“Everything about Divine is soft. Softness or firmness is only a matter of tissues in which the blood is more or less abundant, and Divine is […] she-who-is-soft”
(Jean Genet, Our Ladies of the Flowers 179/80).
By Angelina Eimannsberger
Ifemelu, the main character of the 2013 novel Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, comes to the United States to attend university. She begins a writing career, and her blog on being a foreign black woman in the US, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” becomes very successful. Ifemelu’s life in the US, however, in spite of relationships, friends, and educational and career success, leaves her feeling lost and empty. She eventually decides to return to Nigeria. Americanah is a careful examination of Ifemelu’s interiority, the lived experience of a woman who is restless, unhappy, and in search of belonging while asking nuanced questions about race, gender, and immigration experiences between the Global North and the Global South (there’s a secondary plot line about the love of Ifemelu’s life temporarily immigrating to the UK on a false work visa to complicate Ifemelu’s elite education immigration experience).
When Ifemelu understands the her life in the US is making her unhappy, she assesses her inner life and understands that she had been in denial about her unhappiness,
“she had ignored, too, the cement in her soul. Her blog was doing well, with thousands of unique visitors each month, and she was earning good speaking fees, and she had a fellowship at Princeton and a relationship with Blaine – “You are the absolute love of my life,” he’d written in her last birthday card – and yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness” (Adichie 6)
Ifemelu’s story is not an easy story about coming of age, immigration, relationships or race. Rather, it is a sincere, beautiful account of the life of a woman and her experiences. Adichie attends to Ifemelu’s interiority with great clarity and understanding of how difficult it is to be an ambitious woman in search of belonging.
In spite of its complicated–nativist Americans might even say offensive–content, Americanah has met with wide critical and popular acclaim in the US–The New York Times named it as one of the ten best books of 2013, the novel won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and most recently Americanah has been selected as the first “One Book, One New York” read. The author, Chimamanda Adichie, has become an internationally acclaimed novelist and feminist.
Adichie, through Americanah and her other fiction, her TED talk “We should all be feminist,” and public comments in interviews and speeches, has become a renowned voice of feminism and an advocate for femininity. Her feminism has been featured in Beyonce’s song Flawless as well as by the fashion house Dior. Adichie is an established part of the contemporary scene of feminism in the US and elsewhere. Her nuances portrayal of the beauty and struggles of Ifemelu’s life are at the heart of Adichie’s feminism. Her belief in the validity, strength, and struggles of women guides Adichie to speak out for gender equality.
Recently, however, her flawless beauty was dimmed when Adichie made less than insightful remarks about trans women in an interview about her new book “Dear Ijeawele Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.” Her comments about trans women made in this interview have since sparked a discussion. The status of trans women in our society is precarious, and Adichie’s comments show us that their status in feminism is precarious as well. This advocate for women and femininity showed that she erases a group of women, one that overlaps with her own goals in so many ways and needs her advocacy so much, from her feminism.
I encourage you to listen to the interview with Chimamanda Adichie and Chanel 4’s Cathy Newman (whose question about trans women implies that trans women somehow grow up identified as men) for yourself. I think what Adichie says is highly problematic because it erases a vulnerable group of women from feminism and because it uses anatomy rather than identity and reality to say who counts as a woman. Both reproduce the misogynistic tendency–traditionally enacted by mostly white men, but in the current debate by cis women–to deny women the power to say who they are.
Adichie reads trans women as men who have lived in the world as men “and then sort of changed, switched gender” to become trans women. This stumbling formulation is not typical for the eloquent Adichie and possibly points to an insecurity, a lack of understanding of the issue. However, she continues to say that trans women are not women because they have experienced male privilege, casting trans women as less-than, as not-quite, women.
Adichie ends her comments with a frail commitment to the validity of trans people as trans people even though she rejected the validity of trans women as women just moments before:”I’m saying this also with, sort of, a certainty that trans gender people should be allowed to be.” She seems to have noticed that her comments feel wrong, not of a piece with her usual beauty and brilliance. The switch from trans women to all trans people clearly indicating a lack of precise understanding of the stakes.
Not once using “cis,” a descriptive term for people who were assigned a sex at birth which happens to align with the gender they live, Adichie creates a category “woman” and a category “trans woman” with no possibility or future of overlap. She collapses “women” and “cis woman” into the only imaginable category, effectively excluding trans women from her category of “woman,” and thus from her feminism.
I am a cis woman and thus can’t speak to the experience of trans women. Instead I turn for clarification and critique, as well as possibilities of repair, to two of the most important recent memoirs by trans women, “Redefining Realness” by Janet Mock and “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano as well as the pre war French novel “Notre-Dame-de-Fleurs,” which tells the story of the trans feminine sex worker Divine.
Janet Mock’s memoir tells the story of her girlhood, it explains her coming of age and understanding her being trans, it tells of sex work and sisterhood, and it reports on the surgery to change her genitals she eventually is able to afford. While not all trans women have bottom surgery, Mock early on decides that for her own womanhood she desires to have a vagina, even though she knows of sisters who live wonderful lives with the genitals they were born with. Waking up after her surgery with a vagina instead of the penis that Adichie somehow claims would have made her a not-woman forever, Mock reports:
“Looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I noticed the gap between my legs. I had been reshaped, and I felt closer to whole for the first time in my life” (Mock 237).
If the surgery makes Janet Mock feel more whole, we clearly don’t see a switch from man to woman in her development but rather a progressive achievement of womanhood that faces some of the same challenges as cis women–like a higher risk of economic precarity leading to sex work–and some that are specific to women who were assigned a different sex at birth, whose bodies don’t match our general idea of what a woman should look like.
Julia Serano transitioned later in life than Mock, and thus has spent a significant amount of time being perceived as a man. She reminds us that while she might have had male privilege during the years before her transition, she knows all too well the lived experience of being woman after her transition, when people on the street notice her as a woman. She tells us,
“I am a woman every time I walk down the street, dealing with catcalls and jerks trying to railroad me off the sidewalk. I am a woman every time my opinions are dismissed, and every time I fight back to make sure that somebody doesn’t get away with it. And I am a woman every time my lesbian life partner and I dare to hold hands and kiss in public” (Julia Serano, Outspoken, 49).
Serano knows female experience, its precarity, its threat of physical dangers, in ways that are not separable from the lived experience of a cis woman. Her perspective of what it was like to be perceived as a man highlights her understanding of woman’s condition in society, rather than obscure it.
If Americanah excels at reporting on the lived experience of a black woman in the US, Jean Genet’s novel Our Lady of the Flowers novel about Divine, a trans feminine sex worker in the first half of the twentieth century in Montmartre, the fabled Paris neighborhood, excels at being woman regardless of anatomy. We learn that
“Everything about Divine is soft. Softness or firmness is only a matter of tissues in which the blood is more or less abundant, and Divine is […] she-who-is-soft” (Jean Genet, Our Ladies of the Flowers 179/80).
This is a beautiful description of a woman’s experience of herself and of her body, reminiscent of Americanah’s own attention to embodiment. For the reader’s experience the significance of the texts and characters is not made by one main character being a cis woman and the other a trans woman. They are fascinating women, and the stories about them are told by gifted story tellers, and that is why we care. We are invested in their lives, and we recognize them as women we share an overlap of experience with. We perceive them for their interiority and their own assessments of themselves. We let them tell us who they are instead of assigning them status coming from our own limited experience.
Dear Chimamanda, I love you and everything that you do to advocate for women. But if trans women are not part of your feminism, I lose trust in your ability to know what a woman is and therefore what it is we are advocating for as feminists. Please read these inspiring books by Mock, Serano, Genet, or some of the many other beautiful stories about trans women and lived experience. Please make your feminism the bright beacon of hope it can be, because women, all of us, need you.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Random House 2013)
- Janet Mock, Redefining Realness (Atria 2014)
- Julia Serano, Whipping Girl (Seal Press 2007/2016) and Outspoken (Switch Hitter Press 2016)
- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers (Grove Press 1963)