NEW YORK CITY—Last night’s hottest ticket in NYC was a talk between two of the world’s biggest African stars, Daily Show host Trevor Noah, of South Africa and the literary queen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, of Nigeria. We snagged a seat at the discussion, part of The PEN World Voices Festival, to hear the two discuss straddling multiple cultural identities and their new books—for Adichie, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions and for Noah, his memoir, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.
The crowd roared when Adichie in emerald shoes and an elegant updo, and Noah in all-black took the stage at The Town Hall Theater. While moderator Chris Jackson’s questions were broad, both panelists came ready to talk which lead to something we don’t see very often—real debate. Adichie and Noah represented the continent, reminding us of our parents as they quoted many parables and proverbs throughout the talk.
Below are 10 things we learned from Adichie and Noah that we don’t hear about often.
Adichie considers herself a Nigerian living in America for part of the year
This is one clarification that Adichie made when Jackson prefaced a question mentioning that Noah and Adichie are both African immigrants. For Adichie, it’s not that simple.
“My sensibilities were largely shaped by Nigeria,” she says. “I didn’t come into the U.S. until I was 19. There’s a kind of distance it affords me when I look at the U.S.”
Noah sees the glass half full
When giving his perspective of the results of the U.S. election, Noah feels that optimism tricks one into doing better. He noted that Donald Trump is the stress test of democracy.
“I struggled to hold on to the narrative that there shouldn’t be optimism because I look at numbers,” he says. “I still have to look at and acknowledge how most Americans voted for Hillary. I don’t think it will rain forever, so it’s time to figure out how to patch the leak in the roof.”
It was interesting to hear of how the diverse group of people he works with in his writer’s room are the people that give him hope that America can indeed get through this a do better.
“This show changes because now we have a purpose,” he continues. “What I noticed was a galvanizing spirit…this can happen in the larger world I live in, which is the U.S.”
Adichie champions dissent and resistance
In response to Noah’s take on optimism, Adichie agrees, but only to a certain extent. For her, now is not the time to take on what she coined as “American optimism.”
“America’s democracy has never been tested,” Adichie says. “I was struck by how quickly people wanted to look on the bright side. Americans don’t like to be uncomfortable. It seemed to me unjust—now it’s our job to understand this man and give him a chance.”
Adichie said that since Trump’s election, she’s seen a political awakening in her community, with political meetings taking place in people’s homes—a real showcase for the beauty of democracy.
Noah thinks America and South Africa live in a parallel universe
Noah explained in depth how he had to make a shift when he moved to the U.S., because his experience of blackness in South Africa was more nuanced. Oddly enough, America also felt very familiar to him at the same time.
“The U.S. was a weirdly familiar place for me because it feels sort of like home, but not,” he says. “I had experienced blackness in all its forms—blackness didn’t mean one thing to me. Black had no connotation—black can be late, black can be on time, black can be poor, black can be rich, black can be the criminal, black can be the judge.”
Adichie’s Pan-Africanism involves familiarity and connection
When asked if her novel, Americanah, is a Pan-Africanist book, Adichie took the time to discuss what Pan-Africanism is to her.
“I think myself politically as Pan-African,” she says. “And for me, that means I care about what’s happening in Kenya, I care about the people in Bahia, Brazil, I care about Afro-Colombia, because there’s a familiarity there to something i feel connected to.”
Adichie also notes that for the diaspora as a whole, our common identity isn’t solely based on our skin color.
“African-American history didn’t start on a slave ship, it started in Africa,” she says. “I believe there are cultural traditions that have been passed down, and diluted, but it’s still there.”
Kat Williams was the only person that laughed at Noah’s jokes when he first started stand-up in Los Angeles
Noah talked further on his experiences of making sense of his place as a black man in America and he learned quite a bit during the early days in the stand-up circuit when living in Los Angeles. In a funny anecdote on how surprised people were when they saw him on stage, especially in the black comedy clubs, he reveals the one person that understood his jokes.
“I used to do stand-up at an event called ‘Chocolate Sundays,’” he says while the audience roars in laughter. “I walked on stage and the audience looked at me like I was about to introduce the comedian that the host introduced. I’ll never forget that no one laughed, except one person in the balcony—and it was Kat Williams.”
Adichie makes sure to inhabit her world, rather than explain it, when she writes fiction
Adichie spoke on her experiences in the publishing world and touched on some pushback she received when she would incorporate Igbo words—and even Igbo names. For her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, she was advised to change it to a simpler name for her American audience, but retorts that the name Ijeawele (meaning “blessed or fruitful journey”) is difficult for even Nigerian people to pronounce.
“I want to tell my story the way it is,” she says. “I grew up reading books set in Russia with long names I couldn’t pronounce, but that didn’t prevent me from connecting with the characters. Literature is a universal language because it’s specific.”
Nollywood films aren’t Noah’s thing—but his Nigerian accent needs work
An aspect of Noah’s experience living all over South Africa was his opportunity to connect and befriend with other Africans. When he lived in the Hillbrow neighborhood in Johannesburg, he was in awe of the amount of pride his Nigerian friends had in themselves, their country and their culture. He admits that he thinks Nollywood films aren’t well done (to keep it real, he doesn’t like Nollywood films at all), but the push back he received from his friends and how he tried to emulate them during the talk was hilarious. Though he’s known for his impersonations, let’s just say he could work on his Nigerian accent a bit more. See his attempt at 1:16:35.
Adichie professes her love for Noah’s mother
Towards the end of the talk, Adichie interrupts Jackson asking if they can talk about Noah’s mother—who he talks about in depth in his book. She was enamored by her story and emphasized to Noah that she wants to meet her.
“She’s such a remarkable woman, oh my goodness,” Adichie exclaims. “I’m in awe of her. Something I found so powerful was when she said: ‘I chose to have you.’ There’s nothing more beautifully feminist than that, the idea of a woman making a choice.”
It took time for Noah to realize the need to take responsibility to truly know his audience when telling jokes
Noah noted how it took him too long to realize that there are levels to how you expose people to different cultures on stage—and how dangerous that can be.
“It took me too long to realize that in a black room, we were laughing at our thing,” he says. “In the white room, I was giving them the license to laugh at black people. I had to be careful of what I share and where. Where you give it away could create a different connotation.”
The 13th Annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature focuses its lens on today’s fractious relationship between gender and power, featuring 150 writers from 40 countries. The festival runs through May 7. For tickets and more information, visit their website here.
*Video Credit: PEN America