Saturday, April 13, 2013


World author Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013 in Boston. He was born in Nigeria, the son of a teacher in a missionary school. His parents were devout Protestant evangelicals who also instilled in him many of the values of their traditional Igbo culture. He is known primarily for his novels describing the effects of Western customs and values on traditional African society. 

He worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service for many years, taught at the University of Nigeria and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, published several literary journals including Okike, and won innumerable awards including the international Man Booker Prize. He was an ardent supporter of Biafran independence, an advocate for the African voice in literature and life, was unfortunately paralyzed from the waist down in a 1990 auto accident, and spent his final 23 years as a professor at Bard College and Brown University. 

Most importantly, he brought African literature by Africans to the attention of the rest of the world.  I taught his novels every year that I taught World Literature or Black African and Black American Literature. What impresses me most about Achebe is not just his novels, but his explorations about language and identity.

Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who used to write in English now writes in Gikuyu (spoken by 6 million people and 22% of the Kenyan population)) because he feels that the use of English perpetuates colonial imperialism. His choice should be honored, but it does limit the exposure of his work and subjects it to someone else's translation.

        The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. 
         Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.

Achebe, however, took the English he learned at school and made it his own, incorporating the storytelling lilt of his native culture, Igbo proverbs and words, and the pervasive sense of community. 

      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 the 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
      new African surroundings. (Achebe, "The African Writer and the 
     English Language")

Do read Achebe's novels, but also read his essays on language and social injustice. Read his "Issues in African History" and, if you are a Christian, think about what our moral responsibilities and attitudes should be. 

     African frustration was compounded by the inconsistency between, 
     on the one hand, universalistic Christian ideals (for Christianity spread 
     widely during the colonial period, as did Islam) and liberal political ideas 
     which colonialism introduced into Africa, and, on the other hand, the 
     discrimination and racism which marked colonialism everywhere.
     This discrepancy deepened during the Second World War, when the 
     British and French exhorted their African subjects to provide military 
     service and labor for a war effort which was intended, in part, to uphold 
     the principle of national self-determination. Post-war Africans were well 
     aware that they were being denied the very rights for which they and their 
     colonial masters had fought.

     This deepening sense of frustration and injustice set in motion the events 
     which would lead to national independence for most of Africa by the mid-1960s.
     (Achebe, "Issues in African History")

Read Achebe's criticism of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness and see if you agree. Read Achebe's essay "An Africa Voice." 

     The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced
     a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in
     very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the 
     slave trade and slavery. … This continued until the Africans themselves, 
     in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling
     of their story. (Achebe, “An African Voice”) 

And finally....   

     There is that great proverb—until the lions have their own historians, 
     the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Once I realized that, 
     I had to be a writer. 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." (Chinua Achebe) 

You might ask who the hunters of your life are and if you are writing your own story. For my art friends, stories are not always written in words. Sometimes, too, the hunters are not people or cultures, but our own inertia.  Go write, go create, go tell your story. 

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