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At the age of 82, Nigeria's preeminent English-language author and one of the best-known writers in the history of African literature, the Eagle on the Iroko himself, has passed.  A lot of people are no doubt familiar with Chinua Achebe's work through his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), if not only for its frequent appearance on school reading lists.  I wanted to take a few paragraphs to talk about Achebe's work, why he's still so important, and the other novels that (I hope) people will seek out.

(I apologize that this is really short, but I didn't think I'd be writing a diary today.)

Literature from the Inside:

One of the extended themes in Achebe's work - and the reason why, to the surprise of so many, he's expressed hostility toward works like Heart of Darkness - is the fact that the international literary world did not (and still, to great extent, does not) listen to the voices of authors among the colonized.  In an interview with the Paris Review, Achebe talked about how, as a child, he read adventure novels and identified with the white heroes instead of the "savages":

That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.
For this reason his most well-known work, Things Fall Apart takes an much-told story - the arrival of Christian missionaries into a village, and specifically Joyce Cary's Mr. Johnson - and tells it not only from a perspective sympathetic to the natives (which wasn't unheard of in colonial literature, either), but from a perspective wholly aligned with the natives: that is, it's colonialization as experienced and understood by those colonized.  The Umuofia of Achebe's novel are neither ignorant brutes nor noble savages.  Not for nothing does the entire first half of the novel deal with pre-colonial life, so the characters are defined as individuals, and not defined by their colonization.   And there is likely no character in modern African fiction more well-known to Western readers than Okonkwo, the novel's protagonist.  Achebe gives him room to be, in a way that even well-meaning Western fiction had not been able to do.

Achebe's relationship with Christianity, and more broadly with religion in general, is a complex one.  Though Christianity was the religion of the colonizers, it was also the religion of his parents: they were early converts and evangelist.  In Things Fall Apart the brute enforcement of Christianity is portrayed as a clear wrong, but Achebe also suggests that the Umuofia religious traditions were themselves problematic and possibly on their way out.  He developed this idea more fully in Arrow of God (1964), which pits two types of religious zealots against each other: the village priest Ezeulu, whose recasts his tragic stubborness as the will of the gods, and the Christian missionary John Goodcountry, who exploits Ezeulu's failures to convert his people.  Through it all Achebe is analyzing the relationships between faith, human failure, and moral sensibilities.  More specifically, he recognizes himself as a product of two religions and tries to find ways to place their rise and fall against the backdrop of history:

My beginnings were clearly influenced by religion. In fact, my whole artistic career was probably sparked off by this tension between the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating, older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside my home. This tension created sparks in my imagination.
Another major concern of Achebe's fiction is language itself.  Like many who grew up in the era of colonialism, Achebe spoke his native language - Igbo - but he was forced into English during his (missionary) school years.  English bore the distinct connotation of oppression, but at the same time he admits a great love of English poets, especially Yeats and Eliot.  More disconcertingly for the budding writer, literary Igbo, an academic attempt at uniting the dialects into a single, standard form, felt unnatural and lifeless.  For poetry and drama Achebe argued, the oral tradition of Igbo languages still had a vibrant life: but for his prose, English was the better fit.

But English was both the more broadly read language and the language of oppression, leading to an uneasy moral ambivalence.  This ambivalence is something of a political debate in post-colonial Africa, with writers like Leopold Senghor defining their work - not to mention their artistic ideology - in the context of their colonial language and a more universal sense of blackness.  Achebe, though somewhat suspicious of this broader idea of Negritude, similarly understood English as both an imposition and a necessity (Igbo isn't even a majority language in Nigeria, much less spoken outside the region), but he also believed English was a language "which must be wrestled with and transformed" in order to convey his experience as an African writer.  This didn't always put him on the best footing with other, more nationally-oriented writers... but the politics of language is an acute and difficult one to cover in a short diary like this.

Read together, Achebe's five novels offer a chronological portrait of Africa-in-transition, as he brings us from traditional culture and the early years of colonial missionaries, through the independence and ascension of native political leaders into the present.  His final (and in my opinion, best) novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987) ricochets wildly through acid satire and tight suspense, as the fictional nation of Kangan - basically Nigeria, though Achebe's critique runs much more broadly - is torn between political idealism and bloody repression. How do bright-eyed young university students turn into cruel military dictators? What is the role of the truth-teller when telling the truth is a dangerous proposition?  What can the past tell us about the possibilities of the future?

Some Final Thoughts:

Achebe has a strange position in the canon: he's simultaneously the best-known English-language writer from the African continent, but that knowledge tends to start and stop at a single novel.  There's no doubt that Things Fall Apart was a milestone work, but celebration of that milestone has, curiously, dulled interest in his other works.  

Though Achebe stopped writing novels after 1987, the range of his work is daunting: short stories, poetry, essays, plays, memoirs, ... even children's books.  One good place to start is his collection of essays Hopes and Impediments (1988), an extended meditation on the relationship between Africa and its former colonizers, the lingering heritage of that colonization on history and culture, and the ways in which we might be able to move ahead.   Achebe's famous Conrad essay is here, as is an essay on the American writer James Baldwin, who he admired and considered a friend.  Achebe's Baldwin essay is especially good, a plea that, though the universe and our fellow species may give us constant reason for pessimism, we cannot give in to despair.

From there, Achebe can - and should - lead us to other writers.  First among them is his friend and fellow Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, a virtual unknown in this country despite having received the Nobel Prize for literature.  In some respects this may be an inevitability of genre - Soyinka's focus has been more on poetry and theatre than prose, and neither makes one a household name in 21st century America - but he's highly worth the effort of seeking out (See Soyinka's statement on Achebe's passing.)   If you're willing to stick with poetry, the work of the tragically short-lived Christopher Okigbo is also a must-read.

These are just the best-known, most canonical writers from Nigeria: the dizzying extent of African literature spans the entire continent.  If we are to learn anything from Achebe's legacy, it's the necessity of hearing a people speak with their own voices rather than being spoken for.  To honor his passing, though I'm sure he'd appreciate our reading and rereading his books, I think he'd be even more pleased for us to be seeking out those voices for ourselves.

Originally posted to De hominis dignitate on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 01:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, Community Spotlight, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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