Harare, Zimbabwe(News of the South)-On January 25, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie headlined the Paris edition of the Night of Ideas, a cross-continental initiative run by the French Institute, featuring public discussions on topical issues. Adichie’s conversation with French journalist Caroline Broue was an absorbing exchange themed “power to the imagination”.
It went smoothly, except for two moments. In the first instance, Broue asked: “Are there any bookstores in Nigeria?” to the audience’s and Adichie’s bafflement. Adichie’s response: “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question,” sent the interview trending on traditional and social media.
The second moment came during the question and answer session, when someone sought Adichie’s opinion on postcolonial theory.
Her response was: “Postcolonial theory? I don’t know what it means. I think it is something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs.” This comment didn’t provoke as much noise on as her clapback about bookstores in Nigeria.
As an academic, I am grateful for the interview, which eloquently demystifies postcolonial theory, despite her disavowal of it. Given students’ intolerance for texts longer than a sizzling clapback tweet, the interview makes for an excellent introduction to this theory.
The postcolonial spaces
If postcolonial theory is concerned with salvaging futures scarred by imperial greed, then these two exchanges illustrate the power dynamics postcolonial theorists seek to dismantle. Broue’s question – whether serious or a failed attempt at irony, as Ainehi Edoro – was authorised by French, and broadly, the Global North’s wilful ignorance about Nigeria.
The average Nigerian does not have the luxury of nursing what Adichie calls “a single story” about France. It is in their interest to know that France has bookstores.
France and the Global North retain inordinate amounts of power and resources, with real implications for the average Nigerian’s life. Certainly, France has sufficient resources to host the Night of Ideas. It will be a while before we have an Africa-run Night of Ideas. Yes, we have bookstores, but we do not have enough platforms for public engagement with ideas. And postcolonial theory explains why.
Perhaps both Adichie and Broue were being humorous. But humour is rarely innocent. Humour is to aggression what a half-slip is to a transparent skirt. It lends aggression decorum. Adichie’s quip about postcolonial theory is revealing about her low regard for academics.
Yet, as Kenyan poet Shailja Patel eloquently put it, Adichie is a beneficiary of the space-clearing labour of generations of postcolonial theorists. These theorists fought the epistemic injustice of canonising certain literature over others.
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