AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If literary gossip could break the internet, this next story is about an essay that nearly did just that. At the very least, it crashed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website after she posted a blistering three-part piece called "It Is Obscene." The author of books including "Half Of A Yellow Sun" and "Americanah" called out two younger writers who have criticized her for her comments on transgender identity in recent years. Adichie wrote that, quote, "we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow."
Joining me now is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas, who broke down the feud and set up the context in a new essay published on NPR today. And Anastasia, first, help us understand the players right now. Who are these writers?
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: So, Audie, these are two literary stars from Nigeria. At this point, Adichie is a celebrity novelist. She's been sampled by Beyonce. And in this essay, she wrote about two younger writers. One is identifiable as Akwaeke Emezi, who is a rising star. The other writer isn't actually named, so Emezi's really been front and center here. And we should mention Emezi identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. And Emezi was a student at one of Adichie's workshops.
CORNISH: So there's a pretty big kind of difference in stature and power between these two writers. And Chimamanda, of course, as you mentioned, was kind of an international star. What happened? What are the roots of this?
TSIOULCAS: We really have to go back to 2017, when Adichie made some comments about feminism and trans women in a BBC TV interview. So let's take a quick listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHANNEL 4 NEWS")
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: My feeling is trans women are trans women. I think if you've been - lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman.
TSIOULCAS: So some felt like that was an attack on the trans and queer communities, that it really was an episode in which Adichie was denying the full womanhood to trans women. And that was problematic for a lot of folks.
CORNISH: She responded to critics at the time. What did she have to say?
TSIOULCAS: Well, Adichie has been a long-time champion of LGBTQ issues. But after that interview, she kind of doubled down and criticized social media chatter and soundbites as not really nuanced conversation and that people were sort of isolating this one thing.
CORNISH: In this new post on her website, she publishes emails written by Emezi. She lays out this story of how these young writers sought to be close to her and, she says, turned on her and then set out to sort of cancel her, so to speak, as transphobic. And it gets very personal. And then Adichie wades into the idea of cancel culture. What did she have to say, and why did it generate so much chatter?
TSIOULCAS: Well, she sort of exemplifies kind of the messiness of social media at this point in a lot of ways. But these bigger issues are there, too - feminism, who feminism belongs to, issues about gender identity, the ideas of power differentials. And Adichie published this essay just a couple of days ago. And then Emezi posted several stories and videos to Instagram in which they pointed out that Adichie is punching down, not just at them individually, but to an already very marginalized community. It's kind of ironic, really. Adichie talks a lot about kindness and generosity, but then her essay is really scorched earth.
CORNISH: In the meantime, since you said there have been responses to her essay, has she responded to that? Kind of where are we in this very public feud?
TSIOULCAS: So as of this afternoon, Adichie's really let this essay speak for itself. And I've gone for comment to both authors and haven't heard back.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks for your reporting.
TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me, Audie.
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