Bookshops in Nigeria

From the BBC:

Thousands of people across social media have been posting about Nigeria’s literary heritage after a journalist asked acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if there were any bookshops in her country.

Journalist Caroline Broue asked Adichie if people read her books in Nigeria. Adichie replied, “They do, shockingly.”

Broue then asked: “Are there any bookshops in Nigeria?”

The author of Americanah and Purple Hibiscus replied: “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question.

I’m not sure why it should reflect poorly on French people that a solitary journalist asked if there were bookshops in a country where the traffic lights barely work and you can’t drink the tapwater.

I confess, I don’t recall seeing any bookshops in Nigeria, but I daresay they exist. The closest I got to one was a book stall in the corner of the waiting area of Port Harcourt airport, which was stocked in its entirety with religious books, self-help manuals, and combinations of the two. Titles like God and Your Business and Success Through Worship were typical, and something the expats noticed was if you saw someone reading a book it was a good bet that it was the bible.

Some wished to remind people of Nigeria’s literary heritage, by citing writers and poets such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Orki.

I don’t see why French people should know these authors any more than a Nigerian should know of Johnny Hallyday. Perhaps a journalist should have known better, but then…well, she’s a journalist, isn’t she?

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.

One solution is to stay well clear of ignorant foreigners, particularly those invited to ask questions at cultural evenings hosted by the French government. I don’t suppose anyone forced her to attend.

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26 thoughts on “Bookshops in Nigeria

  1. In the Guardian, BBC, and the like, one has to pretend that novelists from shit-hole countries are towering geniuses. This is partly because that is how one demonstrates that one is very far from being a racist, and partly how one demonstates one’s edginess and originality of thought. There is a far more depressing reason, however, which is that such people have done literature degrees which include a very high proportion of “post-colonial” works, and the poor befuddled muppets can’t tell the difference between “good” and “politically fashionable”.

    As for the authors cited, I’ve read a couple of novels by Achebe. I would say that it bears the same relationship to great European literature as Nigerian plumbing does to a top-spec British bathroom.

  2. Chinua Achebe, from Wikipedia:
    ‘In 1975, his lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” featured a famous criticism of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist”‘

    How surprising.

  3. Reminds me of the opening musical number in Beauty and the Beast: it can’t be that poor and provincial a town, Belle, if there are enough literate residents with enough disposable income to support a bookshop.

    I suspect what the interviewer meant to say was “are there many bookshops in your country” – to wit, is there enough literacy, leisure time and disposable income that reading for pleasure is a functioning market.

  4. “Reminds me of the opening musical number in Beauty and the Beast: it can’t be that poor and provincial a town, Belle, if there are enough literate residents with enough disposable income to support a bookshop.”

    It also has a singing candlestick and teapot. I don’t think they were aiming at verisimilitude.

  5. They must be absolutely gutted that it was a French female and not an American or English male who asked this.

  6. To have a lot of bookshops, you need a large middle class. I think it’s fair to assume that if you ranked countries according to the ratio of bookshops to population, Nigeria would not be in the top ten.

    Speaking of bookshops, I’ve reviewed your book on amazon – I hope it does its bit to generate interest. Wish you all the best – I imagine this must be a particularly nerve-racking time for a new author.

  7. There was a quite pleasant coffee / bookshop on Ikoyi near to The Broken Pot (avec hilariously crap yet enthusiastic reggae band).

  8. Sam Vara: I’ve read a couple of novels by Achebe. I would say that it bears the same relationship to great European literature as Nigerian plumbing does to a top-spec British bathroom.

    That seems rather unfair though, of course, “great european literature” covers a rather broad sweep of work.

    For my part, I admire Achebe though I think he got “Heart of Darkness” quite wrong because while it may stereotype the Africans of Congo as primitive, yet they are understandably exotic to Marlow and possessed of some dignity. It is their callous brutality that makes the Belgian administration and its hirelings the lesser humans in what is a rather original – and possibly the first – serious examination of colonialism and race.

  9. Better question would have been ‘Are there many, or indeed any, lending libraries in Nigeria?’ and then ‘Just why do you think that is?’

  10. About the book Tim.

    Now you’ve got that off your chest and proved you can write, could we have something a little more light-hearted next time? I’m thinking Assassin brides of the Caspian, pistols strapped to miniskirted thighs, car chases, ‘splosions, a showdown on a semi rig, that sort of thing.

  11. It always seemed to me that in “ Heart of Darkness” the dark heart belonged to the white tyrant, and that Conrad wished to ensure nobody missed the point.

  12. In the Guardian, BBC, and the like, one has to pretend that novelists from shit-hole countries are towering geniuses. This is partly because that is how one demonstrates that one is very far from being a racist, and partly how one demonstates one’s edginess and originality of thought.

    Well, yes. I have no idea if African literature is any good or not, but I am confident it will be praised by right-on folk in the UK regardless of quality, especially if it consists of boilerplate anti-colonialism and complaints about racism. Laurie Penny is one example of a contemporary commentator who positively drools over any female writer who happens to be black or brown, as if skin colour is a better indicator of a writer’s talents than their output.

  13. Now you’ve got that off your chest and proved you can write, could we have something a little more light-hearted next time? I’m thinking Assassin brides of the Caspian, pistols strapped to miniskirted thighs, car chases, ‘splosions, a showdown on a semi rig, that sort of thing.

    Working on it, but am up to my arse in alligators with something a little more serious on the work front right now. But I’ll be onto it shortly.

    P.S. If you’ve read it, any chance of an Amazon review? 😉

  14. “…stocked in its entirety with religious books, self-help manuals, and combinations of the two. Titles like God and Your Business and Success Through Worship were typical…”

    Still better than JK Rowling!

  15. My useful personal guide to things Nigerian is that pretty well every Nigerian I’ve met has initially (or continues to) claimed to be from somewhere else.

  16. There’s a giant advert/mural at Frankfurt airport full of “fun facts” type things. One such fact is that Nigeria makes more films than Hollywood.

    Assuming (or perhaps not) that said fact takes “gentlemen’s cinema” out of the equation, do you have any idea if this is plausible?

  17. Assuming (or perhaps not) that said fact takes “gentlemen’s cinema” out of the equation, do you have any idea if this is plausible?

    Yes, Nollywood is enormous. The quality however is…variable. A lot of my time in Nigeria was spent waiting around for something, and often there was a TV playing Africa Magic, the channel which broadcasts Nigerian soap operas and films. Most of them looked like a high-school production filmed on an early iPhone. The locals loved it though.

  18. “Assassin brides of the Caspian”

    With Tim’s pedigree I guess a Bond script would be pretty easy.

    In fact, Tim, you are sure this oil thing isn’t just a cover for the day job?

    No! Tim! Stop!! Don’t shoot me!!!

  19. It seems that the brightest Nigerians moved elsewhere:
    “Although they make up a tiny portion of the U.S. population, a whopping 17 percent of all Nigerians in this country held master’s degrees while 4 percent had a doctorate, according to the 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, 37 percent had bachelor’s degrees.”

    In more general terms, of the1.4 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who are 25 and older:
    “41% have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% of all immigrants and 32% of the U.S.-born population.”

  20. It seems that the brightest Nigerians moved elsewhere:

    Perhaps, but we might simply be talking about the best-connected. See here.

  21. I’ve spent some time lately talking with somebody who has recently spent some months in south and east Africa. Apparently, things vary from one country to another. Did you ever? They are not all shitholes on the Nigerian model. Not that I’d want to live in any of them, of course. Anyway, in his view he was much safer in some parts than he’d have been in some parts of London. Or, I dare say, Paris. Or tracts of Germany or Sweden.

  22. With literacy rates @ 56%, it can be a fair question but it’s a bit strange to think the literate ones don’t buy books.

    The main point is this ‘Africans, fix your homeland’….I don’t think this journalist would ask a Vietnamese writer if bookshops exist in Hanoi.

  23. I’ve spent some time lately talking with somebody who has recently spent some months in south and east Africa. Apparently, things vary from one country to another. Did you ever?

    No, Nigeria is the only African country I’ve visited but I am well aware they differ greatly. I have a lot of colleagues who’ve lived and worked in Gabon, Congo, Angola, Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya: all agree that on almost all measures things are an order of magnitude worse in Nigeria. True, restaurants are more expensive in Luanda than Lagos and there isn’t a whole lot to do in Pointe Noir, but these other places have nothing like the security issues Nigeria does. A friend of mine who moved from Lagos to Luanda was amazed at how easily he could drive around Angola; a westerner driving miles into the bush in Nigeria without an escort would likely not come back.

    An anecdote: a colleague from Congo, educated in Paris, arrived for an assignment in Nigeria excited to meet some fellow Africans. Within weeks he hung out exclusively with the French, and couldn’t believe what a state Nigeria is in. Congo is poor, but doesn’t have the depravity of Nigeria.

    Another anecdote: a Nigerian colleague told me a lot of Nigerians find it cheaper to fly to Europe from Ghana, and take a bus or car from Lagos to Accra. He told me he found Accra a joy to be in after Lagos. This is coming from a Nigerian.

    Something else: a lot of Africans detest Nigerians because there are so many Nigerian criminals in their own countries. This was captured, much to the chagrin of many Nigerians, in the South African film District 9.

    It is universally agreed among the oil and gas expats that Nigeria is probably the worst place in Africa to be assigned to. Among all industries the only one I hear complaints about to the same extent is Somalia.

    Finally, I will add: some Nigerians are great people, a real pleasure to know and work with, and I’m proud to have done so. If only more of them were like that.

  24. The BBC is too economical with the context. It was a public event, a debate at the Foreign Ministry in Paris with Adichie as the honored guest of the evening. You can find it on YouTube – it’s about an hour and a half long. About half an hour into the interview, they discussed Adichie’s Ibo roots and reasons why Ibo isn’t her literary language of choice. Then Broué asked with a slightly unnatural smile: “Are your books read in Nigeria?” Adichie replied: “Shockingly, they are.” Broué asked again, almost laughing: “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?”

    The audience was expected to understand that Broué was deliberately channeling the average man in the street. A little game of provocation. Feigning naivete or ignorance is a trick of the trade. (Broué is an experienced talk radio journalist at France Culture, neither an ignoramus nor a newbie.) But Adichie was at a loss for words, briefly. Broué cleared things up for her (all the translations are mine):

    I see, I see, I see – but it’s precisely because it makes you react like this that I’m asking this question. It’s going to lead to this: you were talking about unique histories, and when they mention Nigeria… I’m sorry, but in France, you hear little – definitely not enough – about a country like Nigeria. When they talk about Nigeria, it’s about Boko Haram, about violence or lack of security. I’d like to take advantage of your appearance here so you could tell us about Nigeria, in a different way perhaps. Of ways in which we don’t know Nigeria. Hence this question: ‘Are there bookstores in Nigeria?’

    Then Adichie replied that Broué’s question reflected poorly on the French. A sensible response, although a deflection. To Adichie’s credit, she defended Broué later from the crazy crowd on Facebook.

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