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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.

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Watch the full interview HERE.

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All photos from Chimamanda Adichie’s Facebook page.

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

18 Responses to “On Adichie | From Bookshop Clapback to Post-colonial Theory Shade: What Really Happened in Paris?” Subscribe

  1. Mwinjlet 2018/01/29 at 04:47 #

    We will never know her intentions or meaning but I think theres things about the question that would have irritated me to be honest and also i think things worth unpacking in adichies comment:
    1. You don’t need to use academic “theory” or terms to make your point and if youre going to please contextualize…i.e dont do it just for intellectual grandiosity.Precisely if youve ever taught at a university you will know how annoying this thing can be and how its a real scourge especially with these young men who are trying to test your intellegence as a w.o.c
    2.Someone or a group of people ( im going to guess mostly men) took a body of work(art, literature etc) and lived experiences and a history and ideas about how this history (e.g education or missionary churches during colonialisn )has effected the present/peoples experiences in the present and gave all these things a name (this isnt to say that we werent doing the work and writing and thinking etc but that its usually men/people with some kind of privelledge who have the power to do these things).So yes “post colonial theory” is made up.And if you say its not then youre saying its this official thing with boundaries and anything outside of that isnt important to what its trying to do.And youre saying it cant change or it cant start to include other things etc.I mean a theory is an abstraction from reality its not reality,it can be based in “reality”(real experiences) or on a real “body of work” but its not reality, its not an experience.Theories dont create politicians or political parties or social movements, people and experiences do even if sometimes they base these things on theory at the end of the day they made those things because something happened to them or theyve lived a certain kind of life and theyre like enough.
    And it seems to me this is actually what post colonial theory could be saying just like/similar to when “gender theory” came up in the academy it was saying look what we consider to be a man or a woman is made up therefore anyone can be anything and therefore all experiences are valid-if you were born like bc or if you find youre not an xy typa person but you want to call yourself and therefore “be” an xy thats valid.Your experience will inform how you identify, not what some people in the academy or on the tv have labelled you.
    Or better yet you know when we say “feminism/feminsit theory” (because the two are closely related) was made up(lol at the reaction if the audience member had said this) were not saying the struggle isnt real.We’re saying our mothers and grandmothers on the continent were doing the things, writing the things, living the things even if proffesor xy didnt say so.And that yes beyonce is feminism, adichie is feminism,ama is feminism,minaj is feminism wether we think their views or work arent legit.And that no you dont need to call yourself a feminist or call what youre doing feminist theory for what youre doing to be beneficial and just for women.In fact sometimes you can put unneccesary boundaries and pressures on your work if you do.And sometimes lets let things be.Also if you want you can call it nothing or you can call it dancing and flowers though sometimes its helpful to call it feminism because that word already has power in powerful circles- people know what it means, if youre working in policy for instance it can help people take your ideas seriously or if youre clever disguise their radicalness, it can get you grants to do stuff OUTSIDE of just the academy, its hip and cool and Dior had it on a shirt.If these arent things you want then thats fine too.
    3.If youre not doing a lot to show people outside of the academy how your theory or perspective or work etc is relevant and useful then yes people are entitled to questiom wether its self serving.And if youre saying its just for academics then thats fine but understand how people can see that as self serving too.Look at how a lot of feminist academics arent just feminist theorizing and abstracting but actually write a lot about their experiences and about how this can help us better understand xy or go about doing xy.How they go to all these public engagements or talks or show up on tv shows etc.I mean its really fine to do things cos theyre interesting and intellectually stimulating and just hope they become useful but if youre claiming their purpose is to be useful to people outside of the academy then I mean youll be held to account if theyre not.I.e please please, public intellectualism-send your work to brittle paper.Do pop culture critique.Help us understand why police brutality is a problem everywhere-write write write.Write features, accesible histories.Dont just take what other people have written and say no theyve written about it so its fine.Make it relevant for now.Especially if you are in the Academy you know people will pay you to do that.And I know some people are doing just that but clearly not enough-how much literary crit do we have?Whats our radical news site?I mean look at this beutiful collection of essays thats been put up here.What a wow!More.

    Like a lot of these things have BEEN said.Nothing new.And theyve been said by academics.
    And maybe wether or not u think Adichie is great or not or you like her work please please shes not anti-intellectual.Shes just very critical of the academy howver ironic that may be.Thats not the same as anti-intellectualism .If you say someone cant be an intellectual because they refuse to acknowledge or because they critique the academy or certain theories then it seems to me youre denying tons of peoples thought.Also just feel theres more outrageous things and dangerous implications and just in general things that need to be challenged when it comes to some of her views and some things in her work than just her statement on post colonial theory.And its questionable as to why certain things go unchallenged over others.Just saying.

  2. Mwinjlet 2018/01/29 at 05:31 #

    Also it seems there is a new lit crit magazine Also there is a LOT of work being done just to say.A LOT even if its not again under critical theory.So maybe its fine Academics focused on the academy nust do what they do and others must continue to do what they do

  3. Moses 2018/02/12 at 11:58 #

    The hangover of post colonial studies I must say is responsible for the stalling of creativity in the Kenyan Literature Departments in Universities. We have old fogies stuck in this theory and new voices can hardly be heard.No offence.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] seek to dismantle. Broue’s question – whether serious or a failed attempt at irony as Ainehi Edoro notes – was authorised by French and broadly, the Global North’s wilful ignorance about […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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