You may not think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah have a ton in common besides a continent of birth. One is an accomplished fiction author from Nigeria who’s also known for her writings and speeches on feminism. The other is a comedian from South Africa and the host of The Daily Show. But in conversation last night in New York City, for the PEN World Voices Festival, the two discussed how their multiple identities shape their views of the world, and how they balance adapting to new communities and staying true to themselves and their work.
Moderator Chris Jackson dove in by asking how their reaction to November’s election was informed by their cultures and identities, to which Adichie replied, “All of it.” They agreed that this presidency feels like a test for American democracy, and, said Adichie, “There’s an American discomfort with discomfort.” She saw American’s striving to find the bright side of things. But from her perspective, “there’s very little case for optimism.” Noah, on the other hand, did find optimism, watching people who were never galvanized into politics finding ways to take a stand.
Noah attributes his ability to find optimism to similarities between South Africa and the United States. “The U.S. is a weirdly familiar place for me. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror,” he said. Both countries are places where Black people have faced severe oppression, and are “melting pots” of different cultures and ideas. And Noah, as the child of a white father and a Xhosa mother, understands firsthand what it’s like to be caught between multiple identities, and how nothing in the world is, to put it crudely, black-and-white.
One thing the two agreed on was the struggle with American Blackness. Adichie spoke of “discovering I was Black when I came to the U.S.” In Nigeria, she said, ethnicity and religion were identities, but she never thought of herself as anything but Nigerian, and early on in the United States she bristled at being called Black. But she recalled a moment in college in America where a professor praised an essay, and after asking who wrote it, seemed shocked to discover it was her. “I’ve understood race as an American understands race and Blackness,” she said.
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