Yes we have bookshops, but access is another story…

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie photographed at One Aldwych.

So by now you’ve probably heard about our First Lady of Clap Backs – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s response to a French journalist when asked if there were any bookshops in Nigeria. To which she replied ‘I think it reflects poorly on French people that you asked that question’.

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Ouch, I know right! But on further interrogation the whole exchange had me in my thoughts. But first ICYMI, here is an excerpt from the exchange and Chimamanda’s explanation behind her response:

French Journalist: Are your books read in Nigeria?

CNA: Yes.

French Journalist: Are there bookshops in Nigeria?

CNA: What?

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.

So my thoughts. First of all I think Chimamanda is so gracious to attribute the journalist Caoline Broué’s question to a poor attempt at being ironic. I think even if that was the case, her question could have been framed better and in such a way that it wouldn’t leave her looking like an ignorant person. But for argument’s sake and in the spirit of being gracious let’s agree that it was an ironic question gone wrong.

Second, the issue about bookshops in Africa, is one that I have been discussing for a fair while with close friends. Although I haven’t been to Ghana (where I’m from) for about 10 ten years, I know much has changed since I was last there, but I also know from conversations with friends and my mum who live out there currently that despite this there is still a lack of good quality bookstores, hence my rather excited post about Libreria Ghana – though technically this is a library.

Yes there are some small market stalls but they usually sell secondhand books (nothing wrong with that!) by authors like Jackie Collins and Sydney Sheldon. Again nothing wrong with that, if it’s your thing, but as my mum found when she went shopping to find me some books, if you want to find books by the likes of Ama Atta Aidoo or Mariama Ba, you have to travel and really search for them. So the issue as Chimamanda points at is not so much about the lack of bookstores, but of access.

And why this is the case, I’m not sure. Could it be that international publishers don’t see African countries as viable markets? Could it be affordability, hence the array of secondhand stalls? Could it be that in African countries as in Western countries, bookstores are in decline? Could it be all of the above? Answers/theories in the comments section please. But let’s not for one second assume it is because Africans don’t like to read!

With increased global internet access and the growth in e-readers and audiobooks, I would assume most book nerds based in Ghana and elsewhere are buying and reading (or listening to) books online. Pretty the same as we do here in London and other parts of the West. Which solves the problem partially but I would still like to see fully stocked bookstores, with a wide range of books from a wide range of authors available especially in Ghana.

That said even here in London, bookstores are not as visible as they used to be, and neither for that matter are libraries – they are no longer a high street staple. In part because of the ease of access via the internet. Yet no one would dare suggest the possibility that there might not be a bookstore in London or Paris because you know, they are a literary people, whereas as Africans supposedly are not. Really? Really? With all the evidence that is around you. And in Caroline Broué’s case – right before her own eyes! Think again, and do better!

Little known fact: In the 2011 London riots, in Clapham Junction, the Waterstones bookshop was one of the few shops in the area that was not looted. A hairdressing salon on the same street was completely trashed.  Make of that what you will. It’s probably neither here or there, but I just felt like sharing!

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