Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, MAMA'S SLEEPING SCARF

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, MAMA'S SLEEPING SCARF

Guest host Alisha Fernandez Miranda interviews bestselling author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about her first children’s book, MAMA’S SLEEPING SCARF, a tender story about a little girl’s love for her mother’s scarf. Chimamanda reflects on the challenges of parenting, from instilling manners to managing social media exposure. She also shares her experiences as a writer, including taking a break after motherhood and working on a new novel after a decade. She concludes with advice for aspiring writers, highlighting the importance of regular writing, revisiting one’s work, and learning from reading.


Alisha Fernandez Miranda: Chimamanda, welcome to the podcast.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Thank you.

Alisha: I basically elbowed out everybody to steal this episode from Zibby when she had a conflict with her time. I’m such a fan of your fiction, of your essays, We Should All Be Feminists. I was like, I don’t even care what book this is. I want to do this interview with her.

Chimamanda: That’s so sweet.

Alisha: I didn’t care that it was eight thirty at night here in Scotland. That’s practically my bedtime. I was like, no, no, we’re doing this. I am so excited that you are here to talk about Mama’s Sleeping Scarf.

Chimamanda: It’s exciting for me as well. I haven’t really done many promotional things for it, so it’s still exciting and fresh.

Alisha: It’s a lovely story. It’s a perfect bedtime story. I was telling you before we started the interview that I made my kids read it with me before bed even though there are almost twelve, so maybe slightly out of the appropriate — well, not appropriate, but the target age for this beautiful book. It’s such a great story. It’s beautifully illustrated. Chino is the perfect kid. She’s so polite. I need to know if you were the perfect child or if you are raising the perfect child, and that’s how you get this example. I was amazed by her manners, frankly, through the story.

Chimamanda: That’s interesting. No, I was not the perfect child. I wish I could lie and say that I was. I feel like somebody would send you a message and be like, she’s lying. Actually, it’s so interesting that — huh. Okay, I guess so. I think my daughter is better than — she’s better at this age — she’s eight — than I was at eight. It’s interesting because she’s actually quite fierce. She has her opinions. She’s very good at saying no. We do try to teach her, and in some ways also, just the very Nigerian/African idea that you should be polite to adults, that kind of thing, but also to have a sense of autonomy. In some ways, I think that this book, for me, was about also just respecting a child’s autonomy, obviously, within limits. I just don’t think that we should be our children’s friends. I think we should be our children’s parents, but within a certain boundary, to have a sense of autonomy. She has the scarf. She just does what she wants with it because it’s safe and fun. I think my daughter is reasonably well-mannered.

Alisha: After reading it with my kids, I was like, “Do you see how much more often you should be saying please and thank you? This is obvious in this book.” It’s so funny, isn’t it, with our kids? When I see my kids have a little bit of fire, I’m always like, I love that you have that. I wish that you were not deploying that weapon against me. Save it for the rest of the world. Just be obedient and listen to everything I say. Why can’t that happen?

Chimamanda: Oh, my goodness, I feel exactly the same way. Exactly the same way. You want that for them. You’re preparing them for a world in which they will need that to survive, but you don’t want to see that when my daughter says no.

Alisha: Exactly. Just save this. Save this. You’re going to need it. Right now, please just get in the shower and go to bed. That’s all I really want. I started going through your bio. You’ve written so much. You’ve been writing for such a long time, but this is your first children’s book. What made you decide to write this book? How did the idea of the scarf come to you?

Chimamanda: Why did I decide to write this? Because I had a child. My daughter is eight, like I said. Before I had her, I just wasn’t interested in children’s books. I thought I wasn’t the right person to write children’s books because my vision is very dark. I’m interested in war and in justice and all of those things. Then I had my daughter. We would read to her. We started reading to her quite early. I just started thinking about writing a book because of her, for her. Then I remember this day that I’m holding her. She was maybe one, maybe a little less than one. She pulls off my scarf. I always have a scarf around my head when I sleep. It was one of those moments that, it’s so ordinary, but it’s also so perfect. I was so moved by it. Having this child completely changed everything for me. I was one of those annoying mothers for whom every little thing became very precious. I was like, this moment is precious. I’m going to forget it. I wrote it down because I make notes all the time. Then my parents — I was very close to my parents. My father died, and my mother died a few months after. My father died in June of 2020. It was — still is, actually — just really difficult. Really difficult.

It was those two things, that memory and then my parents dying and this feeling of just being unmoored and so desperately wanting to hold onto memory because of my parents. They adored my daughter. I think my parents were not sure that I would have a child because I’ve always been the strange child. I have five siblings. They’re all good, law-abiding people who have good jobs and who have children. I was the strange one. I wasn’t sure I wanted children. When I had my daughter, my parents were so thrilled and so surprised. They worshipped her. I wanted to remember that for myself and for her. All of these things came together. Also, just the idea of the scarf, I was thinking about and really interested in that idea of making the small things of our lives familiar to everyone. I think that for most Black women, having something, a scarf, something around your head when you’re sleeping is normal, but I don’t think it’s normal for many people who are not Black. I kind of love the idea of celebrating this little thing, a scarf, but also just making it familiar to everyone. All of that came together, and this happened, Mama’s Sleeping Scarf.

Alisha: That is so beautiful. Did you find, when you had your daughter and you started, I would presume, reading more children’s books than maybe you had before — you have spoke in your amazing TED Talk about the dangers of a single story. Did you find that in children’s literature? Did you find a good enough selection of stories that were reflecting the type of world you wanted your daughter to see and the things that were familiar to you, or did you feel like having a child and seeing what was out there, it was important for you to have a book where she saw someone in it that looked like her?

Chimamanda: That’s a good question. In some ways, it’s both. When I started reading children’s books — really, I hadn’t read any until I had her. I had no reason to. I just wasn’t interested.

Alisha: You weren’t just picking up Dr. Seuss on the weekends.

Chimamanda: This is my weekend reading. We would read to her. Two things. I realized that there’s so many animal characters in children’s books, which is fine, obviously. I just thought, I wish we had more people. We would go to the library. I would go looking for books that had a wide range of people. I wanted her very early on to see the world as it is, and obviously, also to see herself. The other thing I noticed was how often the books that had Black children were about sort of serious things. I remember at her baptism — we had a baptism. We had a big party. People gave her presents. One of the presents was a book about a Black child who was going off to be an activist. I just thought, activism is wonderful, but really, for — I thought, how about the child just off to explore and search for treasure or something?

For me, it was wanting to see more Black children in books who are doing absolutely ordinary things, that’s not about fighting racism or all of those things. I missed seeing books that were ordinary. I was telling a friend about this book, Mama’s Sleeping Scarf. He said to me, “Oh, that’s so surprising. I expected the scarf to become magical.” I think it’s the expectation we have about a lot of children’s literature, that something extraordinary has to happen. We fly away on the scarf, that sort of thing. My daughter loves books like that. We’re reading a book now where — something about underpants. Somebody’s underpants sort of take on a life of its own and goes to different parts of the world. She loves it. I wanted something more ordinary because I think there’s so much beauty in just the ordinary. I think there’s more work to be done in diversifying children’s books, but I think it’s much better today than it was twenty years ago, for example. I think the publishing world is making an effort.

Alisha: My kids were born in 2011. I have never really thought about it. I’m trying to think of any books that I read them that had people in them. I’m really struggling. We did a lot of Julia Donaldson because we’re in the UK, a lot of Dr. Suess. Mostly, giraffes who don’t know how to dance or unicorns who poop rainbows.

Chimamanda: My daughter loved that one. My daughter loved that giraffe .

Alisha: I do love Giraffes Can’t Dance, actually. That’s such a cute book. It’s amazing. You published We Should All Be Feminists in 2014. I have bought copies for almost everybody I know, probably, at different stages of the last almost ten years. This was adapted from a TEDx Talk you did in 2012. It’s been more than a decade. You’ve had a child in that period. What do you feel like has changed since then for you and for the broader space that you’re operating in?

Chimamanda: Very little.

Alisha: Nothing.

Chimamanda: I find it increasingly interesting to talk about feminism because I think on the one hand, there’s a lot of talk. I think that word, feminism, has become a lot more familiar to people. It’s thrown around very often. It just seems to me that the fundamental issues haven’t really changed. There’s just so much that I’m still very dissatisfied with, I’m still angry about. I think that there’s nowhere in the world today that we have real gender equality. Nowhere. Nowhere. God bless Norway. God bless Sweden and Denmark and Iceland, but they do not have gender equality. I’ve just been reading a book by this — she is the wife of the president of Iceland, I think, or the prime minister. It’s so interesting. She’s Canadian. Iceland is often talked about as this wonderful place where there’s gender equality. In this book, she talks to just ordinary Icelandic women. I was struck by how the issues are the same, this idea that women constantly have to compromise more. Professional women have to deal with a kind of casual disrespect, always having to prove that you know what you’re doing. The only reason you have to do that is because you’re a woman. Obviously, the difficulty of wanting to “have it all,” which is just such a strange thing for me — it’s a conversation about domestic life and domestic work. Women are still doing the bulk of it. For many of them, it’s unpaid. All of those things still interest me. Of course, being Nigerian, being African, I really care a lot about things that still haven’t changed very much, things like child marriage, female circumcision. It’s decreasing in many parts of Africa but still isn’t gone. Beyoncé did the thing on feminism. I think that’s good.

Alisha: She sampled your T-shirts on the runway. You’ve had a lot of popular culture feminism.

Chimamanda: I have. I have. I like it because I do think that talking about things makes a difference. I think that the more we talk about something, the more that we make it front and center. Then I think that the greater the likelihood of some kind of change, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. Am I happy at the state of women in the world? No.

Alisha: Do you feel optimistic about the future your daughter is going into?

Chimamanda: I want to say yes. I want to be optimistic because this child is my life. I realize I spend a lot of time worrying about her future. My latest obsession — yes, I’m one of those annoyingly obsessive — I don’t know what it was like for you, but obsession and anxiety came into my life the minute I had a child. I’m constantly worrying about her. She’s eight years old, but now I’m worrying about, what’s her adolescence going to be like? Now I’m really obsessing about social media because I’ve just read this book about the increase in anxiety and depression among young people. The more they use Instagram, the more likely they are to be anxious and depressed. I just find it so worrying. Also for me, the question is, how does one deal with it? On the one hand, you’re not going to — I don’t think it makes sense to say I’m to ban her from all social media because it’s just not practical. Then on the other hand, I’m thinking, how do you try and strike that balance where you’re guarding her against depression and anxiety? Am I optimistic? I usually am optimistic. I think maybe this is one of my dark days, actually.

Alisha: I know. I’m always like, depends what day you catch me on. I had twins. There was definitely worry, anxiety, and just exhaustion.

Chimamanda: Oh, my goodness, I can imagine.

Alisha: I would say now, about to turn twelve, this is probably fifty to seventy-five percent of the conversations I have with other parents of kids my age, about, do they have a phone? When are you getting them a phone? What are the permissions they have? What can they use? What can they not? It is very scary because it feels kind of unknown. Social media is a nice dark topic for your next novel. There you go.

Chimamanda: Thank you, Alisha. I hadn’t thought about that. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I think it’s too big a topic for me to even deal with in fiction. I’m curious, your twelve-year-olds, what’s your —

Alisha: — I’m probably on the stricter edge, I would say. They don’t have phones. They won’t get phones until they need them, like when they’re doing more independent things outside of me. I’m very anti-social media. I say that, and now everybody who’s listening is like, but you’re on Instagram twenty-four hours a day. I’m working on my own social media. For kids, I’ve told them sixteen. That’s what I’ve said to them. I said, “When you’re sixteen, you can have it, but not before then. You can hate me. Tell your therapist later. I’m going to draw my line, and I’m going to stick to it.”

Chimamanda: I love it. I love it. See, I’m taking notes. I’m just asking women who have older kids. You’re saying sixteen. I was telling my husband maybe twenty-five, which is what I want.

Alisha: For a while when they were really little and a lot of this news was coming out, I just kept thinking maybe social media will somehow have disappeared by the time they’re adolescents, and I won’t have to worry about it. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get that lucky. It is all scary. It’s all scary because it’s like your heart walking around outside of your body. It’s so terrifying having children and putting them out into the world. I’m glad we have books like your extremely sweet, almost like a poem, a lullaby book that I can still force them to listen to. They have no choice.

Chimamanda: Tell them I said I’m so sorry and I send them my love.

Alisha: They’re listening to it every day. We’re going to be like, it’s Mama’s Sleeping Scarf time, guys. You did mention that you typically write about darker topics. Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book on some of those darker things? The thing that came to mind when I was looking at everything you’ve written about recently was grief, and grief for children, which is certainly a topic that I have struggled to find a lot of good books on in my own journey with my kids. Would you write another children’s book? Would you keep it nice and light, or do you think you might do something more serious next?

Chimamanda: One of my things is, never say never. I realize in my life, I say never, and then I end up doing it. It’s not something I’m thinking about. I don’t know. Maybe at some point in the future, but not now because I think that I’m still trying to make sense of grief for myself. I don’t think I’m in a position to make it digestible for children. My daughter, I was so worried for her when my father died and then my mother. Obviously, they don’t fully understand. She looked sad. Then after a while, she said, “When is Grandpa going to wake up?” That just completely broke my heart. She doesn’t actually understand. To write for children about grief would be finding a way to let them know that Grandpa is never going to wake up again. That’s a lot.

Alisha: It is. Maybe that’s why there aren’t so many books. There are some great resources. My husband lost his father and brother in 2021 in very close succession. I found telling the kids, actually, maybe the most difficult part of that whole process. I was desperate for — this has been my parenting strategy. Anything I don’t want to talk about, I’m like, let’s get a book about it. You want to learn about sex? Amazing. We’re going to get this book. You read it, and then you ask me any question you have. I just think all the answers can be found in a book somewhere. I’m still holding out for books to solve all of my parenting dilemmas. Maybe the ballad of social media disasters is coming, and I won’t have to worry about it. Tell me what’s next for you. What are you working on now?

Chimamanda: I am working on a novel. I don’t usually talk about work in progress. Because I think I am in a kind of good-ish place with the book — I haven’t written a novel in so long. There are times when I’m thinking, wait, I actually wrote novels in the past? How? I’m not even joking. I’m in much study. Usually, I have my own books. I look at them. I wrote this. I finished this. How? Again, I blame my daughter. I blame my daughter for everything. I feel as though my creativity stopped the minute I got pregnant. Something happened to my brain. Something just happened. I just could not create for a long time, honestly.

Alisha: Is this the first — I guess not the first thing you’ve written, or it’s the first thing you’ve written since having —

Chimamanda: — It’s the first fictional, proper — I haven’t written a novel in ten years. Even just remembering that, it makes me really unhappy. My publishers were celebrating the tenth anniversary of my novel. I just thought, I don’t want to hear it because all it’s saying to me is, you haven’t written a bloody novel in ten years. It’s going well. I’m just really trying to focus on not too much travel and really reading and writing.

Alisha: What changed? I had a big epiphany when my kids turned eight, actually. That was a very important year for me when I finally feel like I got some brain space back. Did you just feel like you were ready, finally, to get back into it?

Chimamanda: This is so good to hear. I’m just really happy to hear that.

Alisha: Eight was the year for me.

Chimamanda: Well, you did have twins, so that’s double trouble.

Alisha: Exactly. It was when they were settled in school. They were sort of building their own lives. They were, more or less, functionally independent. Then I went off, and I went and did all these internships in all the jobs I wanted to do when I was a kid. I quit my job as a CEO. I wrote a book about it, which is how I eventually found Zibby. I didn’t just go back to my creative practice. I kind of blew up my entire career and put it back together. It was eight years old. It was the magic birthday for me. I know other mothers who have had similar things. Was it that? Did you feel ready to write again? Was there something else that was kind of spurring you on to work on a new novel?

Chimamanda: I think waiting to be ready. I have to say, when I got pregnant, I thought, oh, I can handle this. I’m pregnant. I’m going to write a novel. By the time she’s two, I’ll have the first novel out. When she’s four, I’ll have the next novel. I thought, I can handle this. Then I realized I couldn’t. I really wanted to be ready. I would sit at my laptop. I had help, so it wasn’t about being — this is the thing. I did have help. My mother came. Then after that, we had someone who would come in for a few hours. Here’s the thing. I would be in my study, and I would be staring at the camera watching them.

Alisha: Oh, my god, we have all been there. We have all been there.

Chimamanda: My husband would say to me, “The whole point is that you have time to do your own work.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but I’m not sure I liked how she changed her.” Also, I like to joke and say that it might also be about being an older parent. I had my daughter when I was thirty-nine. I was thinking maybe if I were twenty-seven, maybe I wouldn’t be so obsessive. I don’t know. I’ve been waiting to be ready. I’ve been waiting to be ready. It just slowly, in the past year — I think maybe grief had something to do with it because I did write a long essay about losing my father. Obviously, it wasn’t fiction. It was also the first time I was mining my soul, getting inside myself. I think maybe that is part of what made me start to feel, okay, I really can create now. I can go into characters’ heads, that kind of thing. I’m so slow now. Honestly, I’m just like, I finished novels in the past in three years. Now I don’t know how the hell I did it.

Alisha: No pressure, but I cannot wait to read what you do next.

Chimamanda: Okay, moving on.

Alisha: Feel free to send me some pages. I’m just happy to read it. We like to finish up our interviews here on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” with any advice you might have for aspiring writers.

Chimamanda: The most obvious thing is, write. I say that because lots of people want to write, and they don’t. I think people sometimes wait for the perfect time. There’s never a perfect time. I’m really a believer in doing the thirty-minute — just carve out some time. It doesn’t matter how small. I also personally believe, and I do this quite a bit, in keeping in touch with my own work. If I’ve written two pages and I want to write and it’s not happening, I go back and look at what I’ve done. I have to keep in touch with my own just to remind myself. There are many stories I’ve started in the past years and never finished, but I go back and I look at them. In some ways, I’m saying to myself, this is doable. I also really believe in reading as a way of teaching yourself not just what you want to write, but what you don’t want to write. There’s certain books I read, and I like them, but I know I never want to write like that. Then there are books that I’m thinking, who the hell published this thing? Then there are books I’m reading thinking, I want to write like this person. I read a lot of poetry when I’m writing fiction. It just helps with language. You immerse yourself in language. I think it’s very peaceful. I’m very practical about writing.

Alisha: Those are really good tips, actually. I’m going to go do all of these things.

Chimamanda: You have to keep going. Sometimes it’s a grind. You have to keep going. I have this thing where I set up my study table. Again, sometimes you end up looking into the camera and looking at the babysitter. Sometimes I shop for shoes, all of these things, but I’m at my table.

Alisha: That’s productive. You’re clearing space in your brain for the ideas to . I think shoe shopping is a very important part of the writing process.

Chimamanda: Exactly.

Alisha: This has been a true joy. Mama’s Sleeping Scarf is out. You can buy it. I highly suggest you do. It is a beautiful book. I have enjoyed this conversation even more than I thought I would. I had pretty high expectations. Thank you so much, Chimamanda. I’m so grateful.

Chimamanda: Thank you. Thank you, Alisha. Thank you. This was lovely. Thank you.

MAMA’S SLEEPING SCARF by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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