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2: Terms and Themes

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    Key Terms

    The terms below constitute a glossary of specialized vocabulary that may be useful for understanding Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works.

    Cultural Terms

    American Tribalism: A type of modern tribalism which organizes individuals in the United States into organizational categories based on their different cultural or physical traits. Americans might categorize themselves by race, religion, country of origin, financial status, or education level. This manifests itself in like socializing and congregating with like.

    Apartheid: An Afrikaans word translated as “separateness.”Apartheid is a system of segregating society based on race in South Africa.

    Colonialism: The process of setting up colonies outside of Europe so as to maintain imperial power and control. It is the domination of one people by another — in most cases the domination of Europe over the non-European other.

    Critical Race Theory: A theoretical framework which asserts whiteness is a construct that requires otherness to exist. Its basic tenets are: (1) Race is a social construct, not a biological science. (2) Racism in the United States is an everyday experience for people of color (3) Advances and setbacks for people of color typically originate to benefit white groups. (4) Negative stereotyping of minorities serves to elevate white power (5) Individuals cannot be defined by their membership in a single group due to the complex nature of “intersectionalities.”

    Cross-Cultural Experience: A phenomena characterized by meaningful firsthand conversation and dialogue with another culture. It entails deeper participation than a passive, tourist experience.

    Ethnicity and ethnic identity: An identifier constructed from cultural aspects of one’s country of origin: language, religion, appearance, regionality, as well as culture and ancestry. In the United States, ethnicity is viewed as biological; it is a question of where your ancestors came from. Ethnicity is largely defined by ethnic boundaries between countries, which can be ever changing, meaning ethnicity can quickly become self-prescribed and removable (Nagel).

    Eurocentrism: A cultural worldview focused on Europe as the center of all aspects of history. The histories and cultures of other, non-White, non-European countries are therefore viewed through a European context, relating everything back to European events and history. European culture is the dominant, preeminent culture and way of life from a Eurocentric point of view.

    Fulani: An ethnic group hailing mostly from northern Nigeria. The Fulani are a semi-nomadic pastoral people. Their religion is Islam, like the Hausa people. The Fulani combined forces with the Hausa in the 19th century. They primarily speak Hausa as well as their own language, Fulfulde.

    Hausa: An autocratic patrilineal ethnic group primarily residing in northern Nigeria. The Hausa mainly practice Islam in addition to a traditional African religion, Maguzanci, in remote parts of Hausaland. They speak Hausa as well as French, English, and Arabic. When Nigeria gained independence from the British, the British gave most governmental control to the Hausa, spurring Hausa-led genocidal campaigns against the Igbo, as described in Half of a Yellow Sun.

    Igbo (Ibo): An ethnic group native to present-day southeastern and south-central Nigeria. The Igbo adopted Christianity from colonial missionaries, but they also incorporate indigenous belief systems. Their present-day languages include Igbo and English. The Igbo supported the founding of the secessionist state, Biafra, as described in Half of a Yellow Sun.

    Imperialism: The idea driving colonization. Overseas territorial expansion had been a part of European history since the 1400s but due to industrialization and growth in worldwide trade networks, the 19th century saw a renewed competition among European powers for empire building. This renewed sense of imperialism was often driven by the combined forces of nationalism, religious zealotry, and a desire for increased economic gains.

    Nationality: A legal term which relates to your status as a citizen of a specific country. Nationality has no connection to genetics or ancestry, but instead is solely based on citizenship.

    Otherness: A state of alienation resulting from a disconnect between the self and dominant social constructs. This term is grounded in the study of phenomenology: a philosophical branch concerned with consciousness and experience.

    Partition: The process by which competing European forces divided Africa for the purpose of economic gain and power. The creation of these artificial borders led to civil war and violence between indigenous tribes.

    Postcolonial literature: Literature written after a culture’s period of colonization. These works comment on life before, during, or after colonization.

    Postcolonial Theory: Postcolonialism, or postcolonial theory, is an intellectual modality concerned with tracing the impact of European colonization on culture, history, literature, politics, economics, and other facets of existence.

    Race: An identifier that Merriam Webster Dictionary defines as “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry.” However, race can also be thought of as a largely socially constructed idea, used in countries like the United States to create divisions between groups of people, often based on skin color.

    Racial stereotypes: A stereotype is an overgeneralized and fixed idea of a person, group, or thing. A racial stereotype oversimplifies racial groups, and oftentimes cannot exist without the presence of whiteness. In the United States, racial stereotypes are intrinsically rooted in power and hierarchy (Landry). A racial stereotype of Black people is often seen as the opposite of white people in the United States, and white advantage cannot exist without the presence of black disadvantage.

    Social constructionism: A theory used in multiple disciplines which examines how collective understandings of reality shape social interactions and institutions. Social constructionism asserts that all meaning, knowledge and language is socially created. This theory is often used in the humanities and social sciences as a way to understand how society has developed ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and other identity markers (Mallon).

    Yoruba: An ethnic group found in western Nigeria as well as Benin, Ghana, and Togo. Historically the Yoruba were organized as a feudal society. Their religious beliefs vary, including Christianity and Islam, as well as their traditional religion centered on mythology, cosmology, and divination.

    Feminist Terms

    Eurocentric/White Feminism: A branch of feminism defined by Euro-American ideals such as freedom and empowerment.

    Feminism: The advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.

    Feminism Lite: A concept Adichie defines as: “the idea of conditional female equality” (Dear Ijeawele 20). Feminism Lite is a watered down version of feminism characterized by seeking permission from men. It often uses analogies such as, “He is the head and you are the neck” in describing gender roles within a heterosexual partnership.

    Feminist Theory: An interdisciplinary conceptual framework concerned with studying the manifestations of gender inequality for the advancement of women’s rights.

    Intersectionality: The overlapping, interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, as they apply to a given individual or group. Intersectionalities converge to create interdependent systems of privileges or disadvantages.

    Intersectional Feminism: A branch of feminism which advocates that female empowerment is experienced differently across varying cultures. Intersectional feminism asserts that feminism should take race, culture, gender, etc. into account because not all women have access to the same resources and worldviews.

    Misandry: A dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men.

    Misogyny: A dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudices against women.

    Rape: Non-consensual sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will, or with a person who is beneath a certain age, or incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.

    Sexual objectification: The act of treating a person as an object to be used and identified only for sexual gratification or desire.

    Major Themes

    Colonization and Its Aftermath

    Chimamanda Adichie is widely accepted among the literary world as a postcolonial writer. Combining various themes like culture, identity, imperialism, and gender, her works urge readers to consider the effect colonialism has on cultures across the world, including her native Nigeria. Adichie recognizes the importance of postcolonial literature as an art and a forum for African scholars. In a broad sense, all of Adichie’s works can be examined through a postcolonial lens.


    One key theme that Adichie works through in her novels is education and its importance. In her writing, Adichie delves into her own rationale behind why she believes education is vital for all people. She discusses why it is essential for women to receive an education in order for them to stand on equal footing with their male counterparts in society in Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. While writing Dear Ijeawele, Adichie mentions how important it is for women to receive both a balanced formal and informal education. It is not enough to simply send young girls to school to learn, but they must also benefit from being socialized in a manner that is not wholly dependent on their status as women. While Dear Ijeawele, or a Femenist Manifesto focuses heavily on informal education, Adichie does also approach the topic of traditional formal education in many of her other works. In her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie examines the effects of education on multiple characters and how it allows them a heightened level of upward social mobility. She primarily does this through Ugwu, a young boy, and Odenigbo, a professor. Both men have similar socioeconomic upbringing and are able to use education to propel themselves into an entirely new position in life. In Adichie’s short story, “The Headstrong Historian,” from her collection of short stories entitled The Thing Around Your Neck, she discusses how education can be used to both enforce colonial ideology and find value in cultural expression. Grace, the titular headstrong historian comes to understand that just because her formal education, at the hand of colonizers, does not find inherent value in the expression of her Ignbo culture, does not mean that such a worldview is correct.


    In much of Adichie’s writing, the main focus is feminism. This can be seen in any place where she is advocating for the equality of men and women. Something she often touches on in her writing is that feminism is contextual, as she says in Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen suggestions. Feminism crosses all cultures and stories because all women have their own experiences with feminism, and all of them can be different.

    Adichie has also touched on the idea that feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive in her writing. Being a feminist does not mean you must reject feminity as she believes that it is misogynistic to suggest that women should abandon their femininity to be feminist. Women shouldn’t be ashamed to be “feminine,” just as men aren’t ashamed of “masculine.” In Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion and in Dear Ijeawele, Adichie confronts the topic of how women must dress a certain way so they are not perceived as frivolous. This is in line with the assumption that appearance and clothing for women can determine intelligence, seriousness, and ability.

    Adichie believes that gender roles are “absolute nonsense.” Nothing should be assigned to a person because of their gender. This is including and not limited to cooking, cleaning, household maintenance, and child rearing. These are all learned skills that every person should know and should not be left to one person in a household. In Adichie’s literature, you can see the protagonists fighting against gender norms.


    Adichie uses motherhood in tandem with feminism in her writings. In her work she considers the worries and anxieties of soon-to-be mothers, their perceived responsibilities, and what it means to be both a feminist, a career driven woman, and a mother all at once. Adichie writes about both negative and positive outcomes and interactions surrounding different kinds of mothers and their children and spouses.

    In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie is careful to give advice to her friend, but still leaves room for her to omit what doesn’t work for her and encourages her to ask for help, and allow herself to be helped; showing motherhood does not have to be done alone. In Half of a Yellow Sun, one protagonist, Olanna, is torn between her family’s view of her as just a pretty face and “ruined by education” to others when she realizes that she wants to have a baby with Odenigbo. She recognizes that she has to allow herself to want to be a mother and still be the strong-willed professor she was when she met Odenigbo.


    A common theme found among the works of Adichie is gender oppression in marriage. She explores through writing the ways in which women are pressured to sacrifice their own identities and passions for the sake of preserving a relationship in which the men do not face the same pressures. Adichie’s fiction shows that society expects women to marry, and women internalize that it can be difficult to survive without a husband. Because of these pre-existing circumstances, many women are put in the position where they must fill the role of wife even though it strips them of many freedoms. In Adichie’s nonfiction works, Dear IIjeawele and We Should All Be Feminists, she argues that women should try to combat the ways in which they are pressured into unfair marriages that ultimately exploit and abuse them. Even though Adichie critiques marriage inequality in her nonfiction pieces, she continues to push back against the idea of exploitative and unfair marriages in her fiction as well. Through her fiction, she works to demonstrate just how challenging married life can be for women and how marriage has the potential to hinder a woman’s advancement.


    In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie discusses how language used towards girls is different from how boys are spoken to and described. In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie stresses how girls are described as “princesses” and boys are socialized to be chivalrous towards women, meaning that women are treated like they need to be saved. This language implies that women are supposed to be delicate, beautiful, and protected by a man. She also speaks about how she has heard American politicians state how women should be “revered” or “championed.” Adichie argues that women should not be “revered” or “championed;” rather, they should be treated as equal human beings. She suggests that there is a patronizing undertone when women are “championed” or “revered.” This type of language reminds Adichie of chivalry, and she believes the premise of chivalry is female weakness. Adichie also discusses the problem with the word “allowed”. She attaches a term she calls “feminism lite” in relation to the term “allowed,” using the following example: “Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine” (Adichie 21). The word “allowed” is demeaning to women because he should not have to “allow” his wife to be a part of politics. Women should not have to be given permission to have power, that should be a fundamental right. Throughout Dear Ijeawele, Adichie points out the problems with the ways language reinforces patriarchal values.

    Power Dynamics

    Many of Adichie’s works of fiction and nonfiction represent the various ways in which uneven power structures affect societies and individuals. By focusing on gender inequality, colonization, racism, class inequity, and related topics, she navigates the implications of what it means to have or not have power.

    Sex and Sexuality

    Both Adichie’s fiction and nonfiction is generally sex-positive, even if it is heteronormative. The sexual empowerment of women, her work suggests, is a feminist issue. Her work also often suggests that sex is is most satisfying if the parties involved are emotionally intimate. Adichie also writes about sexual violence in various works of fiction, emphasizing the role of toxic masculinity in perpetuation violence against women.

    The American Dream

    Adichie explores the theme of the American Dream in several of her short stories featuring immigrant characters and also in the novel Americanah. These texts suggest that the American Dream is something of a mirage, offering false hope to those who move to the United States in pursuit of upward mobility. Most of the characters in Adichie’s works that have this

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