Chinua Achebe on Narrating Culture: Roomying Around

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Chinua Achebe On Narrating Culture

| Updated: February 6, 2022 08:45

The celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, acknowledged as the ‘Father of the modern African novel’, is the flavour this week. As I started discussing a paper on Postcolonial Literature (s) in English with my undergraduate students, Achebe had to be there. Also, his iconic novel, Things Fall Apart, and his essay on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” form part of the syllabus too. Of course, teaching Achebe as part of a medley which also includes poems by Judith Wright and AK Ramanujan as well as Salman Rushdie’s essay, “Imaginary Homelands”, might be a tad unjust to him. Yet, the course is certainly an excellent opportunity to expose undergraduate students to Eurocentric notions as also issues of race and Empire and how they could be critiqued.  

Studying Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, and his essay on Conrad and the surrounding debates is also another way to learn how to critique seemingly established Eurocentric ideas. Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) wrote his novel, Things Fall Apart in 1958 and the novel attained blockbuster status soon afterwards. It came to be viewed as an appropriate postcolonial text, where the author ‘wrote back to Europe’, contesting long-held European values and concepts. The novel’s seminal status was quite understandable too, also, in the context of Achebe’s essay on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, where he called Conrad “a racist”, a term not seen before in academic and scholarly discourse. Achebe’s critique of Conrad as well as his novel was the first time that European narratives were being questioned systematically. His novel, Things Fall Apart takes its title from W.B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”, an iconic text itself. The supposition is clear from the title itself: European rule leads to destruction, disruption, dismantling of the African cultures and civilizations.

Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness has also occupied a canonical status as a literary text in English literature curricula across the world and, by extension, as one of the great tales of European culture. Taking it virtually head-on, Achebe presents a searing critique of the presence of Europeans in Africa from a perspective of his Igbo tribe, from the lens of Nigerian culture, and shows how African civilizations are ‘far superior’ in terms of human advancement. In his novel, Things Fall Apart, it is normal for the characters to converse in proverbs, thus, showing that only an advanced human civilization could do so. ‘Earth is Mother, Yam is Father’ is how the characters converse among other modes. In its own way, Achebe sharply contests the idea of the African continent as ‘the heart of darkness’ as postulated in Conrad’s novel or so, as Achebe views it. The binary of the colonized Other as being savage, uncivilized, has been contested with a robustness, not seen earlier.

Talking to PBS Newshour, fifty years after Things Fall Apart, Achebe says, “something needed to be done… about my place in the world” when he wrote the novel at a young age of twenty-eight. You might like to watch this clip-on YouTube:

At The New York State Writers Institute, State University of New York, in a conversation, Chinua Achebe makes several insightful observations. He quotes a Swedish critic, who says ‘White people will be in trouble if more people write like Achebe’s essay on Conrad’. He says that he would be the last person in the world to perpetuate racism anywhere and narrates a story about Nadine Gordimer and going on to state his definition of an African writer.

To quote Achebe from this conversation– “The things that unites us in Africa, a continent that huge, is the history of Africa; it is the same everywhere. Africa is the only continent, where every inch, every square inch was colonized.” 

In response to a question, “What is the importance of stories?”, Achebe says, “Well, it is the story that makes us human. And that is why we insist, whenever we are in doubt about who we are, we go to stories because this is one thing that we have done to human race is that no group that doesn’t do it. It seems to be central to the very nature, to the very fact, of our humanity.”

Listen in on this fascinating conversation with Chinua Achebe here:

Chinua Achebe received the Man Booker International Prize but did not win the Nobel Prize. His friend and younger contemporary, Wole Soyinka is a Nobel laureate. Achebe’s influence has been nothing short of phenomenal. I heard the Booker Prize winning novelist, Ben Okri, years ago in person, at the British Council in New Delhi, stating his debt to Chinua Achebe. And so is the novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on record, accepting her debt to Chinua Achebe. As it has happened oftentimes in the history of the Nobel Prizes, the Nobel- reverred and respected so much- eludes the most iconic literary voices. James Joyce did not but Samuel Beckett, his younger contemporary did. Marcel Proust did not but Patrick Modiano, who writes in ‘a Proustian style’ did.

Another excellent conversation of Chinua Achebe is with the philosopher, K. Anthony Appiah, organized by 92nd Street Y. This is an hour-long discussion where Achebe talks about growing up in Nigeria, about Nigerian literature, education and also about cultural politics. 

Do listen to it here:

Chinua Achebe, the novelist, often overshadows Achebe the essayist and poet in academic circles. I would like to quote a few iines from his poem, “Answer” and you will instantly realize why I am quoting these lines:



I broke at last

the terror-fringed fascination

that bound my ancient gaze

to those crowding faces

of plunder and seized my

remnant life in a miracle

of decision between white-

collar hands and shook it

like a cheap watch in

my ear and threw it down

beside me on the earth floor

and rose to my feet.

(From “Answer” by Chinua Achebe, from Collected Poems by Chinua Achebe, quoted from The Poetry Foundation website, )

To read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, and to read about it, his essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the headiness of a strong response that critiques long-held European notions means looking at Achebe the author in the guise of a politician. That would be most unfair to him and to his enduring legacy. Achebe’s collections of essays provide rare insights into his oeuvre and his worldview. I would strongly recommend Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987, Home and Exile (2000), and There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012).

Chinua Achebe’s interview to The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 139, is a treat to read in its entirety. But I will not pontificate and just take your leave this week with the following quote, which is self-explanatory.



I wonder if you would comment on any tension you see between aesthetics and being politically engaged as an African writer.


I don’t see any tension for myself. It has always been quite apparent to me that no important story can fail to tell us something of value to us. But at the same time I know that an important message is not a novel. To say that we should all be kind to our neighbors is an important statement; it’s not a novel. There is something about important stories that is not just the message, but also the way that message is conveyed, the arrangement of the words, the felicity of the language. So it’s really a balance between your commitment, whether it’s political or economic or whatever, and your craft as an artist.

From The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 139

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