough line with creatives
This is a perilous argument, fraught with assumption and heavy handed in assertion. He conveniently sidesteps creative context and artistic cultural values. Adichie is not a politician herself, and is not facilitating politics for anyone else. There is no manifesto on the table. My response this time was rather snappy:
“The first duty of a literary writer is to write literature”.
I am awaiting a counter response, but I suspect it may never come.
To me, all these articles came across as attacks on what I understood was supposed to be a cultural event, a chance for people to hear a conversation about a life story. Extracts from the former First Lady’s memoirs, including some very personal, at times deeply distressing events in the Obama family history. All with wider social and cultural resonance, of course, but not political. I fail to accept that Adichie would have been condoning the abuse of power by engaging in this way.
Life Story: The Obama Family (photo via Business Insider)
This would all be fine, except that in the last few days Michelle Obama has cancelled two events in her European schedule. She will no longer appear in Paris and Berlin on this tour, and will reschedule for next year. The reason, she tweeted, is that she is going back to the States to attend the state funeral of former President George H W Bush.
Attending the funeral is understandable. Admirable even. Standing by her own former president husband. But it seems to me a duty that would be better, in this particular case, were it “more honoured in the breach than in the observance”
i.e. recognised, but not carried out, or at the very least not celebrated.
Bush senior was the US president who really stirred things up in the Middle East in the early 90s, and duly left the world a more dangerous place. A world made even more terrifying for us all by his son, George Dubya Bush, along with Britain’s own Tony Blair.
National duty or personal choice?
So, we have a former First Lady, a beloved figure, who has come to tell us her life story and to engage with us on a personal, social, human level, to inspire us about family life and how to be a better person, how to survive even. And yet in leaving her tour for the said purpose I cannot help but think that she appears to be acting as a political puppet, committed to following protocol and compliant in matters of state ceremony.
She has tweeted that she wishes to "celebrate" what she calls the “tremendous contributions” of George Bush Snr to the world. To many, these contributions were a terrible abuse of power and military might.
So, politics, or at least political protocol, is not far away. Do I owe an apology to Mukoma wa Ngugi and Fatima Bhutto, and even to Afua Hirsch? I’m not sure about that. It would seem churlish to change tack now, to imagine that Michelle Obama deserves to be treated essentially as a political figure, based on a sentence or two on Twitter. That would be shameful of me. But I am a little disconcerted, troubled by what I have read in the media by those looking for another kind of leadership.
This is so frustrating. If we have to talk about politics at all, we should be talking about the many fine contributions of former President Obama. And yet this tour is all about celebrating Michelle's life, as Mom-in-Chief; as set down in her memoirs. Moderated by an entertaining and insightful fellow author sitting alongside her.
I look on this historic event as a catch-up between friends. A conversation including some sombre topics, at times, but essentially a warm, uplifting and meaningful experience for all present. A wonderful sharing of minds. There is much more to learn, as ever, and not everything is easy to accept. But there is a time for politics and for grilling interviewees, and this is no such time. In part one of this special feature, I called for Michelle Obama to be the next president of the United States. But that does not mean I expected or wanted the Southbank event to be a political rally. Far from it. A celebration, yes, but a celebration of humanity.
A word of caution, then, to all who might seek to control the agenda. I would never dare to give Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advice on how to moderate. I recommend others not to give her instructions either. I can safely say that Chimamanda was an inspired choice to lead the conversation in a thoughtful, worthy way, entirely appropriate to the occasion.
And a final word to Michelle Obama. I am going to read your biography next. I have started with the photographs. They are delightful. I am confident your written words will make an extraordinary impression on me. I just don't want to rush the experience. I will let you know how I get on, next time you come to London town.
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
See Part 3 of the Connected Cultures feature on Michelle Obama in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Becoming Dazzled
Afua Hirsch’s opinion piece in The Sunday Times
Mukoma wa Ngugi’s opinion piece in The Guardian