Websites and blogs and social media had gone agog last week after writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had clapped back at a French journalist who asked if there are bookshops in Nigeria.
Adichie had been interviewed at the annual La Nuit Des Idees (The Night of Ideas) in France, and her interviewer, Caroline Broué, had asked her if there are bookshops in Nigeria.
After the audience had gasped at the question, Broué had remained resolute, saying what French people hear about Nigeria is Boko Haram, and so her question was a legitimate one.
Adichie had answered, “Well, I think it reflects poorly on French people that you asked that question,” eliciting an applause from the audience.
Adichie had on her Facebook addressed the issue, saying the journalist was trying to be ironic. She wrote:
On Bookshops – Not Libraries – in Nigeria.
French Journalist: Are your books read in Nigeria?
French Journalist: Are there bookshops in Nigeria?
French Journalist: I ask because French people don’t know. They know only about Boko Haram.
CNA: Well, I think it reflects poorly on French people that you asked that question.
Above, an excerpt, as I remember it, from my on-stage interview yesterday in Paris, at the launch of the rather wonderful ‘La Nuit Des Idees.’ (The Night of Ideas)
It appears that ‘librairie’ was mistakenly translated as ‘library’ when it actually means ‘bookshop.’
I do not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria. I don’t know almost everything about France. 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.
Had the question been ‘is it difficult to get access to books?’ Or ‘are books affordable?’ It would have been different, worth engaging with, fair.
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.
Perhaps French people cannot indeed conceive of Nigeria as a place that might have bookshops. And this, in 2018, in our age of interconnectedness and the Internet, is a shame.
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.
I now know that she was trying to be ironic, to enlighten by ‘impersonating the ignorant,’ but because she had not exhibited any irony until then, I didn’t recognize it. Hers was a genuine, if flat, attempt at irony and I wish she would not be publicly pilloried.
Speaking of bookshops: Jazzhole, on Awolowo road in Ikoyi, is my favorite in Lagos. And in Nsukka where I grew up, I have fond memories of dusty little bookshops in Ogige market, one owned by a mild-mannered man from my hometown called Joe, and it was there that I once bought a paperback copy of ‘So Long A Letter.’
My Uncle Sunday, my mother’s younger brother, lived in Maidugiri for more than thirty years and owned a bookshop there.
When he recently moved back to the east, after Maidugiri began to feel too unsafe, I was saddened by the loss of his bookshop.
Photo Credit: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie