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 notes – 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.
Chimamanda the novelist is a genius. Her accomplishments are stellar, her fame merited. But the recognition and rewarding of her gifts wasn't a happy accident. The labours and struggles of many scholars, past and present, carved out the spaces where her voice could land.
— Shailja Patel (@shailjapatel) January 27, 2018
Long before she expressed her frustration at the Western World’s tendency to read African literature “as anthropology” and not art, postcolonial theorists had been fighting this tendency. These theorists contest unequal assignment of value to works of art based on the geopolitical location of artists.
“We are our grandmothers’ prayers, we are our grandfathers’ dreamings” – so goes a Sweet Honey in the Rock song. What does it mean to giggle at the wrinkles on the hands that pried open bolted doors so we could walk in and take a seat at the table?
One thing Black women artists have taught us is the importance of acknowledging our intellectual histories and those who dreamt the futures we enjoy, and our responsibility to dream more liveable futures for those behind us.
When Adichie affirms in the interview “I think of myself as coming from a tradition,” and names her literary precursors, she overlooks the feminist and postcolonial theorists who made her possible. They are part of her lineage.
Writing as an act of theorisation
Oddly, the irony of dismissing postcolonial theory after a clapback against stereotypes cannot be lost on anyone familiar with Adichie’s fiction and essays. Those of us aligned with feminist theorist Pumla Dineo Gqola’s insistence that creative works theorise, consider Adichie’s writing to be acts of theorisation. We also hear echoes of our literary foremothers’ rejection of the tag “feminist”, when their works were decidedly feminist.
Theory comes dressed in different registers. The postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s theorisation of the colonial experience, like feminist theorist Obioma Nnaemeka’s conceptualisation of nego-feminism, comes dressed in the same story-telling robes as Adichie’s fiction.
Meantime, Adichie’s novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun are forms of theorisation, if we understand stories to be involved in analytic work. To misquote Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, theories, like stories, lend us a second handle on reality.
Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus lends us an analytic handle on the familiar paradox of African nationalist icons who gave us so much, but took away so much more, because their visions of freedom were one-dimensional.
When we encounter Papa Eugene as an icon of freedom in the public sphere and a domestic tyrant in Purple Hibiscus, we begin to make sense of a Kwame Nkrumah or a Haile Selassie or a Thabo Mbeki. These are men whose pan-African dreams of freedom we enjoy today, but whose visions of freedom were narrow and harmful in other ways.
Theories, like stories, help us make sense of our worlds.
But postcolonial artists and theorists alike face an intractable challenge: the burden of representation, which American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr defines as “that homely notion that you represent your race, thus that your actions can betray or honor it”.
While Gates Jr has in mind the eight, remarkable Black men he profiles in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, his concept resonates with the literary world. Because the global literary marketplace can only celebrate a few writers of colour at a time, such writers become laden with the responsibility of representing their people.
The stakes are high. Under this pressure, there is little room for decontextualised humour. The risks of erasure of entire intellectual histories and hard-earned victories are real. Perhaps the lesson is not that we should joke less.
If we are to dismantle the inequalities that limit the possibilities of art and ideas from the postcolonial world, the lesson is clear: we should all embrace postcolonial thought.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.