On Sunday night, Hillary Clinton delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN America World Voices Festival. It was about what you’d expect from the former candidate in her first speech since the publication of James Comey’s memos on Donald Trump. “Today, we have a president who seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy,” she said. “Although obsessed with his own press coverage, he evaluates it based not on whether it provides knowledge or understanding, but solely on whether the daily coverage helps him and hurts his opponents.” More interesting, however, was Clinton sitting down with novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie after her speech.
Adichie — who joked that she thought of Clinton as her “auntie” — was a warm and sympathetic conversationalist, but she was also willing to press certain issues. Adichie asked Clinton whether she had fought Trump hard enough, why white women voted for Trump, and why Clinton described herself as a wife first in her Twitter bio. (“When you put it like that, I’m going to change it,” Clinton quipped, though as of this writing, she hasn’t.) It was a thoughtful reexamination of the 2016 election and her own role in Trump’s victory.
Highlights of their conversation follow, lightly edited for length and clarity.
On Hillary Clinton’s likability problem
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
In your memoir Living History, you wrote, “I’m not the sort of person who routinely pours out her deepest feelings.” And I’m hoping that this evening will be different, that you will pour out those feelings to me. But more seriously, I wondered about that, because I realize that what you are describing is a certain reserve that is your nature. But I wonder whether you think you might have had to develop that reserve because of the experiences you’ve had.
I think that’s a really good way of asking the question. I do think it’s a combination of, perhaps, my innate reserve, my temperament, and the experiences I’ve had. Which, by and large, [give me] no cause for complaint, but which have been somewhat taxing and, in the political realm, quite brutal from time to time.
But I think it’s also the age in which I was raised and became a young woman. And it’s hard to separate out all these different factors. So although I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to follow my interests and to get an education and to speak up, yet in the atmosphere growing up in the 1950s and the early 1960s, that was challenging for a young woman. We were pretty much taught from an early age that the worst thing you can do if you’re going to try to be competitive, if you’re going to try to go further than, in my case, my mother: “You can’t show your emotions. You can’t be angry. You can’t cry. You can’t do a lot of things that are part of natural human responses.”
In my book What Happened, I have a whole chapter called “On Being a Woman in Politics,” and I use some examples, not only from my own life but from others’ as well. So trying to walk that line is still more challenging, I think, for women. And my own experience and my own temperament I’m sure added to that.
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
Just before the election, I wrote a piece about you. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to read a few paragraphs and then we’ll talk about it.
When I sent out this piece, it was titled — I titled it — “Why Is Hillary Clinton So Widely Loved?” And I’m going to read to you a few very short paragraphs from the beginning:
We do not see, often enough, the people who love Hillary Clinton, who support her because of her qualifications rather than because of her unqualified opponent, who empathize with her. Yet millions of Americans, women and men, love her intelligence, her industriousness, her grit; they feel loyal to her, they will vote with enthusiasm for her.
Human beings change as they grow, but a person’s history speaks to who she is. There are millions who admire the tapestry of Hillary Clinton’s past: the first-ever student commencement speaker at Wellesley speaking boldly about making the impossible possible, the Yale law student interested in the rights of migrant farmworkers, the lawyer working with the Children’s Defense Fund, the first lady trying to make health care accessible for all Americans.
There are people who love how cleanly she slices through policy layers, how thoroughly she digests the small print. They remember that she won two terms to the United States Senate, where she was not only well-regarded but was known to get along with Republicans. They have confidence in her. There are people who rage at the media on her behalf, who see the coverage she too often receives as unfair. There are people who in a quiet, human way wish her well. There are people who, when Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to be president of the United States, will weep from joy.
When I sent this in, I was struck by how much back-and-forth happened, particularly with the title. I was told, “Oh, we can’t have that title.” And I said, “Well, why can’t we? It’s an opinion piece; that’s what I think.”
I mentioned people who rage on your behalf at how the media treats you. I am one of those people. But until then, I hadn’t realized … it just seemed to me to be so insidious. And in the end, the title was changed. [Laughing.] Because somehow I was silenced, I was censored.
So I want to talk to you about: How do you keep going on? I mean, seriously, knowing that the discourse around your candidacy became about likability: who likes her, who doesn’t like her. I kept thinking, “Who the hell cares? She’s qualified.”
For 25 years, ever since I’ve been in the public spotlight, there has been a very concerted effort to attack me, spread falsehoods about me and the like. Which I knew was going on and which do take a toll. They take a toll, not really on me, but they take a toll on people’s views about me. Because when you have so many absurd lies being propagated about you, you come to know that even when they are easily disprovable, there’s a lingering doubt people have.
I’ve not done — I will say this clearly, as I feel it — I’ve not done or figured out a way to combat that effectively.
I don’t know quite why I provoke that kind of overreaction. And so many of the accusations against me are so absurd. But then in retrospect, when I was writing my book and looking at all the research, enough people believed them. They believed the most outlandish, ridiculous stories: that I was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizzeria. [Audience laughs.] You laugh, but people believed it. Because, as I said in my remarks, it was weaponized. And it was delivered to people who the very smart manipulators behind that knew might be affected.
Just the other day, I looked at an Ohio State analysis about the three stories that led people who had supported President Obama to either not vote or vote for a third party, or even vote for Trump. Most didn’t vote or voted third-party.
The three were that I was dying — a very constant theme. You may not have seen it, but it was very much in the atmosphere. The second was that the pope had endorsed Trump. And the third was that I was supplying weapons to ISIS. And people believed it because the stories are delivered in a way that looks like news.
I don’t blame voters. I don’t blame people who received that on their Facebook feed or their Twitter account, or however they received it, thinking, “Oh, I don’t know.” Even when contrary information is presented — [joking] I’m still here, I haven’t died yet, and the pizzeria didn’t even have a basement — you just have to wonder, “How do we stop this?”
I’m not just concerned because of me. I’m concerned because we’re living in a time when information can be so powerful. And if it’s wrong, or if it’s intended to influence you to do something that is not reality-based but based instead in propaganda, that’s something that we have to face going forward.
The history of suppressing women’s speech goes back as far as The Odyssey
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
I want to talk about the connection between free speech and feminism, because we’re talking about free speech today. Obviously, it’s important to talk about the emancipated literary variety. But what about this idea that often the pursuit of censorship is one of silencing?
Constantly, people have said since the election, “You need to be quiet; you need to go away.” I’m talking about people on the right and the left, often people on the left who should know better. I read that as a feminist issue.
When your book came out, for example, I went online and I read some of the coverage. And I found myself being disappointed, actually, by people on the left who should know better, saying, “We’ve decided she needs to go away, the Democratic Party needs to face forward and think about the future.” And I found myself thinking, “Maybe we could ask Ms. Clinton if she could bring in the nearly 66 million votes that she brought? And then whoever runs can bring in a few more.”
The point being, I’m so happy you’re not being silent. But I want you to talk, if you could, about that decision not to be silent. And also, how are you dealing with the constant barrage of attempts to silence you?
I found this also very curious. Because to the best of my memory, no man who ever lost a presidential election was ever told to shut up and go away. And I’m glad they weren’t, because each had points of view and experiences that were worth hearing about.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I do conclude — and I write about it in my book — that there is this long, long history of trying to silence women. Literally in literature, in the western canon, it goes back to The Odyssey.
Penelope is holding the whole country together while Odysseus is taking his time getting back. She’s raising their son, Telemachus.
There’s a very telling scene where all the usual partiers and others are hanging around, hoping that she’ll finally decide that her husband’s dead and marry one of them so that they can take over. Telemachus is now about 17, so he’s a young man.
His mother comes down, as she always did, to greet people and listen to their complaints and to continue being the glue that held the country together. And her son greets her by saying, “Mother, go back upstairs. Speech is not for women.”
The really terrific classics professor Mary Beard — who some of you know, and if you don’t, look her up — has just written a book about women and power, in which she traces this whole line of being quiet: “Don’t speak. Don’t speak up.”
Now, for everyone saying, “Well, that’s a Hillary Clinton problem.” The people who they’d interview, saying, “Well, of course I would vote for a woman! Just not that woman.” In the last year and a half, what have we seen?
We’ve seen Elizabeth Warren ordered off the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell. I was in the Senate for eight years and I never saw that. Because she was reading a letter from Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions, and he told her to stop. She had every right not to stop, and when she didn’t, he literally had her taken off the floor. And one of her male colleagues — a really good guy, another Democratic senator — he came to the floor of the Senate and he began to read her letter, and nobody said a word.
Or Kamala Harris, who was doing her job and cross-examining Jeff Sessions and [was] basically told to stop talking: “Don’t do that.”
This is not about one woman and one election. This remains a very serious challenge to women speaking out, speaking up, trying to or already assuming positions of power and influence.
So when I hear that, I hear the echoes going back thousands of years. And I hear the unfortunate belief that people still have, that women’s voices are not particularly appealing. That women’s words are not particularly important.
And in my case, it was also because a lot of those same people who said, “Don’t talk,” they did not want to face what happened in the 2016 election. So getting me off the stage was a way of ignoring everything that had gone on.
I come at it very differently. If we don’t understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated in future elections.
Why white women en masse have been trending Republican
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
I was thinking about you going to the inauguration — God bless you; I wouldn’t have — and just looking back: What do you think about the fact that 52 percent of white women voted for this president?
I say that because we knew he had shown us what he was. We knew. It wasn’t just the Access Hollywood tape; it was a way of being and doing in the world.
I ask you this because you’re a white woman, but also because: Gloria Steinem in her memoir writes that many of the women she spoke to who were most opposed to you being president, many of them were white women who were very similar to you: they were educated, they were middle-class, they were about your age. And she was struck by that.
In reading about Trump, I wonder if these are the same women who voted for him. She writes that she tried very hard to humanize you to them, because of all this, “She’s too cold, she’s too ambitious,” and all of those things. Do you think about that?
White women writ large, all white women, have been steadily voting Republican for decades. I actually got a slightly higher percentage of white women than President Obama.
White women have moved toward the Republican Party for a lot of reasons. In 2000 and 2004, there were reasons that had to do — especially 2004 — with the 9/11 attack. In 2008 and ’12, President Obama had an amazing campaign, and it turned out so many people of color that the fact that white women weren’t voting for him was not as salient.
As [for] my case, I actually got a majority of college-educated white women. It was, I think, exactly because these were the women who were most worried about what they’d seen of Trump during the campaign.
But for other women, particularly women who gravitate in presidential elections toward the Republican Party, there were a combination of explanations. They didn’t believe he’d be as bad as he said. They thought it was all political rhetoric. They thought he would bring real change. And as I say in my book, when you run to succeed a two-term president of your own party, it’s always an uphill struggle.
I think there were a number of factors at work in that. But what we’ve seen of the energy coming after the election, starting with the Women’s March and going into the political races of the last year and a half: We’ve seen college-educated, primarily suburban women moving away from the Republican Party because of the performance that they have now been able to watch.
On why Hillary Clinton describes herself as a wife first, and if she should
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
You’ve made many choices for love. In reading about your life, I was thinking about what if you hadn’t gone to Arkansas very very young.
I should say that I spend lots of time being very protective about you, and in my mind I call you my auntie. I get very protective of my Auntie Hillary, and when people talk about your personal life, I find it very irritating. And having read quite a bit of your own writing about your personal life, I think that you have a remarkable love story. I really do. It seems to me that you have this wonderful friendship.
However, I have to say that I’m guilty of being very interested in your personal life. And the one question I have about that is about your Twitter account.
So your Twitter account first of all describes you as a wife. And then it’s mom, and then it’s grandmother. And when I saw that, I have to confess that I felt just a little bit upset. And then I went and I looked at your husband’s Twitter, and the first word that he used to describe himself was not “husband.”
I wanted to ask if this was your choice, if it was something that you wanted to do, or maybe something that somebody thought would be good for the campaign. And if it’s your choice, whether you think it’s fair for me to have been a little bit annoyed by this.
Well, when you put it like that, I’m going to change it.
You know, there’s always this — for me, I’ll just speak for myself, but I think it’s broader than just me — there’s always this internal conflict. When you are very committed to your relationships, your family — in my case, parents and siblings, and obviously my husband and my daughter and now my grandchildren — and your own identity, and how you feel about yourself and describe yourself.
Yesterday, I went to Barbara Bush’s funeral. She gave a very heartfelt speech at Wellesley in I think 1991 [ed. note: 1990], in which she said: At the end of the day, it won’t matter if you got a raise, it won’t matter if you wrote a great book, if you are not also someone who values relationships. She got a standing ovation after, [even though] there was a lot of concern and some protest about her being invited to come speak.
I’ve thought a lot about that. Because it shouldn’t be either/or. It should be that if you are someone who is defining yourself by what you do and what you accomplish, and that is satisfying, then more power to you; that is how you should be thinking about your life and living it. If you are someone who primarily defines your life in relationship to others, then more power to you. Live that life the way Barbara Bush lived that life, and how proud she was to do it.
But I think most of us as women in today’s world end up in the middle: wanting to have relationships, wanting to invest in them, nurture them, but also pursuing our own interests.
I loved the picture of Sen. Tammy Duckworth coming onto the floor of the Senate with her baby. I think that sort of summed it all up. She is both: She’s a mom, she’s a senator, she’s a combat veteran. She is somebody who’s trying to integrate all the various aspects of her life. That’s what I’ve tried to do for a very long time, and it’s not easy. But it is something that I’ve chosen to do, and I think is best for me, so I’m going to keep doing it.
But I am going to change my Twitter account.
“The overwhelming story was my candidacy and his behavior”
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
Do you remember Suzie O’Callahan, when you were very young? She’s a little girl who has bullied you, and you came in crying to your mother. And your mother said, “Go back out there, and if she hits you, you have my permission to hit her back.”
Reading that, I thought about your most recent campaign. Did you hit back often enough, do you think?
I now think that I didn’t.
In the book, I write about that one particular incident when [Trump] was stalking me on the debate stage. People are saying, “You need to talk about the mistakes you made.” I’ve been pretty forthcoming about that, but one of the mistakes is that it was really difficult to figure out how to deal with the first reality TV candidate in a reality TV campaign.
I’ve been around people who run for president. I’ve supported them, obviously married one, worked for another. So I was used to what was the norm — only updating the technology, you do a better job communicating — but the norm was: You lay out what you’re going to do, you defend it, and at some point, usually in the debates, one of the questioners really nails you down. Like, “Okay, you say you’re going to give us universal health care coverage. How are you going to do it? How are you going to pay for it?”
We didn’t really get a lot of that in the campaign, because the overwhelming story was my candidacy and his behavior. So we were always trying to figure out how to break through.
On that debate stage, I remember so well thinking, “What do I do?” I did practice to say what I wanted to say in the short period of time we were given, and all of a sudden — I know what he’s doing. He’s trying to intimidate me, but he’s also sending a message to the audience. “This is what a president looks like. It’s a guy who is going to overpower people and be dominant.”
So I’m thinking, “What, do I turn around? Do I say, ‘Back up, you creep’?” But by then, I had enough experience. The coverage of it would have been, “She can’t take the pressure.” Or, “She got angry.” I say things in a normal tone and I’m always amazed when the press says, “She was so angry!” [Joking] You haven’t seen anything yet.
I was really struggling with it, and I concluded, as I was, I think, expecting myself to, “Okay. You just have to be calm and controlled. Ultimately, what the country wants is somebody who is not going to be blowing up in the Oval Office. They want somebody who is going to be in control of their problems.” As you know, that did not work out so good.