PARIS (IDN | SWAN) – “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?”, asked a French journalist of famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, igniting a firestorm on social media following an event in Paris on January 25.
Many outraged observers accused the journalist of racism and ignorance, while lauding Adichie’s response
“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask this question. Come on, it’s 2018,” Adichie replied, after the journalist qualified her question by saying French people knew little about Nigeria, apart from hearing about Boko Haram and violence.
The exchange took place at a public event held at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the third government-sponsored Night of Ideas (Nuit des Idées), the goal of which is to “celebrate the stream of ideas between countries, cultures, topics and generations”, according to the organisers.
Adichie, one of Africa’s leading authors, was the headliner or “Ambassador” of the “Night”, which comprised several discussions around France and in other countries.
As an international “icon of feminism”, and a bestselling writer, Adichie was expected to speak about global issues affecting women, but her insightful comments on a range of topics got lost in the firestorm of protest that followed the “bookshop” question.
Many of those who posted about the interview had evidently seen it from secondary sources, and they spread information that the journalist had asked about “libraries” rather than “bookshops” (for which the French word is “librairie”). Summaries of the question and response were re-tweeted thousands of times.
Adichie, author of the novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun as well as the essay “We Should All be Feminists”, later said on her Facebook page that she did not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria.
“But to be asked to ‘tell French people that you have bookshops in Nigeria because they don’t know’ is to cater to a wilfully retrograde idea – that Africa is so apart, so pathologically ‘different,’ that a non-African cannot make reasonable assumptions about life there.
“I am a Nigerian writer whose early education was in Nigeria. It is reasonable to expect that Nigeria has at least one bookshop, since my books are read there,” she added
“Bookshops are in decline all over the world. And that is worth discussing and mourning and hopefully changing. But the question ‘are there bookshops in Nigeria’ was not about that. It was about giving legitimacy to a deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. And I do not have the patience for that,” she posted.
“That said, the journalist Caroline Broué was intelligent, thoughtful and well-prepared. When she asked the question, I was taken aback because it was far below the intellectual register of her previous questions,” said Adichie in the Facebook post.
After the event, Broué told SWAN that her question was “badly formulated”, as she had been attempting irony, trying to convey how little information is given about countries such as Nigeria. She was clearly embarrassed and surprised by the strong reaction.
For many in the diverse audience, the question was just proof of how white Europeans regard those of African origin. “This is not something you can ask, no matter what,” said one spectator following the interview. “It’s just stereotyping as usual.”
While most of the reports about the Nuit des Idées focused on this aspect, Adichie in fact spoke out on various subjects, including the role of literature, the treatment of refugees, and society’s expectations of girls and boys.
“I think words matter,” Adichie said, when asked about the impact of writing. “I think words can make change … storytelling is very important.”
She said that telling the stories of refugees, for instance, could help to change perspectives. “The discourse on refugees, especially on this continent, it seems to me that it’s so dehumanising,” she told the audience, adding that everyone should try to put themselves in the place of “people who are seeking better lives, better homes.”
On the subject of “African literature”, Adichie said that although she sees herself in the tradition of writing from the continent, “it’s not so much the labels as the value we give to them.”
“Sometimes I’m asked if I’m an African writer, and when I’m in a bad mood, I say ‘no’,” she joked. “We tend to read African literature not as literature but as anthropology. African writers write books, they write literature.”
Regarding feminism, Adichie said she had a pragmatic approach. “For me, it’s really about how do we change things … and sometimes it’s about incremental change,” she said.
“I think feminism is about men and women,” she added, describing her impressions of how society treats girls and boys. She said that watching her daughter at playgrounds, she saw that “little boys get more room to fail and to fall.”
Society shapes men just as it shapes women, according to Adichie, and the idea of masculinity needs to be changed. “Let the boy cry. Expect him to cry,” she said. Meanwhile, parents should raise girls to “reject likeability.”
“It’s girls that we raise to think they have to be liked,” the writer said. “Where is the damn anger?”
She described feminism as being “about equality” and said that In terms of gender, “we should look at people as people.”
“I don’t want my well-being to depend on a man’s kindness. I want my well-being to depend on being a human in the world,” she declared.
Regarding racism in different parts of the world, she said countries should look in their own backyards. While many Europeans preferred to focus on racism in the United States, she said it was essential to discuss it wherever it occurred
In France, for instance, she described “unpleasant experiences with immigration” where people of African origin are “treated with a kind of contempt.”
“All human beings really deserve equal dignity, and it shouldn’t depend on the passport that we carry,” said Adichie.
Note: This article first appeared on January 27, 2018 in SWAN – Southern World Arts News – an online cultural magazine devoted to the arts of the global South, and is being reproduced by arrangement with the editor. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 January 2018]
Photo: Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Credit: V. Lebrun-Verguethen
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