Acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed Harvard’s Class of 2018 on Class Day, May 23, 2018. We produce here the full verbatim transcript of the speech for everyone. You can also download this transcript as PDF file for your later offline reading.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a writer of short stories, and nonfiction. She has written the novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun and many others.
Here is the full text of her speech titled “Above all else, do not lie.”
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses Harvard’s Class of 2018
Good afternoon. Harvard Class of 2018, hello.
Thank you so much for asking me to be here today. It meant a lot to me, to know that you, the students, select the class day speaker. Thank you.
Congratulations to you and to all your loved ones who are here.
I spent a wonderful year at the Radcliffe Institute here at Harvard, doing a fellowship in 2011 and I fell in love with Cambridge and so it’s very good to be back.
My name is Chimamanda; in Igbo, it means my personal spirit will never be broken. I’m not sure why but some people find it difficult to pronounce.
A few years ago, I spoke at an event in London. The English woman who was to introduce me had written my name phonetically on a piece of paper. And backstage she held on tightly to this paper while repeating the pronunciation over and over. I could tell, she was very eager to get it right.
And then she went on to the stage and gave a lovely introduction and ended with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Chimichanga.”
I told — I told this story at a dinner party shortly afterwards. And one of the guests seemed very annoyed that I was laughing about it. “That was so insulting”, he said, “that English woman could have tried harder.”
But the truth is she did try very hard. In fact, she ended up calling me a fried burrito because she had tried very hard and then ended up with an utterly human mistake that was the result of anxiety.
So, the point of this story is not to say that you can call me Chimichanga. Don’t even think about it.
The point is that intent matters, that context matters. Somebody might very well call me Chimichanga out of a malicious desire to mock my name, and that I would certainly not laugh about. But there is a difference between malice and a mistake.
We now live in a culture of calling out, a culture of outrage, and you should call people out. You should be outraged. But always remember context and never disregard intent.
ABOVE ALL ELSE DO NOT LIE
If I were asked the title of my address to you today, I would say “Above all else do not lie.” Or don’t lie too often, which is really to say tell the truth. But lying, the word, the idea, the act has such political potency in America today, but it somehow feels more apt. Above all else do not lie.
I grew up in Nigeria through military dictatorships and through incipient democracies. And America always felt aspirational. When yet another absurd thing happened politically we would say, this can never happen in America.
But today the political discourse in America includes questions that are straight from the land of the absurd. Questions such as should we call a lie a lie? When is a lie a lie?
And so, Class of 2018 at no time has it felt as urgent as now that we must protect and value the truth.
Before I tell you about not lying, I must first admit —
So before I tell you about not lying, I must first admit to lying. I routinely lie about my height even at the doctor’s office.
In Lagos, when I am meeting friends for lunch, I lie about being stuck in traffic when I’m really still at home only just getting dressed.
Now there are other lies. Sadly, however, I cannot tell you about them without having to kill you afterwards. But what I know is that I have always felt my best and done my best when I gear toward truth, when I don’t lie. And the biggest regrets of my life are of those times when I did not have the courage to embrace the truth.
Now telling the truth does not mean that everything will work out. Actually, it sometimes doesn’t. I’m not asking you to tell the truth, because it will always work out, but because you will sleep well at night. And there’s nothing more beautiful than to wake up every day holding in your hand the full measure of your integrity.
Many years ago, before my first novel was published, I attended a writers’ conference here in the US. It was a gathering of many aspiring writers and a few established writers. Now the former, the aspiring writers, sucking up to the latter, the established writers – was a revered ritual of the conference.
And so during one of the breaks, I walked up to a man, an established writer whose name I knew well but whose work I had not read. I shook his hand and told him what a fan I was: “I love your work”, I said.
His wife was sitting next to him: “So which of his books have you read?”, she asked and I froze.
“Which have you read?” she asked again.
Everyone at the table was quiet, watching, waiting. I smiled a mad smile, and I mumbled “the one about — the one about the man discovering himself” which of course was complete bullshit.
But I thought it might be convincing since that kind of describes half of all the novels written by men. And then I fled.
But before I fled, I heard the writer say to his wife “Honey, you shouldn’t have done that.”
But the truth is that I shouldn’t have done that.
To read a novel is to give honor to art, why lie about giving honor to something to which you have not?
I was of course absolutely mortified that day. But I have come to respect what that writer’s wife had: a fantastic bullshit detector.
And now that I have the good fortune of being an established writer, one who does not like to miss an opportunity to wallow in praise by the way, I can sense when a person is saying empty words and it feels much worse than if they had said nothing at all.
So have a good bullshit detector. If you don’t have it now, work on it. But having that detector means that you must also use it on yourself. And sometimes the hardest truths are those we have to tell ourselves.
When I first started sending out my early writing to agents and publishers and started getting rejections, I convinced myself that my work had simply not found the right home, which might have been true.
But there was another truth that took me much longer to consider, that the manuscript was not very good. And in fact, the first novel I wrote or what I thought was a novel, eventually needed to be put away in a drawer. And I’m so grateful that it was never published.
It is hard to tell ourselves the truth about our failures, our fragilities, our uncertainties. It is hard to tell ourselves that maybe we haven’t done the best that we can. It is hard to tell ourselves the truth of our emotions that maybe what we feel is hurt rather than anger, that maybe it is time to close the chapter of a relationship and walk away. And yet when we do, we are the better off for it.