At Town Hall on February 26, the PEN American Center will host a star-studded tribute to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. This literary gala, co-sponsored by Anchor Books and Bard College, will gather fellow luminaries like Toni Morrison, Ha Jin, and Colum McCann to honor the 78-year-old polymath, who remains one of African fiction’s most authentic and prophetic voices.
Although Achebe has been internationally famous since 1958, when his first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published by London’s Heinemann Press, subsequent decades have only expanded his impressive résumé. Things Fall Apart wasn’t the first African novel written in English, but it remains one of the most significant and best known. Two years before Britain granted Nigeria its independence, Achebe’s fictionalized critique of cultural imperialism did for colonialism what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for American slavery. A commemorative edition arrives this month from Vintage/Anchor to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Achebe’s debut and his winning of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize, which honored his entire body of published work—his novels, critical essays, poetry, short stories, children’s books, and anthologies of African short fiction.
I met with the charismatic Achebe at his home on the Bard College campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, where he has taught since a 1990 car accident in Nigeria bound him to a wheelchair. During our conversation, this soft-spoken, gently ironic intellectual reveals himself as a shrewd, fearless pacifist, who—while famous for fictionalizing the political tragedies of his native land—nevertheless retains boundless hope for the future of Africans at home and abroad.
Because last year’s Man Booker prize collectively honors everything you’ve written thus far, it’s almost as if you’re being invited to begin a whole new chapter of literary production. Do you feel on the cusp of new fiction or essays based upon speculative cures for Africa’s current problems? I have a book of autobiographical essays as my definitive statement on my life and work. I also have two new novels I would like to complete and publish as soon as possible. One is very strange. . . . It’s a translation of Things Fall Apart back into the Igbo language from which it came!
You’ve said that Things Fall Apart was the result of “a conversation” between the English language and Igbo, your mother tongue. Did this trigger some sort of semantic collision that mirrors the apocalyptic culture clash described in the novel? When I decided to write a novel which would deal with the colonizing presence of Britain in my life and in my country, I realized I had to start a conversation between these two languages, which is how the book was conceived. I knew that in some way the meeting of these two languages would define my literary identity.
Things Fall Apart proved that one can be constructively critical of questionable cultural practices—like selective infanticide and ritualized executions—without steeping those critiques in racist contempt. Why do you think the West cannot see ancient tribal cultural norms as comparable to controversial Western conventions like capital punishment and pro-choice abortion? That’s a question I would like to ask them myself, but I think I know the answer: They cannot, in view of their history, engage in that kind of discussion. They have told themselves there is nothing they can learn from other peoples, especially those they have taken over and derided. So rather than turn around and begin to see something of value in our customs or cultures, they would rather stick with their original judgment.
Your 1972 short story “Girls at War” is surprisingly feminist in its nuanced view of African women, yet it voices none of the stereotypical polemics common to Western feminism. Stylistically, how did you manage to compress so much information and insight into such a short narrative? If you’ve been through a civil war and come close to all kinds of death, it’s not very difficult to make a whole lot of talk organize itself into a strong, brief statement. One of the ideas behind this story is the humbug of powerful men in that difficult situation. Then there is the innocence and idealism of schoolgirls compared to the sickening cynicism of those “in charge.” Put the two together and you have a very tragic story.
The female characters who pop up in your fiction are always interesting because, even though they tend to speak softly, what they actually say and represent is always significant. Are you conscious of this when you are writing? Yes. Because what they stand for is the very thing which the male-dominated society does not consider. If you go back to Things Fall Apart, all the problems Okonkwo has from beginning to end are related to ignoring the female! And that is where he is a flawed hero. Women stand for compassion.
Although the endings of some of your novels and short stories seem pessimistic, they also serve a therapeutic function. Should a well-written tragedy provoke catharsis and healing? Yes. Tragic things for me are so close to the meaning of art that it’s almost inevitable that stories of importance must end that way. Someone came to see me in the hospital after my car accident and said, “Why should this happen to you?” I replied: “Who do you have in mind this should’ve happened to?” All my experience says that life is tragic, but not in the sense of meaning “hopeless.” Life is tragic because you are supposed to rise above tragedy, not because life is pointless or futile. Things of great weight “come heavy.”
Nothing of great worth comes easily? That’s right. The lessons we learn, the wisdom we acquire, all come from this recognition. The nature of experience is heavy. So we shouldn’t spend all our energy running away from the truth. This is why you cannot explain why there is suffering. It’s there—you must recognize it, and engage it.
I know you survived the Nigerian civil war while supporting the Biafran secession. In retrospect, do you think it would have been better to have attempted some sort of United States of Nigeria, where Biafra might have had more cultural autonomy, yet remained part of Nigeria under a federal authority? That was actually what was proposed! The element that is absent from what you just said is that the British—who had granted independence to Nigeria and left—warned us they were not going to tolerate any fiddling with the Nigerian model they had created. That is what determined the fate of Biafra.
After teaching undergrads at a liberal-arts college like Bard for almost two decades, what have you concluded about using multicultural literature to eradicate racism and xenophobia? The number of children who are reading Things Fall Apart in high school has increased enormously, especially among the students who take my classes. For me, that’s a very good sign. Because this generation has a lot of responsibility waiting for it. And how they link up with others their age in distant places may well determine how our civilization survives in this century.