Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wasn’t impressed when a French journalist asked her this tone deaf question.
If you got an interview with Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, what would you ask? As a writer of novels, non-fiction and short stories, a prolific public speaker, feminist, recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, and much more, you’d have thought there’d be ample material to quiz her on.
But a French journalist clearly didn’t get the memo: at the Institute Français’s La Nuit des Idees (The Night of Ideas), Caroline Broué asked Adichie “whether there are bookshops in Nigeria”. And – unsurprisingly – Adichie wasn’t impressed.
“I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question,” Adichie replied to applause. “It’s 2018. I mean, come on. My books are read in Nigeria. They are studied in schools. Not just Nigeria, across the continent in Africa.”
“I do not expect a French person to know almost everything about Nigeria,” Adichie later wrote on Facebook. “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.”
She also wrote that the question “gave legitimacy” to a “deliberate, entitled, tiresome, sweeping, base ignorance about Africa. 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.”
The question is especially thoughtless considering many of the themes of Adichie’s work. In her 2016 TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, for example, she warns that simplistic stories about people and groups “create stereotypes”.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story,” she says. “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar”.
Fans of the writer also took to social media to decry the comment.
Adichie has since said she believes the journalist was “trying to be ironic”.
“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,” she writes on Facebook.
“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 recognise it. Hers was a genuine, if flat, attempt at irony and I wish she would not be publicly pilloried.”
Image: Rex Features