Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie has been listed as one of New York Times Style Magazine’s Greats in the special annual issue, among seven other individuals who are leading in their respective fields. The list includes: Actress Amy Adams, Director Park Chan-Wook, Rapper/singer Nicki Minaj, Artist Claes Oldenburg, Composer Stephen Sondheim, and Designer Dries Van Noten.
Hanya Yanagihara, T’s editor in chief wanted to break the mold of the traditional glossy magazine profile, so the editors didn’t simply choose subjects with a movie, book or album to promote.
“The point is to have an unexpected mix of people who are in conversation with one another even in ways that aren’t immediately obvious.” “The question was, did they do work that changed their field forever, and did they do work that is so singular it can only be done by them?” Yanagihara said.
Acclaimed writer Adichie was photographed by artist-photographer Carrie Mae Weems and her profile written by Dave Eggars who touched briefly on her formative years, her success as an author and life as a feminism icon.
By pairing the subjects with fellow leaders in their field, T’s Greats issue editors hoped to give readers a unique perspective on how both approach their work, and on how they think about each other’s contributions. The goal was not to pry into the private lives of these individuals. “I think our writers don’t make the mistake of thinking they are getting to the heart of anything,” Yanagihara said. “It’s more about answering the question of, ‘Why is this person so moving to me?’
In his profile introduction Dave Eggars started by giving a story that best reflects Chimamanda’s personality and her stance on feminism. He wrote, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stood in front of a small class of literature students at Cardozo high school in Washington, D.C. While introducing her, Dr. Frazier O’Leary, the class’s soft-spoken teacher, mentioned that Adichie had visited at the school a few years before, and that between that visit and this one, Adichie had had a daughter, now 23 months old. Then he ceded the floor to Adichie. She stood before the 20-odd students, her fingertips on the podium, and swept her almond eyes around the room.”
“Adichie was wearing a T-shirt that read, in glittering letters, “We Should All Be Feminists,” and she carried a Christian Dior bag that bore the same message, both inspired by her 2012 TEDx Talk, which has been viewed over four million times. The students had been assigned to read Adichie’s essay based on the talk, and thus it was dispiriting when the first question came from a young man, originally from Ghana, who very politely asked how Adichie was balancing her work with the responsibilities of motherhood.”
“She looked down and smiled. She took her time, and then, with her chin still lowered, she raised her eyes to look kindly at the student. “I’m going to answer your question,” she said, “but you have to promise me that the next time you meet a new father, you ask him how he’s balancing his work and the responsibilities of fatherhood.”
He also highlighted her projects. In Nigeria, Adichie is considered a national icon not only because her books have garnered such acclaim, but because quickly after her success she founded the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, a program where aspiring Nigerian writers spend a few weeks every year workshopping with Adichie and a coterie of international writers she brings to Lagos.
T’s Greats issue approach also offered artists and intellectuals an opportunity to engage in larger cultural conversations within the pages of the magazine. For example, the artist Carrie Mae Weems; who penned a letter to Michelle Obama for last year’s Greats issue; photographed Adichie. “Weems’s work deals with issues of gender and race, so we thought it would be interesting to see how she would envision Chimamanda,” explains Nadia Vellam, T’s photo editor. “I liked the idea of having two women from two different cultures living in America connect through shared experiences.”