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Chinua Achebe

In the Chronicle Peter Monaghan interviews Chinua Achebe as he looks back at Things Fall Apart and the course of his career:

In a 1975 lecture, and then in an essay, Achebe took [Joseph] Conrad to task for emerging in his seminal short novel, Heart of Darkness, as a “thoroughgoing racist” even as he denounced imperialism. Achebe pointed out that Conrad had deprived his African characters of any voice, granting them only eight caricaturing words in the whole short novel. Pointing, still today, to those meager eight words, he says: “That’s all that Africa has, of language; the rest is screaming, shrieking, howling — animal sounds, you see.”

His criticism of Conrad drew vigorous protest from the author’s defenders. But Achebe says his intention was simple: to ask “why does one go to Africa for this kind of exoticism that demeans people, makes them less than their worth?”

Things Fall Apart does not idealize Nigerians; far from it. In Okonkwo, for example, Achebe depicts courage and nobility but also ignorance and cruelty. The mighty Okonkwo beats his wives and kills a child. Fellow villagers leave twin infants in the bush to die because twins are considered evil, and mutilate the bodies of dead children so that their ogbanje, or spirits, do not return to torment their mothers again.

“There are some very hard things going on there,” says Achebe. “I knew that I had to be truthful. I don’t know why, because it’s just as easy to make the thing up a little. But I refused. I went out of my way to pick up, to find out, to learn as much of the bad things that were going on, and bring them in, deliberately.” His characters, he says, “have a dark side, if you like. But I dare you to say they are not human, in spite of that.”

Of present-day Nigeria, Achebe is equally critical: “Nigeria should not be a third-world country, at this stage,” he says. “It is very lucky in human and material resources. So to see it going to waste is very annoying.”

The article is brief, respectful introduction to the man who is widely considered the father of Nigerian, if not African fiction. It is also an annoying reminder that Things Fall Apart, with Paradise Lost and Ulysses, falls into that general category of books that populate my bookshelves in order to shame me for still having never read them.

 

Comments

That is a shame, especially because it is such a short, easy read. I recommend allowing Anthills of the Savanah to gather dust on your shelf too. It’s quite good.

I will take that under advisement!

And I also—although I think I just gave my copy of Antills of the Savannah to the Shelter House book sale at Trinity on the theory that I was never going to read it (but hey, maybe Greg can pick it up there!)

I endorse reading Paradise Lost, too. Ignore all the notes and just pretend you’re reading the world’s greatest science fiction/fantasy novel.

Ulysses I have never even pretended that I am going to read.

oh, the beauty of teaching 20th-century british fiction, which forces one to read these sorts of things, including a homoerotic short story by e.m. forster that one naively assigned without reading, assuming it would be as sexually bland as his pre-death novels…