On the 25th of January, Award-winning novelist and acclaimed feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie was in Paris to attend The Night of Ideas, a cross-continental cultural event held by the Institut Francais at the Quai d’Orsay.
One of the events scheduled for the day was Adichie being interviewed by French journalist Caroline Broué. Broué is an accomplished journalist. She has done many high-profile interviews and led a number of cultural projects. By all indications, she was the right person for the job. You can tell from watching the video that she had done her research and come to the interview prepared to ask good questions about feminism, gender equality, ideals of beauty, and Adichie’s writing. And, as far as interviews go, the conversation between both women was quite illuminating and progressed smoothly, without incident, until Broué decided to ask Adichie a rather oddball question: “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?”
The moment she asked the question, a wave of murmurs swept across the room. Everyone realized instantly what was wrong with such a question. Broué tried to clarify things. But her response, as is evident in the quote below, wasn’t any better than the question:
You were talking about single story…In France there is not much said about Nigeria but when people talk about Nigeria it’s about book haram, its about violence, its about security. I should like you to tell us something about Nigeria which is different…talk about it differently. and that is why I am saying are there book shops. Of course I imagine there are.
In her answer, Adichie condensed all that she found problematic about the question into what has gone down in history as the greatest clapback in the history of Adichie clapbacks:
I think it reflects very poorly on the French people that you have to ask me that kind of question. I really do. Because I mean surely it’s 2018…you know… I mean common.
And like all great clapbacks, it made news. CNN, Complex, Bustle, Cableng, Okay Africa, Pidgin English BBC, Yahoo News, and many other news sites ran the story, not to mention all the social media responses.
In a bid to provide more context for Broué’s gaffe, Adichie said, on Facebook, that Broué meant the question to be ironic.
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.
Still, as far as questions go, “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” is a pretty bad one. First of all, it reveals more about the prejudices of the person asking than it sheds light on the state of bookshops in Nigeria. Secondly, how does knowledge about the presence of bookshops in Nigeria change France’s perception of Nigeria as a space of pure violence? Why would Broué assume that it was Adichie’s job to save the French people from their unjustifiable state of ignorance? Adichie is a writer and a public intellectual not an informant in an anthropological project. Besides, there are other ways of promoting a non-prejudiced understanding of other cultures that does not involve taking up precious interview time to ask ideologically suspect questions. Still, it is hard not to sympathize with Broué. But this should serve as a teaching moment for her. Ignorance, especially when it involves cultural/racial prejudice, should be critiqued head on and not ventriloquized. The risk of “impersonating the ignorant” is that you could very easily be mistaken as one.
The rest of the interview went on incident-free until the floor was opened for questions and the post-colonial theory controversy was set in motion.
A young man, who felt the question of race had not been addressed in the interview, asked Adichie about her position on race. Towards the end of his question, he rambled a bit and ended with the question: “what is your vision on Post-colonial theory?” Since he gave zero context for the question, it did feel a little like Adichie was being quizzed about a key term in an exam.
Adichie responded with the tongue-and-cheek comment: “Are you studying post-colonial theory? Because I don’t want to do your assignment for you.” It got a good laugh. In the meantime, she addressed his question about race and took him up on something he had said about feminism. When it came time to tackle the question of post-colonial theory, she said: “Post-colonial theory? I don’t know what it means.”
Many of you are probably saying, “Look, Adichie is not alone. I also do not know what post-colonial theory is.” Post-colonial theory is the study of colonial domination and its aftermaths. Theorists specialized in the field draw from a range of disciplines like history, literature, political theory, economics, and cultural studies to understand the ins and outs of that powerful global enterprise called colonialism and the ways in which it continues to define our lives today.
To be fair, Adichie admitting ignorance about something is not a crime. Besides, post-colonial theory could be considered a technical term, something that only people who are interested in the field would know. Granted, her book has been read in post-colonial literature classes the world over for more than 10 years, so perhaps it is fair to expect her to have a rough idea. But it is also the case that Adichie has always been clear about the fact that she is not an academic or a literary scholar. She is a novelist, not a scholar of literary history and movements.
But then it turned out that Adichie did have an inkling about what post-colonial theory meant because she concluded her response with the statement:
“I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.”
She said it with a straight face. It was kind of a drop-the-mic moment. She said it and just looked on as everyone tried to process the statement.
Okay, does Adichie really believe that scholarly disciplines exist just so that professors can get a paycheck at the end of the month? We hope not. The comment has got quite a bit of people upset. She has been called anti-intellectual and politically naive. Many in the academic community saw her comment as discrediting scholarly work. But what if she was just trying to be funny and people just didn’t get the joke the same way that Broué’s irony ended up being so flat that she was mistaken for the ignorant people she was trying to impersonate?
All in all, Paris was eventful, as Paris should be. No matter where you stand on the bookshop question or the po-co theory shade, you have to admit that only Adichie can both delight and offend a global community of readers in the span of a single interview.
Watch the full interview HERE.
All photos from Chimamanda Adichie’s Facebook page.