It went viral on the internet. And it should. Nigerian novelist and essayist Chimamanda Adichie asserted what should be a routine pride of Nigeria and even Africa when at a high-octane intellectual event in France.
A French journalist Caroline Broue propounded a disgraceful question: do we have bookshops in Nigeria. Adichie’s reply, delivered with poise and intelligence, hit the bull’s eye of western racism: “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question.”
She was a star guest at a global event organised and hosted by the French Government. The event called A Night of Ideas, drew the high society of the French society. The award-winning author said further that “I think surely…I mean it’s 2018.”
It is interesting that it was such base questions that a French journalist should signpost in a night of ideas, which should focus issue demanding of more rigour. She would not have to ask an American author such a question, or a Swiss or Australian.
She asked quite a few other questions before she landed on this faux pas. She wanted to know if her books were read in Nigeria. “You’ll be shocked to know that they are, yes…They are read and studied, not just in Nigeria but across the continent of Africa.”
It is a little cheering that the crowd gasped at her question that a French commentator described as a “cocktail of racism and mediocrity.” The crowd knew there was no place for such condescension in an intellectual fest.
The journalist tried to contextualise her question after her ears tingled from the collective gasp. She explained that “not too much is said about Nigeria in France.” She said further: “We speak very little about Nigeria in France, certainly not enough, and when we do it’s about Boko Haram and the problems of violence and security…I would like to take advantage of your presence for us to talk about other things and things that we don’t know about your country.”
Adichie tried to play down the severity of the gaffe by saying that Broue aimed at addressing her ignorance of her fellow nationals. After describing her as “intelligent, thoughtful and well prepared,” she explained that “I know now that she was trying to be ironic… it was a genuine, if flat, attempt at irony and I wish she would not be publicly pilloried.”
But the racial quality was not lost on her: “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.”
This incident only reflects the shortcomings of globalisation, and the preponderance of mass ignorance. It shows that, in spite of some good things that happen here, the west has not saved itself from an immersion in stereotypes that Adichie has highlighted in her talk, The Danger of a Single Story.
It is also ironic that one of the recurrent features in Nigeria’s literary affairs is the Allianz Francais that has tried to bring writers together and encourage literature. The French organisation may not be doing enough to evangelise our literary fertility and literacy back home.
Of course, the level of reading has taken a beating today, and the rise of book clubs and other literary activities aim to revive this. Although we have seen bookshops disappear, new and vibrant ones have emerged across the country.
The irony that the French journalist did not pick was that Boko Haram could not thrive if the militant group did not think people read in Nigeria. Such an issue would have been worthy of a night of ideas.