Chinua Achebe; the great African author from Nigeria died on 21 March 2013 in Boston, US at the age of 82. His oeuvre is well known throughout the world. I know people who can recite chunks and chunks of Things Fall Apart, his pioneering novel that is also estimated to have sold millions of copies.
It may not be possible to evaluate in one breath all that was written by Chinua Achebe. In the preface to his novel; Arrow of God, Achebe himself says: “Whenever people have asked me which among my novels is my favourite, I have always evaded a direct answer, being strongly of the mind that in sheer invidiousness that question is fully comparable to asking a man to list his children in the order in which he loves them. A parent worth his salt will, if he must, speak about the peculiar attractiveness of each child.”
It is also not possible to agree or disagree with everything Achebe uttered or wrote. However, we all remember certain key passages from the Achebe literature and thought. Passages that are worth underlining with a pen in order to be re-read on a better day. Below here are some of my favourite passages from the Achebe thought.
Achebe on the role of the African writer:
The (African) writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front . . . I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past: Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections ---was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind. And I don’t see that the two need be mutually exclusive…
The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who can’t tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them. After all the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history." Source: "The Novelist as Teacher," 1965)
Achebe on defining African literature and its appropriate language:
In June 1962, there was a writers' gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: "A Conference of African Writers of English Expression." Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define "African literature" satisfactorily. Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on? In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily... What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African literature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa… Any attempt to define African literature in terms which overlook the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. On writing in English:
Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.
One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.
But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it… I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings. Source: ‘The African writer and the English Language.’ Achebe speech, 1975.
Achebe’s views on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.
Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.
Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad's great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments…. Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts…. As I said earlier Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it…. Source: "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts, 1977
Achebe on association:
“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”
Source: Things Fall Apart