Personal Censorship and the Female Author

By Elaina Koros

On October 10, 2014 Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie visited campus for a conversation with Professor Scott D. Taylor. Adichie spoke vibrantly and honestly, detailing the distinct pressures she faces as a Nigerian writer living in America. She explained that American readers often expect African literature to address topics specific to African or African-American culture, while some African readers believe such works should reflect exclusively conservative values, omitting provocative topics such as premarital sex. Tugged at by both cultures, the African author is prone to personal censorship, she argues, withholding full disclosure even in his or her private writing process.

“I don’t think about audience when I write, and it’s the first lesson I tell my students when I teach creative writing,” Adichie shared. “Looking at my career in particular, if I had been thinking about things like audience and marketing, I probably wouldn’t have done what I’ve done.”

Adichie said she must expel even the judgments of those very close to her—her African “aunties,” uncles and parents—during the writing process. Only then can she compose the honest literature that, in her opinion, is worth writing. “The minute I start [considering audience], I’ll censor myself, and I’ll censor myself a lot. How could I write a sex scene if I knew my father would read it?” she asked during the talk.

Though I am a second-generation American of Greek heritage, I connect completely with this aspect of Adichie’s experience as a writer. During my freshman year at Georgetown, I took an Introduction to Creative Writing course. For my final project, I wrote a collection of essays and poems exploring topics of depression, reflecting on a number of suicides at my high school. Considering the reactions of my classmates and family, I often strayed from words that would connect feelings of grief to myself in anyway. As a writer and journalist, I also fear bad writing in itself. I’ll form sentences in my head, revising them meticulously until they earn the right to be written. This process of perfection can modify my true meaning, leaving me with a grammatically sound but emotionally incomplete thoughts. I’ve found that my best writing stems from uncensored thoughts, from making a list of twenty things I know for certain or ten things I like about myself. If the result seems silly or vain, it doesn’t matter—only my eyes will see it. However, it’s often this writing that I want other people to see because it’s genuine.

I think that any group that faces oppressive expectations, including members of the feminine gender, can experience personal censorship while writing. Women are taught to be likeable from childhood, and societal criticism surrounds women who express overt sexuality. One mistake can severely affect a woman’s reputation, so many of us project “perfect” versions of ourselves, hiding slip-ups at all costs. When a woman represses her thoughts and actions, she naturally censors her words. Fearing the judgment of her family and society, how can she then write honestly?

To address widespread personal censorship, women need more than tricks to work around the problem. We need to begin writing about hard topics—even “shameful” topics. When one woman, such as Adichie, writes about sex in our modern age, it empowers dozens, maybe hundreds, of women to do the same. Difficult topics such as discrimination, sexual assault, abortion and depression can join empowerment, family and friendship as facets of “feminine” literature. Together we can form a diverse library of genuine experiences, knowledge accessible for readers of both genders. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as women, limited by the stereotypes of our gender, and start thinking about ourselves as writers, agents of the truth.

“Life is so damn short, and there are so many women I know who really feel strongly about certain things but they pretend [otherwise],” said Adichie toward the end of the discussion. When we as women stop tempering our opinions, emotions and experiences, we can start to publish the words that deserve to be written.