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The extraordinary incident of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s BBC Newsnight interview

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Half of a Yellow SunWe Should All Be FeministsAmericanahPurple HibiscusAmericanahThe Thing Around Your Neck

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says she felt “upset” and “ambushed” by her recent interview on BBC Newsnight.

The interview, which took place just after the United States election, made international headlines, as Adichie was horribly mismatched with Donald Trump supporter R Emmett Tyrrell, and made some strong remarks about the president-elect, racism and privilege.
 

 
In a statement on her Facebook page, Adichie reveals that she was given no indication that she would be pitted against a Trump supporter.

In a comment on the post, BBC Newsnight give a half-hearted apology, saying they are “terribly sorry” Adichie “felt ambushed by the encounter”, claiming that it was “an honest mistake” and expressing the hope that the author will return for a one-on-one interview “some time”.

The programme’s intentions with the match-up were made clear, however, by the simple fact that they couched the title of their initial YouTube video of the encounter in antagonistic terms: “Is Donald Trump racist? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie v R Emmett Tyrrell”. As Adichie says, “It is about entertainment.”

(This is not Adichie’s first unfortunate run-in with the British press. In February 2015 The Guardian erroneously published a very personal piece by Adichie on depression, and had to “apologise unreservedly” for the error.)

Tyrrell, who is editor in chief of the American Spectator, was equally perturbed by the encounter, and wrote a piece for The Washington Times that is nothing short of bizarre. In it, he refers to Adichie and Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis as “two apparently intelligent English-speaking women” – being sure to emphasise their gender – speaking “incomprehensible” “gibberish”. “They showed no sign of drunkenness or of drug abuse so I left the studio perplexed,” he writes.

He refers to Adichie by her first name throughout the article and calls her a “so-called novelist”, “a Nigerian lady of supposedly great gifts”.

“I had never heard of her, and for decades I have kept an eye on the intellectual vistas as editor in chief of The American Spectator,” he trumpets, before switching to misplaced wry amusement and 1920s flapper slang:

“Why on earth she was appearing before a British audience to discuss an American election I have no idea. If the BBC wanted to explore creative writing I suppose she was their gal, but then what was I doing there?”

Tyrrell writes that he even contacted his very good friend and distinguished historian Andrew Roberts, who hadn’t heard of her either.

It is a mystery why Tyrrell did not simply type Adichie’s name into Google. If he had done so, he could have read about her academic and literary background, he would have seen a (very long) list of awards, and would have learnt that she has been based in the United States for 20 years. Further Googling would have revealed that earlier this year Adichie wrote a short story about Donald and Melania Trump for The New York Times Book Review (clearly not enough of an intellectual vista for Tyrrell).

Repeating what was his biggest gaffe in the Newsnight interview, he again refers to Adichie as “highly emotional”, and paraphrases two of the farcically illogical points he made that day as if they prove that he won the debate.

He tops it all off with a gloriously ironic reference to Adichie’s “invincible ignorance”.

Tyrrell hits so many stereotypical notes one would be forgiven for suspecting that he was a very good actor hired to play the part of Fuddy Duddy number one.
 

 
Adichie, meanwhile, showing the same composure and eloquence she did in the Newsnight interview, has written a response on Facebook criticising the BBC’s handling of the interview, reiterating her statements about Donald Trump and racism, and specifically taking issue with Tyrell’s problematic use of the word “emotional”:

He didn’t say my name. Perhaps he didn’t know it because he had not paid attention when we were introduced. Mine is not an easy name for languid American tongues anyway. But that word ‘emotional.’ No. Just no.

Normally I would not think of ‘emotional’ as belittling. Emotion is a luminous, human quality. I am often emotional – gratefully so. But in this context it was coded language with a long history.

To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect. ‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

 

Read the full piece, as shared on Adichie’s Facebook page:

ON THE BBC NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEW

By Chimamanda Adichie

Two weeks ago, BBC Newsnight contacted my manager to ask for an interview with me. I would be interviewed by the presenter, they said, and would broadly be asked about the election. I said yes.

When I arrived at their studio in Washington DC, the show’s producer casually said, “You’ll be on a panel with a Trump Supporter. A magazine editor who has supported Donald Trump from the beginning.”

“What?” I said. At no time had I been told that there would be anyone else in the interview, never mind being pitted against a Trump Supporter.

I felt upset and ambushed.

I wanted to walk away, but decided not to. I was already there. And I did want to talk about the election, which I had experienced in a deeply personal way. I was still stunned and angry and sad. I still woke up feeling heavy. Not only because I am an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, but also because, with Donald Trump’s win, America just didn’t feel like America anymore. The country that grew from an idea of freedom was now to be governed by an authoritarian demagogue.

“I’m sorry you didn’t know it was a panel,” The producer said. “There must have been some mistake somewhere when your manager spoke to the people in London.”

Some mistake somewhere. My manager had simply not been told.

“We want to have balance,” he said.

But sneakily pitting me against a Trump Supporter was not about balance – we could have easily been interviewed separately.
It is a deliberately adversarial strategy that news organizations use in the pursuit of what is often called ‘good television.’
It is about entertainment.

I told the producer that my condition was that I not be asked to respond directly to anything the Trump Supporter had to say.
We could both air our opinions without being egged on to ‘fight it out.’

The Trump Supporter arrived. A well dressed, well groomed elderly man. The producer greeted him, gushed a little. He introduced me to the Trump Supporter. “She will be on the panel with you,” he said.

The Trump Supporter barely glanced at me.

The producer wanted us to shake hands, and he gestured to complete the introduction. We shook hands.

“How are you?” I said. Something about the tilt of the Trump Supporter’s head made me think that perhaps he had hearing problems – and suddenly his standoffishness was forgivable.

I felt a kind of compassion, while also thinking: why would this man, editor of a conservative magazine, be willing to put America in the hands of a stubbornly uninformed demagogue who does not even believe in classic conservative principles?
We got on air. We were seated uncomfortably close. The studio itself was strange, a flimsy tent on top of a building that overlooks the White House. A strong wind rattled the awning.

The interview began. I was determined to speak honestly, and not be distracted by the Trump Supporter, and be done with it and go home and never again allow myself to be ambushed in a television interview.

Until the Trump Supporter said that word ‘emotionally.’

“I do not respond emotionally like this lady,” he said.

I thought: o ginidi na-eme nwoke a? [“Just what is wrong with this man?” - hat-tip to Brittle Paper for the translation]

He didn’t say my name. Perhaps he didn’t know it because he had not paid attention when we were introduced. Mine is not an easy name for languid American tongues anyway. But that word ‘emotional.’ No. Just no.

Normally I would not think of ‘emotional’ as belittling. Emotion is a luminous, human quality. I am often emotional – gratefully so. But in this context it was coded language with a long history.

To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect. ‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

No way was I going to ignore that. Which, predictably, led to an interview in which I found myself, rather than talking about misogyny and populism, responding to a man who claimed that an anti-NAFTA, China-bashing, America-First Donald Trump would be an ‘internationalist’ rather than an ‘isolationist.’

Who presumed that he, a white man, could decide what was racist and what was not. And who insisted that Donald Trump is not a racist, even though the evidence is glaring, even though the House Majority Leader of Donald Trump’s own Republican party condemned Donald Trump’s racism.

So much for responding ‘emotionally’ to the election.

I left that interview still feeling upset. But it made me better see why America no longer feels like America.

 
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Recent comments:

  • Chiara
    Chiara
    November 28th, 2016 @23:53 #
     
    Top

    Is it any wonder? Watch this old 1984 debate between him and Christopher Hitchens on Firing Line where his views on women are made abundantly clear (skip forward 15 minutes to watch): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeGKcX-JHNE&feature=youtu.be&t=15m30s

    Later he goes on to describe the women's movement as a "terrible failure" ;-p.
    Yes, he said that.

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