On Tuesday night, during prepared remarks at an event in Lower Manhattan, the acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revealed how she knew America was in trouble. Growing up in Nigeria, she said, the United States represented democracy as it could be, and as such there were certain things that she assumed could never happen in the U.S. For example, electing a President who could install family members in positions of power for no reason. She paused, to a few knowing laughs from the room.
It was a good audience for that kind of remark: The space was full of writers, editors, philanthropists, and activists, all there to support Adichie and PEN America, the literary and human rights organization for which she's designed a special edition pendant (only 40 were made) in collaboration with New York jewelry brand Foundrae.
At first blush, that might seem unexpected: Adichie is best-known for her brilliant novels, like 2013’s Americanah (for which she won the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award), and her iconic 2012 TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” which was quoted in a Beyoncé song and became a book-length essay of the same name. But it makes sense when you find out that the goal of the pendant—engraved with the symbols for infinity and fire, as well as arrows that represent the “arrow forward, as we must always press on, knowing that the journey of progress is unfinished”—is to raise $120,000 for PEN America, enabling the group to continue to defend freedom of expression and the writers oppressed for speaking truth to power. (It will be available at Foundrae’s store as well as through retail partners starting May 1.)
Speaking with Adichie earlier in the evening, I asked her why she felt it was important to support PEN America at this moment in history. She said working with the organization was a natural fit for her because they share such common interests. “Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, PEN supports writers who are imprisoned by governments—things that are important to me also,” she said. “It’s an effortless good match.” As for the timing, she added, “I think American democracy is being tested, and it’s urgent. I feel a lot more urgent about the things that matter—dignity, humanity, all the things I think are in trouble.”
Asked if she had any words for the writers and journalists who might be questioning their paths, especially given how dangerous the world feels for them, Adichie thought for a moment. “I think we have to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said. “I do worry about the climate that has been created for journalists in this country, and maybe it’s easy for me to say, ‘You have to keep doing it.’ But you have to, because if we don’t have journalism then we’re in trouble—it’s like living in darkness.”
But despite everything awful happening in the world, surely there’s something that keeps Adichie motivated? She said that she was optimistic about rooms like the one we were in, where people were vocal about their willingness to tell the truth about what's happening in America. “The pockets of sanity that exist, one must nurture,” she told me, a sentiment she would revisit later in the night during her speech.
And with Adichie and representatives from PEN America in the room, it did feel like, for a little while, we were in one of those increasingly rare pockets.
To learn more and support PEN America, you can visit their website PEN.org. To view more of Foundrae’s items—and to purchase one of the Adichie-designed pendants, beginning on May 1—visit foundrae.com.
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