Achebe, Chinua 1930–
Chinua Achebe 1930-
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.
For additional information on Achebe's career, see BLC, Ed. 1.
Widely known as "the father of the African novel in English," Achebe is one of the most significant writers to emerge from contemporary Africa. With a literary vision that has profoundly influenced the form and content of modern African literature, Achebe has chronicled his native Nigeria's colonization by Great Britain, its subsequent independence, and its post-colonial political struggles. His writings are among the first in English to present an intimate and authentic rendering of African culture, especially his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which many critics have proclaimed a classic of modern African fiction. A major theme of Achebe's writings is the social and psychological impact of European imperialism on indigenous African societies, particularly with respect to a distinctly African consciousness in the twentieth century. Reviewers have also praised his novels for their insightful renditions of African history as well as balanced examinations of contemporary African politics and society. Scholars commend Achebe's innovative fusion of folklore, proverbs, and idioms from his native Ibo (or Igbo) tribe with Western political ideologies and Christian doctrines.
Born in 1930 in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe attended the Church Mission Society School, where his parents, Ibo missionary teachers, were catechists. He continued his education at Government College in Umuahia before enrolling in 1948 in the first class at the newly established University College in Ibadan, run by the University of London. An English literature student, Achebe often contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald; these works were eventually collected in Girls at War and Other Stories (1972). After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1953, he began a twelve-year stint as producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. During these years, Achebe also began researching and writing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart; the work won him a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. He followed with three other novels—No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). By 1966, however, Nigeria's political climate had worsened, eventually deteriorating into a civil war that lasted thirty months. Achebe quit his position at NBC and moved to the eastern region of Nigeria, devoting much of his time to writing poetry, short stories, essays, and juvenilia. His most notable work during this time was his book of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (1971). After the war ended, Achebe accepted a series of visiting professorships in the United States, where he founded and edited the African literary journal Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing and published Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), a collection of literary and political essays written between 1962 and 1973. In 1976 he returned to Nigeria where he began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. By the early 1980s Achebe was actively involved in Nigerian politics, serving first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party and later as president of the town union in his hometown of Ogidi. During that period, he also issued a polemical commentary on Nigerian leadership, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In 1987 Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah, his first novel after a twenty-one-year sabbatical from writing long fiction. In 1990, Achebe was involved in an automobile accident on a Nigerian highway; he nearly died from the injuries he sustained in the accident, which took place under suspicious circumstances. He spent six months recuperating in England, then moved to the United States, where he is a professor of languages and literature at Bard College in New York. In 2000 he published Home and Exile, a series of reflective essays on his life and work, and in 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction.
A realistic and anthropologically informative portrait of traditional Ibo society distinguishes Things Fall Apart, its title an allusion to a line in Irish poet W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Set in the village of Umuofia during the initial stages of colonization in the late 1880s, the narrative traces the conflict between Ibo and Western customs through the characterization of Okonkwo, a proud village leader whose refusal to adapt to the encroaching European influences leads him to murder and suicide. No Longer at Ease follows Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, through his failure to successfully combine his traditional Ibo upbringing with his British education and affluent lifestyle in Lagos during the late 1950s. Describing Ibo village life during the 1920s, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, a spiritual leader who sends his son Oduche to a missionary school to learn about Western society and technology. When Oduche comes home, he nearly kills a sacred python, which precipitates a chain of events culminating in Ezeulu's loss of his position as high priest and his detention by British authorities. Highlighting the widespread abuse of power by Nigerian leaders following its independence from Great Britain, A Man of the People focuses on the tribulations of a Nigerian teacher who joins a political group working to remove a corrupt bureaucrat from office. The poems of Beware, Soul Brother—which later was republished as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (1973)—reflect on the human tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, using plain language and stark imagery. Similarly, some of the narratives in Girls at War and Other Stories revolve around aspects of imminent war. Most of the stories deal with the conflict between traditional religious values and modern, secular mores, displaying the full range of Achebe's talents for humor, irony, and political satire. Divided into two parts, Morning Yet on Creation Day addresses a number of literary and political themes, with special emphasis on traditional and contemporary roles of art and the writer in African society. Set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah is about three childhood friends who hold influential governmental posts. When one of them fails in his bid for election as president for life, he works to suppress his opposition. After successfully conspiring to murder one friend, he meets a violent death during a military coup, while the third friend dies in a street riot. Generally considered Achebe's most accomplished work, Anthills of the Savannah illustrates the consequences for society when individual responsibility and power are recklessly exploited. While retaining the use of Ibo proverbs and legends to enhance his themes, Achebe also pays attention to the development and role of the women characters in this novel. In the book, Achebe gives women strength and composure as the agents of traditional morals and precepts. Hopes and Impediments (1988) gathers new and previously published essays and speeches, including a controversial essay attacking British novelist Joseph Conrad as racist. In 2000, Achebe published Home and Exile, containing autobiographical reflections set against the backdrop of his family's return (when Achebe was five years old) to his father's native Ogidi after a thirty-one-year absence. The writings revolve around the theme of alienation, as Achebe's family experiences conflicts with relatives and neighbors, who view the Christian family as outsiders to the native culture.
Many critics regard Achebe as the finest Nigerian novelist of the twentieth century, and his works often serve as the standard for judging other African literary works. Emphasizing Achebe's importance in the field of African literature, Simon Gikandi has pointed out his vital role as "hav[ing] invented, or reinvented, the idea of African culture." Achebe's literary criticism and sociological essays also have won praise and, along with his novels, have inspired a substantial body of criticism. Achebe's inventive usage of Ibo proverbs, folklore, and metaphysical elements in his novels is the most studied feature of his art. Scholars have concentrated on the significance of proverbs in his construction of vernacular speech patterns and social conventions as a way to distinguish the identities of his fictional characters. Achebe's use of dualism, a tenet of Ibo metaphysics, has prompted critical discussion as well. Emeka Nwabueze, for instance, has discussed the different critical responses to the execution of Ikemefuna by Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, examining how Achebe used the concept of duality to affect the critical readings of his text and "to contest the dependence on reason in interpretation and analyses of facts and situations." Other critics, including Damian U. Opata, have focused on Achebe's fictional treatment of the political corruption of post-colonial Africa. Examining the metaphorical meaning of the title Anthills of the Savannah, for example, Opata has claimed that the title compares the profusion of ruthless, fraudulent politicians—who infest Africa, and particularly Nigeria—with the invasive anthills that pepper Africa's grasslands. Other scholarly discussions have revolved around the personal journey related in Home and Exile. Critic Ian H. Munro, in particular, has studied the inter-, extra-, and intratextual aspects of the autobiography, finding interwoven into the narrative the tale of the prodigal son, recollections of slavery and colonization, and Ibo metaphysics.
Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958
"The Sacrificial Egg" (short story) 1959; published in periodical Atlantic Monthly
No Longer at Ease (novel) 1960
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
"Where Angels Fear to Tread" (essay) 1962; published in periodical Nigeria Magazine
Arrow of God (novel) 1964
Chike and the River (juvenilia) 1966
A Man of the People (novel) 1966
Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (poetry) 1971; republished as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems 1973
Girls at War and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
How the Leopard Got His Claws [with John Iroaganachi] (juvenilia) 1972
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975
The Drum: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1977
Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967) [coeditor with Dubem Okafor] (poetry) 1978
The Flute: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1979
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983
African Short Stories [coeditor with C. L. Innes] (short stories) 1985
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (essays) 1988
Home and Exile (autobiography) 2000
Collected Poems (poetry) 2004
Emeka Nwabueze (essay date summer 2000)
SOURCE: Nwabueze, Emeka. "Theoretical Construction and Constructive Theorizing on the Execution of Ikemefuna in Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study in Critical Dualism." Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (summer 2000): 163-73.
[In the following essay, Nwabueze examines the concept of dualism through a study of Okonkwo's slaying of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart.]
Wherever Something Stands,
Something Else stands beside it.
The use of proverbial lore is a prominent conversational feature in the Igboland of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. So important is the use of proverbs in Igbo conversation and orature that Achebe describes it as "the palm oil with which words are eaten" (5). The proverb quoted above is concerned with the concept of duality in interpretative reasoning and can be seen as a philosophical pedestal on which Achebe's Things Fall Apart stands. It is apparently the recognition of the importance of this proverb in Achebe's art that prompted Bill Moyers to seek the interpretation of this proverb from Achebe himself (333). In the interview, Achebe states that it is important to examine an issue critically in order to reveal a second point of view. Achebe, it appears, advises critics to seek a second point of view in interpreting his life and art. Stressing this concept of duality in his essay "Chi in Igbo Cosmology" in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe states:
Wherever Something Stands Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute. I am the truth, the way and the life would be called blasphemous or simply absurd for is it not well known that a man may worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed Udo.
One of the major causes of the misinterpretation of Achebe by critics, it appears, is that they sometimes seek meaning from historical and sociological data that are so apparent in Achebe's novels. Hence, they sometimes fail to recognize the importance of a more critical view from what the historical and sociological data reveal. As Simon Gikandi has pointed out:
Achebe has suffered the misfortune of being taken for granted: the intricate and deep structures that inform his narratives are rarely examined, except on an elementary introductory level, and the ideologies that inform his narratives and his theoretical reflection rarely seem to have the influence one would expect from Africa's leading novelist. Clearly, Achebe has been a victim of that kind of "first" reading which Roland Barthes condemned as the consumption of the text, a reading which erases the problematics of the text and its contradictory meanings in its quest for the artifice of continuity.
Duality seems to appeal to Achebe because it produces a multiplicity of meanings and indeterminate zones of representation that generate narrative invention. In another sense, I believe, duality allows the author, like his Igbo ancestors, to contest the dependence on reason in interpretation and analyses of facts and situations. The problem of establishing fixed taxonomy among people that do not thrive in fixed taxonomies, it seems to me, is partly the cause of the misinterpretation of Achebe's work by some critics. Furthermore, recourse to sociological taxonomies causes the critic to have fixed expectations about the behavior of a fictional character, judging him or her from the sociological beliefs of his or her people rather than from the narrative viewpoint. As Lekan Oyegoke has pointed out, "in the realm of textual strategies there are no permanent questions and no permanent answers, let alone permanent solutions" (66).* * *
One of the episodes in the novel where the concept of dualism seems very apparent is the execution of the young lad, Ikemefuna. The episode is so crucial to the development of the novel that it has been subjected to much interpretation by critics. The conclusion most critics reach from the analysis of this episode is that because of his participation in the execution of the boy "that calls him father," Okonkwo's life faced a negative trend, and finally steered to the horrendous denouement.
G. D. Killam (20), Charles E. Nnolim (58), Robert M. Wren (44), David Carrol (42), and Emmanuel Obiechina (131) maintain that Okonkwo committed a dreadful offence by participating in the execution of Ikemefuna. They posit that because of this hideous act, Okonkwo's life began to decline and eventually drifted to catastrophe. Some critics suggest that the dreaded goddess, Ala, was exerting punishment on Okonkwo for the dreadful act of killing Ikemefuna. Others mainly base their conclusion on the authority of an Umuofia elder, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, who warns Okonkwo not to participate in the execution because Ikemefuna calls him his father, as well as on that of his friend, Obierika, who blames him after the incident.
Damian U. Opata, in a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the episode, challenges this conclusion. He considers Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna an unconscionable act, but sees it neither as an offence nor as an orchestratation of Okonkwo's decline. Opata argues that since Ikemefuna's death had already been ordained by the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, his execution was a fait accompli. Thus, Okonkwo should be seen as merely executing the pronouncement of the dreaded oracle. Opata posits that Okonkwo ought to be seen as an obedient servant rather than as a vicious killer.
Through a careful analysis of the incident, Opata concludes that Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is instinctive because he was not in control of the situation and therefore had no time to consider his action. He sees that matter as torn between eternal sacred order and conventional wisdom and maintains that "we should not apply the principle of morality to a situation in which he [Okonkwo] was inexorably led by uncanny fate" (76).
Solomon Iyasere accepts the fact that "with the exception of a brief study by Damian Opata, most of the comments on the killing of Ikemefuna, particularly those treating Okonkwo's participation, have been superficial and judicial, far less extensive and vigorous than the event demands" (132). But Iyasere disagrees with Opata and accuses him of misreading the text, which, he argues, led to what he describes as the inaccuracies of Opata's conclusions. Iyasere maintains that "Opata disregards the particularities of the rhetoric of Achebe's controlled presentation of Okonkwo's actions throughout the novel and of the circumstances leading to his execution of Ikemefuna" (132). Iyasere appears to be committing the same offence of which he accuses Opata, and seems to substitute Achebe's meaning for his own. This substitution stems from his interpretation of Okonkwo's character. According to him, "Opata's argument that Okonkwo is a victim of fate denies him his tragic stature and thereby robs him of our deepest sympathy" (133). Being a victim of fate neither diminishes the stature of a tragic hero nor robs him of sympathy. Even in Classical tragedy, a character could be a victim of fate and yet maintain a gigantic tragic stature, and could even elicit the greatest sympathy from us through his/her fate, especially the fact that he/she suffers from what he/she does not totally deserve.
It is therefore necessary for us to examine Okonkwo's character and the psychoanalytic situations that led to what Opata describes as "instinctive action." The origin of the psychic pattern that portrays Okonkwo's behavior should be traced to the paternal imago. No doubt, the contemptible life and shameful death of his father, Unoka, exercised much force over his emotions and thinking and, in fact philosophy of life. Though he rebelled to the extent of casting off his father's passion for gentleness and idleness, it still had a tremendous influence on his life. Achebe clearly states, through the authorial voice, that "deep down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man" and goes further to elaborate that Okonkwo's
whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
Okonkwo stammers and resorts to his fists "when he is angry and could not get his words out quickly" (3). This resort to violence, it appears, is a way of rejecting his father's image. Unoka is portrayed as a man of words, a man of verbal excellence who employs "a sense of the dramatic" in the artistic manipulation of words and action. Despite this skill, Unoka lived a contemptible life and died a shameful death. Okonkwo's rejection of the only acceptable skill of his father is, therefore, understandable.
In his analysis of the incident, the astute critic Carrol considers the incident as "a comment on Okonkwo's heartlessness" (49). But if we agree that his fear drove him to the action, we can only conclude that he is merely reacting to the psychological situation that dominates his life and directs his action. Achebe feeds the reader with this information through the authorial voice. It is therefore necessary to examine the authorial voice and assess what it says about Okonkwo's love for Ikemefuna, and his reason for executing the young lad. The first question that comes to mind is: Is Okonkwo fond of Ikemefuna? The answer is certainly "yes." The authorial voice tells us that Okonkwo was "very fond of the boy" and that despite the fact that he treated Ikemefuna with as heavy a hand as he treated everyone else, "there was no doubt that he liked the boy" (20). In fact, it is this fondness for Ikemefuna that causes Ikemefuna to call Okonkwo "father":
Sometimes when he [Okonkwo] went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag.
The consequence of this benevolence is expressed in the authorial voice, which concludes this passage: "And indeed, Ikemefuna called him father" (20).
When one recounts the reason for Ikemefuna's sojourn in Umuofia and the way Okonkwo treats him, one would conclude that Okonkwo's action, though heartless in itself as Carrol (49) and Iyasere (123) tend to conclude, the intention is not deliberate. It is in recognition of this fact that the authorial voice states that "down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man" (9). Ikemefuna was brought to Umuofia as a compensation, an atonement for the murder of Udo's wife:
An ultimatum was immediately dispatched to Mbaino asking them to choose between war on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.
The people of Mbaino responded positively. The virgin was a replacement for Udo's wife, while the young man was to be sacrificed to cleanse the land. Right from the point Ikemefuna was handed over to Okonkwo, his fate was clear to everybody, including his parents. He belonged to the clan and had surrendered all freedom and paternal attachment. He was the kind of person the Igbos describe as Nwa-ora, a public property, an osu, or outcast, a sacrificial scapegoat who would be used or abused according to the dictates of the oracle:
As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. Okonkwo was, therefore, asked on behalf of the clan to look after him in the interim. And so for three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household.
Achebe uses repetition as an artistic device to keep the fate of Ikemefuna in the continuous focus of the reader, and to prepare the mind of the reader for the eventual execution:
So when the daughter of Umuofia was killed in Mbaino, Ikemefuna came to live in Okonkwo's household.
And that was how he came to look after a doomed lad who
was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna.
There is therefore no doubt that Ikemefuna and the young virgin were meant "to atone for the murder of Udo's wife" (19), and this makes Ikemefuna's death a fait accompli, as Opata maintains. In fact, the name of the young virgin is not even mentioned in the novel because she is merely a tool designed for atonement. Ikemefuna's name is mentioned not only because she plays a more prominent role in the novel than the young virgin, but also to show the irony in human behavior. Ikemefuna means "may my strength not be lost." The reference to strength alludes to the Igbo belief in the importance of the male child in the continuation of the family name. But in this case, legitimate strength is dissipated in favor of a reckless display of strength against the powerless.
Iyasere suggests that Okonkwo was eager to participate in the execution of Ikemefuna. According to him, the fact that Okonkwo "got ready quickly" when the team of elders came to collect Ikemefuna is a demonstration of "his eagerness to participate in the execution" (132). This may not be so, because the narrative suggests that the decision to executive Ikemefuna was very painful to Okonkwo. When Ogbuefi Ezeudu brought the news of the oracle's pronouncement that it was time for Ikemefuna to face his fate, Okonkwo was surprised and bereft of words. The next day, after the exit of the representative of the nine villages who had visited Okonkwo to finalize arrangements for the execution, "Okonkwo sat still for a very long time supporting his chin in his palm" (40). In Igboland that is the posture of a man in distress, a man suffering from frustration and psychological torture.
It is consequently necessary to examine Okonkwo's thinking during this period to attempt to unravel the contents of his mind by striking a balance between his subsequent action and the authorial voice. This, at least, is a way of establishing whether Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna was premediated. We are aware of the fact that Okonkwo abhors idleness, whether in action or in thought. It should therefore be clear that whatever occupied his thought for such a long time must have been something he considered quite serious.
By the time he called Ikemefuna to tell him that he would be taken home the next day, his decision has already been made. It is important to remember that he need not provide reasons to Ikemefuna for the journey. To give him such comforting reason for the journey is proof of Okonkwo's thoughtfulness and humanity, as well as his fondness for Ikemefuna. It is also an evidence of his recognition of Ikemefuna's intelligence. Okonkwo was sure that it would not be easy for Ikemefuna to travel with strange-looking, machete-wielding elders to the groves of the dreaded oracle in the pretext that he was being taken home.
Having given Ikemefuna a sense of protection by going with the team, Okonkwo went on to execute the second part of his plan: to ensure that he does not participate in the execution. Achebe clearly portrays this by making Okonkwo withdraw to the rear, and by making him look away when the fatal blow was delivered. Yet events conspired against him, making it impossible for him to escape the fate already ordained for him. For how would one expect that after he had taken precaution and withdrawn to the rear, Ikemefuna would be able to escape both the person chosen to execute the act and the other elders in that "narrow line in the heart of the forest" (41)? This created a characteristic psychological problem for Okonkwo and instinctively and with no time to consider the action, he brings down his sharp machete on the ill-fated lad. The novelist portrays this fact both in the narrative proper and in the authorial voice that explains Okonkwo's action: "Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak" (43; emphasis added). Thus, Okonkwo's paternal imago and the machinations of capricious fate caused him to perform an action he had tried very hard to avoid.
It is also necessary to comment on the personal remorse and psychological torture that descended on Okonkwo after the execution. He did not eat any food for three days, only drinking palm wine, probably to drug himself and overcome the thought of his action. Even sleep eluded him, and the cold shiver that "descended on his head and spread down his body" (44) symbolizes his spiritual and mental torture.
The questions that need to be addressed now are: Is Okonkwo's action to be explained away as heartlessness, as some critics have emphasized? And do we accept the suggestion that "the execution of Ikemefuna is the beginning of Okonkwo's decline, for it initiates the series of catastrophes which ends in his death" (Carrol 48). Before answering these questions, it is necessary to point out the dangers of hasty conclusions in psychoanalytic criticism. As Peter Brooks has pointed out:
Psychoanalytic criticism displaces the object of analysis from the text to some person, be it the author, the reader or the characters, all of whom are viewed as independent personalities rather than as a function of the text itself.
(qtd. Ellman 3)
Unfortunately, there is the danger of the critic to ignore the fact that a fictional character is composed of words, not a human being with flesh and blood. The art critic, for instance, analyzes a pediment as a creation of a sculptor. Iyasere seems to overlook the verbal specificities of Achebe's narrative and focuses on archetypes. The subsequent danger is that he sometimes substitutes Achebe's meaning for his own, meaning, which is sometimes buried in the authorial voice. Maud Ellman warns against this danger:
The act of reading is a process of mutual seduction, whereby the reader and the read arouse each other's fantasies, expose each other's dreams. It is when we think we penetrate the text's disguises that we are usually most deluded and most ignorant, for what we see is nothing but our unknown selves.
Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is, as Opata suggests, "an unconscionable act" and not necessarily an offence (79). To argue that the execution turned his life to the negative or that the killing is a display of his heartlessness would need further qualifications to soar above the boundaries of reasonable doubt. In Igbo culture, Okonkwo should be seen as the victim of capricious fates, a fact none of the critics except Opata has considered.
Achebe depicts Okonkwo as having been born with a bad chi. He goes on to explore the consequences of that concept in the entire portrayal of Okonkwo's life, a portrayal hidden under the Igbo philosophy that "a per- son's fortunes in life are controlled more or less completely by his chi" (Morning Yet on Creation Day 98). To further understand the concept of chi in Igbo philosophy and rank it with the interpretation of Okonkwo's portrayal in Things Fall Apart, vis-à-vis the issue of heartlessness advanced by some critics, let us again examine Achebe's explanation of the concept of chi:
We must remember, however, when we hear that a man has a bad chi that we are talking about his fortune rather than his character. A man of impeccable character may yet have a bad chi so that nothing he puts his hand to will work out right. Chi is therefore more concerned with success or failure than with righteousness or wickedness.
Achebe portrays Okonkwo as a man who has a bad chi, whose tremendous vitality and vigor are sometimes annulled by the gods in a vexed and unconscious impulse of spiritual inertia: "Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had" (12). He inherited nothing from his father. His father, Unoka, may have discovered that he "had a bad chi or personal god" (13) and never attempted to struggle, knowing that such an effort would be futile. Apparently evoking the duality of Igbo cosmology, Okonkwo believed that if a man said yes, his chi agreed (19). So he plunged himself into the war of success like a man possessed. The authorial voice continues to intrude into the omniscient voice to keep the reader abreast of the influence of chi in counteracting Okonkwo's efforts.
In his effort to start his life as a farmer, Okonkwo had to borrow eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie, but his bad chi conspired against him:
The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad.
Despite the fact that he had this misfortune, he continued "his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune" (19). Then came the case of Ikemefuna. Despite his efforts to avoid killing the young lad, uncanny fate conspired against him. He had withdrawn to the rear when it was time for the execution to take place. He had looked away when Ikemefuna was to be executed. Yet the executioner, for no explained reason, was unable to execute the act and Ikemefuna made that fateful flight to Okonkwo's position.
Okonkwo's withdrawal to the rear created more problems for him. He was now the only person standing before the sacrificial lamb, a situation created by his deliberate plan to be so far away from the execution theater as to avert the possibility of taking a hand in it, or even seeing it happen. It appeared that the more he tried to avoid doing it, the more he was lured towards the realization of the act. Now faced with a situation he could not control, he recognizes his predicament. Would he step aside from the narrow path and allow "the doomed lad, the ill-fated lad" brought to Umuofia as appeasement, a lad whose execution had already been ordained by the dreaded oracle, to escape? The psychological fear that rules Okonkwo's life causes him to bring his machete down on the boy. The immortal authorial voice then reinforces the reason for his action.
Okonkwo's battle with his chi extended even to the mortality of his children. It is easy to forget this fact because we see many children in Okonkwo's household and therefore tend to feel that capricious fate had no effect on that part of his life. But let us take a hypothetical case. His affectionate wife, Ekwefi, who among his three wives "was the only one who would have the audacity to bang on his door … had borne ten children and nine of them had died in infancy, usually before the age of three" (53-54). Then the accidental discharge in Ezeudu's funeral and his consequent exile. These are only a few examples of Okonkwo's battle with bad chi. We are, therefore, confronted with an alternative interpretation of Okonkwo's action.He was a victim of capricious fate. Hence, as we have seen, there is no direct connection between his killing of Ikemefuna and the accidental discharge that claims the life of Ezeudu's son. He was at the height of his prosperity and renown and, as the Igbo proverb states, bad chi torments a man at the time his life is sweetest to him.
Okonkwo, as usual, gets over the odds and, once again, through hard work and resilience, becomes prosperous during the period of his exile, finally emerging as one of the richest and most influential men in Mbanta. Neither the narrative nor the authorial voice attaches any connection between Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna and the consequent machinations of fate. The novelist, however, continues to make references to chi as the architect of Okonkwo's past disaster: "As the years of exile passed one by one it seemed to him that his chi might now be making amends for the past disaster" (121).
Okonkwo's prosperity in Mbanta can be measured by the plans. He plans to build a magnificent compound when he returns to Umuofia. He also plans to marry more wives, take the highest title in the land, and initiate his two sons into the prestigious ozo society. These achievements, he believes, will help him achieve what he lost during the exile, and even more. But chi conspired against him and his return fell in a wrong year, thus trivializing his efforts and making his return virtually unnoticed:
If Okonkwo had immediately initiated his two sons into the ozo society as he had planned he would have caused a stir. But the initiation rite was performed once in three years in Umuofia, and he had to wait for nearly two years for the next round of ceremonies.
The influence of bad chi in Okonkwo's life is therefore clearly portrayed in the novel. The execution of Ikemefuna is, notably, one of those incidents where uncanny fate has conspired against him to foil his plans and direct his action. Dualism causes meaning to be contested, contradicted, and even challenged to yield its authenticity. Both Wren (44) and Iyasere (133) point out the fact that, as Obierika seems to argue, the gods have not specifically ordered that Okonkwo should participate in the execution of Ikemefuna. Iyasere, for instance, cites the conversation between Obierika and Okonkwo to support this view. Opata, on the other hand, argues that Obierika's statement is "no more than sheer sentimentality and hypocrisy" (76). Opata goes on to point out that Obierika had thrown his own twin children away himself (87), and tradition does not particularly direct that the father of the twins should perform the act himself. When Okonkwo committed the female ochu, his entire compound was, by tradition, razed and demolished. The authorial voice tells us that "[e]ven his greatest friend Obierika was among them," and added that they were cleansing the land that Okonkwo had "polluted with the blood of a clansman" (87). Here again tradition did not compel Obierika to participate in demolishing and razing his friend's house. All these tend to express the duality of Igbo cosmology. Hence, Okonkwo himself is also a victim of and an accomplice with the norms of the Igbo society that collude with history in the form of colonialism to cause his ultimate destruction.
The narrative techniques employed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart are the marriage of Free Indirect Discourse and diegesis; hence the importance of the authorial voice in the analysis of this seemingly easy but thematically complicated novel. Free Indirect Discourse, as defined by Dorrit Cohn, is "the technique for rendering a character's thought in their own idiom while maintaining the third person reference and the basic tense of narration" (100). It enables Achebe to probe into the mind of the character without obliterating the flow of the narrative. Diegesis, a term that appears in the third book of Plato's Republic, is a technique whereby the poet speaks as himself/herself in the various parts of the narrative. Socrates distinguishes diegesis from mimesis, a technique whereby the narrator creates the impression that he/she is not the speaker in the narrative. Some critics may consider this technique merely as the omniscient viewpoint or the extension of it. But an understanding of this narrative technique will be helpful in unraveling the intricacies of the novel, intricacies that separate this novel from his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which uses the theory of transactional analysis in the portrayal of characters (see my "Characterization").
Dualism is also used by Achebe as a narrative device in the novel. Through dualism, Achebe suspends authorial intrusion and the imposition of his judgment on the reader, thus giving him or her the opportunity to contest meanings and norms that underpin the ordering of the Igbo society. Achebe expresses the moral duplicity and ambiguity of norms that guide the Igbo society through the enormous influence of the gods on the life of the society. Dualism also arises from the fact that both god and humanity should be placated differently in order for harmony to exist. For instance, when Udo's wife is killed, a virgin is brought to replace the murdered woman. The offending community apologizes to the Umuofia people in order to avert war. Both Udo and the Umuofia society have been placated. To placate the dreaded oracle, Ikemefuna has to be brought in. And the gods appear to be selfish and disunited. That is why a person can serve Ogwugwu to perfection and still be killed by Udo.
Finally, it is necessary to address the issue of Okonkwo's suicide to show how its meaning is affected by the concept of dualism. Some critics tend to believe that Okonkwo's suicide completes that self-inflicted catastrophe which results from his participation in the execution of Ikemefuna. But it must be pointed out that in Okonkwo's Umuofia, one is considered a hero if he avenges himself on someone who has done unpardonable harm to his integrity and bravely takes his own life in defiance of any intended consequences. This behavior is still prevalent in many areas of Igboland. Exhibition of heroism is seen not only in accomplishments but also in valor, fortitude, and extraordinary courage.
Okonkwo's suicide is another way of rejecting his father's shameful death. He therefore preferred a heroic suicide to an ignoble and disgraceful torture and eventual execution by the colonial administration. In the traditional Igbo society, elders are harassed by the thought of how they would explain certain aspects of their temporal behavior to the ancestors when they die. This is because the Igbos see life as a cyclic entity containing the worlds of the living, the dead, and the unborn. In the end, Okonkwo would be able to tell his ancestors: "I sought out one of the abominable strangers desecrating the land, executed him in public, and denied them the opportunity of committing further abomination on the land by torturing and butchering a titled man like a funeral ram." And the ancestors would probably nod in thoughtful understanding.
Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1976.
———. "Chi in Igbo Cosmology." Morning Yet On Creation Day (Essays). London: Heinemann, 1975. 93-103.
Carrol, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Twayne, 1970.
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrating Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
Ellman, Maud. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. London: Longman, 1994.
Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. London: James Curry, 1991.
Iyasere, Solomon O. "Okonkwo and the Execution of Ikemefuna in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness." English Studies in Africa 33.2 (1990): 131-40.
Killam, G. D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. London: Heinemann, 1997.
Moyers, Bill. "Interview with Chinua Achebe." A World of Ideas. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 320-45.
Muoneke, Romanus Okey. Art, Rebellion and Redemption: A Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
Nnolim, Charles E. "Achebe's Things Fall Apart: An Igbo National Epic." Modern Black Literature. Ed. S. Mezu. New York: Black Academic P, 1977. 56-60.
Nwabueze, Emeka. "Characterization in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah: A Study in Transactional Analysis." Salutes: Selected Writings. Evanston: Troubadour, 1994.
Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel." Research in African Literatures 24.4 (1993): 123-40.
Opata, Damian U. "Eternal Sacred Order versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart." Research in African Literatures 18.1 (1987): 71-79.
Oyegoke, Lekan. "Misreading Simon Gikandi's Reading Chinua Achebe." The Literary Griot 5.1 (1993): 65-74.
Wren, Robert M. Achebe's World: The Historical and Culture Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three: Continents, 1980.
Simon Gikandi (essay date fall 2001)
SOURCE: Gikandi, Simon. "Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture." Research in African Literatures 32, no. 3 (fall 2001): 3-8.
[In the following essay, Gikandi argues for Achebe's considerable influence on African literature and culture as the critic recalls the "transformation" he experienced when first reading Things Fall Apart.]
I have never met Chinua Achebe in person, but every time I read his fiction, his essays, or critical works, I feel as if I have known him for most of my life. For if the act of reading and re-reading establishes networks of connections between readers, writers, and context, and if texts are indeed crucial to the modes of knowledge we come to develop about subjects and objects and the images we associate with certain localities and institutions, then I can say without equivocation that I have known Achebe since I was thirteen years old. I can still vividly recall the day when, in my first or second year of secondary school, I encountered Things Fall Apart. It was in the early 1970s. We had a young English teacher who, although a recent graduate of Makerere University College, which was still the bastion of Englishness in East Africa, decided to carry out a literary experiment that was to change the lives of many of us: instead of offering the normal literary fare for junior secondary school English, which in those days consisted of a good dose of abridged Robert Louis Stevenson novels, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, and Barbara Kimenye's popular readers, we were going to read Things Fall Apart over a period of two weeks. We would read a chapter of the novel every day, aloud in class, until we got to the end. Once I had started reading Things Fall Apart, however, I could not cope with the chapter a day policy. I read the whole novel over one afternoon and it is not an exaggeration to say that my life was never to be the same again. For reading Things Fall Apart brought me to the sudden realization that fiction was not merely about a set of texts which one studied for the Cambridge Overseas exam which, for my generation, had been renamed the East African Certificate of Education; on the contrary, literature was about real and familiar worlds, of culture and human experience, of politics and economics, now re-routed through a language and structure that seemed at odds with the history or geography books we were reading at the time.
At the center of the transformation engendered by my reading of Achebe's first novel was nothing less than the figure of the yam. Yes: the figure of the yam had been bothering me even before I read Things Fall Apart. As (post)colonial subjects of my generation may recall, the yam had been making its way into the standard geography books in anglophone Africa since the modernization of the curriculum in the late 1950s, ostensibly in anticipation of independence. In the 1960s and the early 1970s, the major geography primers were the Geography for Africa series printed by Oxford University Press and written by a certain McBain, graduate of Oxon or Cantab (I forget which); these works were primarily concerned with mapping the movement, or nonmovement, of the African from primitive production to modernization. Somehow, the yam seemed to occupy a central position in this narrative of the African's modernization. In McBain's Geography for Africa for standard four, for example, young minds were informed that the yam was essential to agricultural production among the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, and that it had, together with palm oil, been a major part of the regional economy before the discovery of coal at Enugu. In those days it made sense to see African life as the movement from primitive (agricultural) practices to industrial production, and we were thus not interested in questioning the logic of this narrative of modernity; still, for those of us growing up in the highlands of East Africa, the yam was as alien as the proverbial apple that opened all English readers. Having never seen a yam in our lives, we were hard pressed to understand its value. Indeed, it is now clear to me, in retrospect, that McBain of Oxon/Cantab did not explain the notion of commodity value well enough for us to overcome the distance between Nairobi and Enugu. But in reading Things Fall Apart, everything became clear: the yam was important to Igbo culture, not because of what we were later to learn to call use-value, this time at the University of Nairobi, but because of its location at the nexus of a symbolic economy in which material wealth was connected to spirituality and ideology and desire. The novel was teaching us a fundamental lesson that old McBain could never comprehend. Things Fall Apart provided us with a different kind of education.
I begin these reflections on the significance of Chinua Achebe to the institution of African literature and culture by noting the transformative power of Things Fall Apart for two reasons. The first one is to call attention to an interesting phenomenon that I have noticed in conversations with many Africans of my generation, both inside and outside academia, on the role of literature in the making of African subjects. I have noticed that when the debate turns to questions of culture, of literature, and of the destiny of Africa, subjects that concern many of us as we get older and the problems of the continent seem to multiply with our aging, we seem to clamor for those Pan-African moments that defined our identities as we came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. These debates and questions crystallize around many of the tragic and triumphant events that stand in our memories—the Mexico City Olympics or the Civil War in Nigeria, for example—but while these events generate disagreement, the transformative nature of Things Fall Apart is undisputed. Like one of these momentous events that one is bound to remember, like where one was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, many of us recall where we were when we first read Achebe's first novel. But, of course, such acts of recall only make sense for a generation that has come to feel, rightly or wrongly, that it shared a common cultural project. Whatever questions we may now have about this project (was the 1960s the golden age of African independence or does it appear to be so only through the prism of bourgeois nostalgia and against the background of postcolonial failure?), there is consensus that Things Fall Apart was important for the marking and making of that exciting first decade of decolonization. There also seems to be consensus that the production of the novel, as well as its reading and (re)reading, and its circulation within the institutions of education, came to define who we were, where we were, and as Achebe himself would say, where the rain began to beat us.
My second point, however, is that the association of a text such as Things Fall Apart with a certain generational project, or even a foundational moment of literary history, also marks the gap between the text and those readers removed from its moment of irruption into the world; those are the readers who are bound to be baffled by the claims to monumentality adduced to the novel itself. Scholars and readers of my generation, people who often take the monumentality of Achebe's work for granted, are constantly frustrated when their young students seem unable to comprehend the historic nature of his intervention in the field of African literature, which was, in the 1950s, in state of flux, and in my judgment, crisis. I am often taken to task for having claimed, or rather repeated the claim, that Achebe was the person who invented African literature. From the perspective of literary history, as I argued in Reading Chinua Achebe (London: Currey; Portsmouth: Heinemann; Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya, 1991), Achebe had important precursors on the African scene and the more I reread the works of such figures as René Maran, Amos Tutuola, Paul Hazoumé, and Sol Plaatje, the more I am convinced of their significance in the foundation of an African tradition of letters. Still, none of these writers had the effect Achebe had on the establishment and reconfiguration of an African literary tradition; none of them were able to enter and interrupt the institutions of exegesis and education the same way he did; none were able to establish the terms by which African literature was produced, circulated, and interpreted. So the question that needs to be addressed in any tribute to Achebe is not why he was the person who invented African literature as an institutional practice, but what exactly accounted for the foundational and transformative character of his works, not to mention its monumentality. Why must Things Fall Apart always occupy the inaugural moment of African literary history?
Perhaps this is the place to confess that, from the perspective of a literary critic rather than a common reader, I came to discover the significance of Achebe's novels in the shaping of African literature through a negative example. Sometime in the late 1970s, as an apprentice editor at the Nairobi office of Heinemann Educational Books, I was asked by my senior colleagues, Henry Chakava and Laban Erapu, to review a manuscript by a certain Dambudzo Marechera and, specifically, to address the concerns of the "London Office," whose managers were not sure that The House of Hunger could be published and marketed as African literature. I did not have to ask what exactly was construcd to be African literature. It was assumed that it was something akin to Achebe's novels, especially Things Fall Apart, and this seemed to exclude many forms of experimental writing. My first thought was to react against this tendency to equate African literature with Achebe's works, a tendency that had produced what I felt were many poor imitators in the Heinemann African Writers Series, books about village life and the crisis of change whose titles we no longer need to mention. My first impulse was to read Marechera's manuscript as an attempt to break out of what I then thought was an ill-advised over-determination of the series by its first—and most important—writer.
But as soon as I started reading The House of Hunger, I realized that the question of overdetermination was more complicated than I initially thought. Marechera's "avant-garde" fiction could not simply be juxtaposed against Achebe's works; on the contrary, it existed in a productive relation to it, so much so that one could not argue for the newness of the title story or novella ("The House of Hunger") without invoking its relationship with Achebe's project. Even a cursory reading of Marechera's fiction indicated that his protagonists had been reading Achebe and other African writers; these African writers were important tools in their struggle against the culture of colonialism in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. What was even more remarkable about Marechera's subjects was the fact that they took the existence of this African literature for granted and considered it inseparable from the idea of an African identity and a Pan-African culture. Like many Africans of my generation, Marechera's characters paid homage to African literature by taking it for granted as something that didn't need to be rationalized or justified; more importantly they were leading their lives according to the dictates of a Pan-African, rather than, or in addition to, the colonial, library. If I were writing that review of Marechera's manuscript today, I would say that the soon to be gadfly of African letters was important to the tradition not because he was writing a different fiction than Achebe, but because he had taken Achebe's fictional world as an integral part of what it meant to be African. Achebe's novels had become an essential referent for the African cultural text.
However, when I said that Achebe had invented African literature, I was thinking about something more than the existence of his novels as the Ur-texts of our literary tradition; what I had in mind then was the tremendous influence his works have had on the institutions of pedagogy and interpretation and the role his fictions have come to play in the making and unmaking of African worlds. Like most émigré African intellectuals, I am ambivalent about the institutionalization of Things Fall Apart and the wisdom of using it as supplement for African culture or the authorized point of entry into Igbo, Nigerian, or African landscapes. Within Africa, itself, I have sometimes wondered why the institutions of power have been so keen to place Achebe at the center of the curriculum. I am reminded of an episode that took place in Kenya sometime in the 1980s when the state, in its eagerness to isolate Ngugi wa Thiong'o whom it then considered to be the single most threat to its cultural hegemony, sought to return to a colonial literary curriculum, one in which Shakespeare would once again occupy a place of honor. The Kenyan state was eager to purge the curriculum of radical writers, I am told, but still the president and the then minister of higher education wanted Achebe retained because, in spite of their hankering for the colonial days, they wanted students to have a dignified sense of African culture. Ironically, when he was detained at the end of 1977, Ngugi was in the middle of teaching a course focused on Achebe's work as a mirror of the transformation of African history from the pre-colonial past to the neocolonial present. If the Kenyan state associated Achebe's fiction with the idea of a dignified African culture, its radical opponent read the same fiction as a critique of decolonization.
Given the appeal he has had for different kinds of readers and factions, the institutionalization of Achebe raises some important questions: what is it about his novels that enabled them to play their unprecedented role as the mediators of the African experience and the depository of a certain idea of Africa? Why is it that when the term African culture is mentioned, Achebe's works almost immediately come to mind? Since this is a tribute to Achebe, I will try to answer these questions by making another extravagant claim: Achebe is the person who invented African culture as it is now circulated within the institutions of interpretation. I can already hear the rattling of theoretical counterarguments and the marshaling of other equally powerful forces in the Pan-African library. But I want to support my claim by making a pragmatic rather than a theoretical or historical argument: I want to insist that Achebe's intervention in the already existing colonial and Pan-African libraries transformed the idea of Africa and that his project has indeed valorized the idea of culture in the thinking of African worlds. The argument can be made that the valorization of culture as the medium of thinking the African was already underway when Achebe started writing his novels. After all, is there a more profound valorization of culture than the one we encounter in Senghor's Negritude? Perhaps not. But for reasons that are too complicated to discuss here, the valorization of culture in Senghor's work—and indeed the writings of early Pan-Africanists—was so closely associated with European ideas, or sought to reconcile the African to the dominant European discourse about race and culture, that they could not seriously be invoked in radical gestures of dissociation from European ideas about Africa. I will not be audacious enough to claim that Achebe's work is not indebted to European ideas of Africa or to the culture of colonialism (they carry powerful signs of these entities); but I think the claim can be made that these works have been read—or at least render themselves to being read—as counterpoints to the colonial library.
A brief context can help clarify the argument I am trying to make here: we have now come to associate the idea of an African culture with the whole discourse of decolonization that we forget, too often perhaps, that there was a time when the narrative of African freedom was predicated on the negation of what we have come to call tradition. This negation is the fulcrum in key texts of Pan-Africanism for most of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The Pan-African elite might have celebrated the greatness of African cultures, but as even a cursory reading of their sourcebooks will show, their celebration of "classical" Africa was a flight from the barbarism associated with the "tribal," those whom Achebe's parents would have called the people of darkness. Up until the 1950s, the education of Africans was predicated on their relocation from the darkness associated with the "tribal" to the sweetness and light of colonial institutions. When African culture entered literary texts, it did so either as European idea of Africa, or as a sign of lack. Things Fall Apart is as anxious about its colonial context as other texts from this period; at the same time, however, it seems to exist in excess of this context; for a novel written within colonialism, it seems confident about its ability to represent its African background as it is of its power to manage the colonial anxieties that generated it in the first place. I would argue, then, that this confidence is precisely what enabled Achebe to shift the idea of Africa from romance and nostalgia, from European primitivism, and from a rhetoric of lack, to an affirmative culture. It is in this sense that Achebe can be said to have invented, or reinvented, the idea of African culture.
Damian U. Opata (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Opata, Damian U. "The Metaphor of ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ in Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah." Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics 26, nos. 1-2 (2003): 59-64.
[In the following essay, Opata treats the title Anthills of the Savannah as a metaphorical statement that reflects the political corruption of West African leaders.]
In a recently concluded symposium on Chinua Achebe,1 his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah was, as was to be expected, the most highly discussed of his novels.
During the discussion time that followed a panel session focused entirely on Anthills of the Savannah, one of the many vexing issues which puzzled many commentators was that of understanding what the words "anthills" and "Savannah" stood for in the novel.2 If I remember rightly, I think that the discussants arrived at the following conclusions: that the words "anthills" and "savannah" are used in a metaphorical sense; is that "anthills" as so used means either survivors or indicators of potential regeneration, whereas "savannah" as used in the title of the novel implies a grassland but refers to an unnamed city (Nigeria?) in West Africa.
I have since reflected on these issues and it does appear to me that they are genuine and capable of further exploration. The latter is especially so because we are dealing with literary metaphors which according to Richard Boyd "display what might be termed conceptual open-endedness."3 In exploring the issues further, I would prefer to adopt a methodological frame work in which "anthills of the savannah" is treated as a metaphorical statement rather than adopt the perspective at the Achebe symposium in which "anthills" and "savannah" were treated as separate metaphors. This preference arises from a certain perception that the title of the novel, like other of Achebe's novels, has a message to convey whose meaning cannot be fully understood solely by a simple recourse to an analysis of its major constituent parts. Two reasons support this perception. First, treating the title of the novel as a metaphorical statement would enable us to ask the questions: who are the "anthills" of the savannah? and what are the properties that characterize them as such? Second, Anthills of the Savannah is a novel that places the problem of political leadership in a historical perspective without proposing any solutions and so an understanding of the metaphor in which this is couched must be approached from the point of view of problem framing.
The history of the use of the word "anthill" in Achebe's novels dates back to Things Fall Apart where it is used just once, then about six times in Arrow of God, and about four times in Anthills of the Savannah. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe uses the word in a hyphenated form to describe Obierika's compound to be "as busy as an ant-hill."4 In this context, the word is used as a simile but also almost as a synecdoche because the tenor which conveys the comparison is not the ant-hill. The aptness and vividness of the comparison is brought out in the fact that it is people who are busy in Obierika's compound. In all but one instance in which it is used in Arrow of God, it is used to describe Nwafor's nose. In this connection, its use simply conveys to us a picturesque impression of the prominence of Nwafor's nose. The second sense in which it is used is in a proverbial form, thus: "The little bird which hops off the ground and lands on an ant-hill may not know it but is still on the ground."5 Here, it is used as one of a string of proverbs which collectively foreshadow the tragic death of Obika, and by some implication of Ezeulu's subsequent madness. In the context in which it is used here, it is portrayed as capable of generating in the perching subject an illusionary sense of power.
By the time of the Anthills of the Savannah the word is used in the plurals for three times and in contexts different from the ones in which it had been previously used in the other two novels. The manner in which it is first used in the novel is suggestive of what meaning attribute we are to give to it. In describing the scorching effect of the sun, the narrative voice tells us:
The trees had become hydra-headed bronze statues so ancient that only blunt residual features remained on their faces, like anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last years's brush fires.6
This passage holds the key to an understanding of "ant-hills of the Savannah" as a metaphorical statement. There are two indications to this. The first and the most obvious indication is conveyed in the second part of quotation, "like anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires," whereas the second but less obvious possibility can be found in the first part of the quotation which suggests that "only blunt residual features remained on" the faces of the trees. The first suggestion, that of "anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires" as meaning "survivors" or "indicators of potential regeneration" tallies with the meaning given to "anthills" at the Achebe symposium already referred to. A second factor which seems to lend support to this interpretation is the way the novel ends, especially with regard to the naming of Elewa's child, AMAECHINA: "may-the-path-never-close" (p. 222), and the coming together, in the last few pages of the novel, of the survivors who were very close to most of the major actors in the novel. It is then these survivors who would tell Amaechina and her generation about what happened to Ikem and Chris. Amaechina as a female is a symbol of fertility, of regeneration, specifically of the likes of Ikem.
In the context of the total meaning of Anthills of the Savannah, what would the construal of the metaphor of "anthills of the savannah" as meaning "survivors" or "indicators of potential regeneration" imply? Before attempting an answer; it is pertinent to note that the "or" in the possible two meanings just given above is not used in a disjunctive sense. In other words, the metaphorical statement "anthills of the savannah" could mean, at the same time, both "survivors" and "indicators of potential regeneration" or simply any of the two without necessarily excluding the other. But this is as far as it goes. If we construe the metaphor as meaning only survivors, then we are faced with the question: survivors of what? A possible answer might be survivors of political bestiality, corruption, and high handedness. The examples of such survivors would be typefied by Beatrice, Elewa, Emmanuel, Adamma, Braimoh, Captain Abdul, etc. A further question which might arise at this stage is what is predicated of these survivors? If we took these survivors as representatives of civil servants, students, taxi drivers, soldiers, prostitutes, maids, and peasants, it could be inferred that what they signify is that no matter the level of political high-handedness and brutality, we would always have survivors, and of course victims too. This meaning is rejected on the grounds that it cannot be the moral or lesson of so complex a novel as Anthills of the Savannah.
The other possible meaning, "indicators of potential regeneration" is derived from the image of the anthills. In the anthill are always the ants which are untouched by brush fires. These ants are the ones that will go on to build more and bigger anthills. Brush fires and anthills are familiar features of the savannah. The constant coexistence of the anthills and the brushes in the savannah, their continued subjection to the same experiential reality of the fire coupled with a higher survivalist tendency of one over the other tends to portray a certain sense of dualism characteristic of Igbo life and thought. In this context, the dualism is constituted by some type of binary opposites, of the resilient and the fragile, the resistant and the non-resistant. The fragile and the non-resistant yield easy way to fires whereas the resilient and the resistant would stay on substantially unaffected and unchanged. In the context of Anthills of the Savannah, we find that the structure of the novel is based on this co-existence of opposites. We find the likes of Ikern Osodi and Chris Oriko counterposed against characters such as His Excellency, Professor Okong, and Major Ossai. This dualism is comically but graphically portrayed in the scenario between Chris and one of the people who gathered on the Great North Road on hearing the announcement of the coup that toppled his Excellency's Government. The following passage succinctly brings out this dualism that is based on opposites.
‘Go and have a drink,’ one of them said to him, like a man who before his present state, had been used to exercising authority. ‘I have had a drink. Several drinks,’ said Chris, sounding superior without perhaps intending to.
‘If you have drunk…. as I have drunk…. Why are you standing straight like that? Or is it my eyes?’ The fellow's head was going from side to side like an albino, though he was shiney-black like ebony.
‘I am not standing straight,’ said Chris, unaccountably mesmerized by this highly articulate drunk.
'No, it is not my eyes…. You are not standing … I mean to say, you are standing as straight as a flagpole. You get me? My difficulty then is: if as you say you drank as much beer as myself, why are you standing straight? Or put it another way. If two of us ate the same palm-oil chop, how come one of us, i.e., yourself, is passing black shit? That is what I want to know mister. Two people ate palm-oil soup….
Two people ate the same palm-oil soup but do not pass shit of the same colour. Two people are subject to the same experiential reality but the outcome is different in each case. It is instructive that the man asks Chris why he (Chris) should be "passing black shit?" The residual object here is the "black shit," not Chris. The "black shit" is analogous to the anthills whereas the unmentioned yellow shit is analogous to the brush and grass of the savannah. One is easily affected by the phenomenon of fire whereas the other is substantially unaffected by the same experience.
This raises a problem of accepting the metaphor of "anthills of the savannah" as meaning indicators of potential regeneration. What is destroyed is that which imbues the savannah with a sense of beauty. The anthills are not known to offer good visual aesthetics and it is indeed remarkably noteworthy that we are told that "perhaps it was seeing the anthills in the scorched landscape that set him (Chris) off revealing in details he had not before experienced how the searing accuracy of the poet's eye was primed not on fancy but "fact" (p. 209). There is no doubt that the anthills represent hidden life, but to see in them indicators of potential regeneration in the sense of giving spiritual reform or strength—which is what regeneration is all about—to the society and people of Kangan is only a dim hope, a hope as suspect as the unusual giving of a boy's name, AMAECHINA, to a girl in a fit of unreflective ‘feminitude.’ Because of these reasons, the two possible interpretations of the metaphor of the "anthills" as arrived at during the Achebe symposium are here rejected. This means then that we must look for firmer footings on which we can ground a more plausible reading of the metaphor of the "anthills of the savannah."
It is possible that a more appropriate construal of this metaphor is to be found in a political context or reading of the novel. The first factor which lends credibility to this view is that the anthill as a phenomenon can be regarded as primarily a political symbol. In traditional Igbo societies, a popular riddle derives its being from the anthill. The riddle is as follows:
Question: Gwa m Gwa m Gwa m eze Chukwu kpubelu okpu na-oma agu.
(Tell me Tell me Tell me a King that is crowned by God in the Wilderness.)
Answer: Ikwube. (Anthill.)
From this, it can be said that in the traditional Igbo imagination, the anthill is ascribed with some naturally endowed power features, even if it be the power of surviving brush fires. The anthill too is a familiar feature of the savannah grassland. That it features as a constant image in many an Achebe novel is not quite surprising. Its resilience and ability to survive brush fires and its noticeably irresistible presence after such brush fires, coupled with its primal linkage with power in the folk imagination make it suggestive that an artist with such a keen sense of observation and sensitive imagination like Achebe may—consciously or unconsciously—begin to link its survival potential with the unusual tendency of political corruption to persist in West African states in spite of all attempts to eliminate it.
Secondly, Anthills of the Savannah is primarily a political novel. Consequently, any meaningful construal of its total meaning must centre around a political problematic. This makes it necessary for a true meaning of the metaphor of the "anthills of the savannah" to be sought within a political contextualization of the title of the novel especially if consideration is taken of the message which the titles of Achebe's novels convey. "Things Fall Apart," "No Longer at Ease," and "Arrow of God" are, in this regard, some type of literary cryptograms. But Anthills of the Savannah is quite unlike the ironic A Man of the People. In A Man of the People, we find the formulation of a problem, that of political corruption, which cannot be solved by the emergent intellectual elite because they lacked the means to do so and were selfishly motivated too. As such a solution is found in military intervention. Twenty-two years separates A Man of the People from Anthills of the Savannah a novel in which we find a graphic portrayal of the contemporary political situation in (Nigeria?) in a diachronic perspective. In this novel, the novelist abdicates the responsibility of offering solutions for the social problems of his society. Thus at the end of the address which Ikem gave to the students of the University of Bassa and in which he was challenged to "move to the higher responsibility of proffering prescriptions" for society's social problems, Ikem is made to reply. ‘Writers don't give prescriptions…. They give headaches’ (p.161). In other words, in Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe addresses himself to the task of setting in a historical perspective the political ills or problems which have plagued many a West African State. The choice of the title of the novel, may then have arisen in a conscious attempt by the novelist to create an image that best captures these problems from a historical perspective. These problems include "massive corruption," "subservience to foreign manipulation," "second-class, hand-me-down capitalism," "damnable shooting of striking railway workers and demonstrating students," "the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives," "the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country" (p. 141), "tribalism," "religious extremism," "electoral merchandising" (p. 160), etc.
That these problems are looked at from a historical perspective is very obvious from the first two pages of the novel. Thus, the reminiscences of the first witness, Chris Oriko, the Commissioner for Information is, in itself, informative.
I have thought of all this as a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous. But I may prove to be too sanguine even in that. For, if I am right, then looking back on the last two years it should be possible to point to a specific and decisive event and say: it was at such and such a point that everything went wrong and the rules were suspended. But I have not found such a moment or such a cause although I have sought hard and long for it. And so it begins to seem to me that this thing probably never was a game that the present was there from the very beginning only I was too blind or too busy to notice.
The very easy phrase "And so" which introduces the last sentence in this passage indicates a conclusion, even if tentative, which focuses the scenario of action not only on the present military administration but also extends it far back into the past, into the "very beginning" of time. If so, the political problems facing the city of Kangan become not just indexical properties of an emergent totalitarian regime but also a recurrent character of the politics of West African states. Any wonder then that these political vices can begin to assume some type of residual and survivalist character in the imagination of the novelist. No fitting image can better become that of the "anthills of the savannah" in recapturing this essence.
With this type of understanding, the metaphor of "anthills of the savannah" can be said to represent the primal instincts of the Hobbesian man: raw, naked, and brutish and therefore giving rise to these residual and continuing political problems in (Nigeria?). After the brush fires, the anthills would stand out in their nakedness, having been pruned of all green grass and brush which both help to cover and beautify the anthills. Bereft of these naturally endowed appurtenances, the anthills cannot but look charred and ugly. Since these are the features which remain after they have been pruned of supportive surrounding beauty, they can be construed to be symbolic of residual political vices which continue to plague West African States in spite of whatever attempts that are made to eradicate them. The ants which survive within the anthills would then represent man's basic primal brutish instincts which would continue to produce more anthills, more political vices.
In conclusion then, it has to be re-stated this essay adopts a methodological approach which treats the "anthills of the savannah" as a metaphorical statement in preference to the perspective adopted at the Achebe symposium in which the words "anthills" and "savannah" were treated as different metaphors. The construal of the metaphorical meaning of "anthills" as either "survivors" or "indicators of potential regeneration" has also been rejected. We have then argued that "anthills of the savannah" as a metaphorical statement means residual political vices which tend to survive in many a West African state in spite of attempts to the contrary, this meaning construal is in agreement with both the general political nature of the novel and its problem setting framework undertaken from a historical perspective. This last point is underscored by Elewa's uncle, even if naively so. Thus in his kola invocation in the last few pages of the novel, he says: "We have seen too much trouble in Kangan since the white man left because those who make plans for themselves only and their families." (p. 228) If we then understand the metaphor of "anthills of the savannah" as meaning residual political vices in West African states in general and Nigeria in particular, the implication is that the leaders of West African states are like the anthills in the savannah: they would always be the same, manifesting the same selfishness, greed, and political bestiality no matter whether they are civilians or soldiers turned-politicians. Not even the brush fires given a purificatory signification can change them. They would always be like the anthills, like Kings crowned by God and behaving as such, unaccountable to no human, not even to God himself, and therefore unmindful of the consequences of their political acts.
1. A symposium to mark Chinua Achebe's both Birthday was held from 12th to 14th February, 1990, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
2. The scholar who first called attention to this problem was Professor Viney Kirpal.
4. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 78.
5. Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God, 2nd Edition (London: Heinemann, 1974), pp. 265, and 210.
6. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd, 1988) p. 39, all subsequent page references to this novel refer to this.
Ian H. Munro (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Munro, Ian H. "Textual Dynamics in Chinua Achebe's Home and Exile and No Longer at Ease." International Fiction Review 31 (2004): 54-64.
[In the following essay, Munro explores the intertwining of internal and external dimensions in Achebe's Home and Exile and No Longer at Ease, noting that the tensions created by the interaction of these perspectives render it impossible for readers to ascribe one point of view to Achebe's texts.]
In this paper, I use Chinua Achebe's nonfiction work Home and Exile (2000) and his novel No Longer at Ease (1960) as reference points for arguing that the application of intertextual theory to postcolonial literature in such groundbreaking studies as Wolfgang Klooss's collection Across the Lines (1998)1 and Monika Reif-Hulser's Borderlands (1999)2 runs the risk of suppressing the critical multidimensionality of some postcolonial texts. I will call these additional dimensions "intratextual" and "extratextual," borrowing the latter term from Robert Scholes, who defines it as situating a text "in relation to culture, society, the world,"3 to which I would add: in relation to the life experience of the writer. I will argue that in Achebe's work the inter-, intra-, and extratextual dimensions exist in a dynamic relationship, producing a mutually deconstructive tension that permits authority to no single textual dimension, creating instead a textual dynamic which continually challenges and subverts critical efforts to "fix" its position as a literary text.
Simon Gikandi, in Reading Chinua Achebe, makes a similar point in observing that Achebe's narrative strategies are intended to stress a "multiplicity of meanings and indeterminate zones of representation." Gikandi's acute analysis of Achebe's intratextual narrative strategies, however, is premised on what I would call an extratextual assumption: that the author's project is to resist the "fetishization" within which Africa has been fixed by "the discourse of the Western world."4 Gikandi's position therefore illustrates the risk I am positing of assigning primacy to a single textual dimension from which further critical comment is to be generated.
Clearly there is no way to prove that an extratextual dimension, whether biographical, ideological, or political, is determinative. The postcolonial critic, however, may have an agenda that includes assigning to the subject work a high degree of moral or political intentionality. Achebe's most consistent theme, Gikandi argues, is the idea of affirming a "national community," and his pessimism is "an expression of his anxieties about the transference of his discourse on an African destiny from the imaginative realm, the mythical space, to the practices of everyday life."5 By assigning primacy to the extratextual, and to one facet of the extratextual at that, namely, the historical/political, Gikandi must continually slight the textual wrestling match that I am advancing here as the most productive way of viewing the Achebean narrative environment, or "mediatope"—a term I am borrowing from Bernd Schulte6—and, I would argue, that of some other postcolonial writers such as Nuruddin Farah, whose work has also been subject to incisive treatment by Gikandi.
Gikandi's treatment of Farah's use of modernism is similarly predicated on extratextual claims about Farah's intention of providing "a critique of the idea of the Somali nation and the traditions associated with it."7 In short, Farah's narrative is elucidated by Gikandi in the same terms as Achebe's, illustrating a pitfall of assigning primacy to historical/political intentionalities: postcolonial writers come to be viewed through a similar lens, except for an apostate few, like V. S. Naipaul, whose work cannot be fitted within the extratextual parameters the critic has drawn. While Robert Scholes does not regard "extratextuality" as a form of narrative textuality, it is clear that his situating a text "in relation to culture, society, the world," and to the author's construction of his personal experience articulates a creative act occurring within a narrative teleology of some kind, such as "empowerment," "liberation," "decolonization," or even "tragedy."
The critique I am offering here of postcolonial criticism based on extratextual assumptions can also be made of criticism based on intertextual premises. Intertextuality—premised, in Julia Kristeva's definition, on the assumption that "every text builds upon itself as a mosaic of quotations … [and] is the absorption and transformation of another text"8—has become a theoretical battleground in postcolonial criticism. Julie Newman, for example, cites Arun Mukherjee in maintaining that "writing back to the center" perpetuates a binary relationship in which European discourse is forever the "other" of postcolonial writing.
Newman argues in Bakhtinian mode for an alternative "dialogic relation with other social discourses circulating in [postcolonial] society, rather than those at the center." Discussions of intertextuality, she writes, need to take account of the fact that "postcolonial societies may have their own internal centers and peripheries, dominants and marginals, that the postcolonial subject is not a unitary subject, and that there are nationalisms within nationalism."9 Newman offers as a solution a "broader heteroglossic strategy": the "re-reading [and] creative adaptation from at least two traditions" represented by Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, in which E. M. Forster's Passage to India is retold within the framework of the Mahabarata, the parodic interaction of the two texts simultaneously desacrilizing both the European "imperial text" and Indian "cultural epic."
Newman's strategy restricts Kristeva's concept of intertextuality to literary texts, but as Frank Schulze-Engler points out, Kristeva's original concept of intertextuality deals not just with relations between literary texts but with relationships between literature and various types of social texts, approximating Schulte's "mediatope." "In her eyes," writes Schulze-Engler, citing Hans-Peter Mai, "it is a politically transformative practice. In the last resort, hers is a political concept which aims at empowering the reader/critic to oppose the literary and social tradition at large."10 Schulze-Engler is surely correct in critiquing "writing back" concepts of intertextuality such as those of Helen Tiffin for constructing an essentialist "imperial textuality" against which the postcolonial writer, from an equally essentialist "postcolonial textuality," is presumed to be writing. However, he fails to recognize that the "political concept of empowerment" he identifies in Kristeva's critical project is also narrative in form, with extratextual—including biographical—provenance. Terms like "transformative" and "empowering" underline the narrative framework within which Schulze-Engler is viewing postcolonial texts.
Before turning to Achebe's Home and Exile, I want to introduce the third prefix in the mix of textualities I am proposing: the intratextual. I am using this term here to refer to what Michael Riffaterre calls the "texts within the text embedded in the fabric of the whole novel."11 Just as I would argue that the extratextual and intertextual are themselves narrative in form, I would contend that Riffaterre's "sign systems" embedded in fictional narrative as subtextual sememes are likewise not simply "the mirroring of the whole into one of its parts,"12 as Riffaterre contends, but constitute internal narratives in contention and collaboration with each other and with inter- and extratextual narratives. Riffatterre's "mirroring of the whole" makes these sign systems secondary to the "whole," and assigns primacy to a "whole" that is presumed to exist. I would modify Riffaterre's claim that exterior referentiality is "but an illusion, for signs or sign systems refer to other sign systems"13 by arguing that "exterior referentiality" occurs within the same narrative framework as "interior referentiality," and that at least in Achebe's narrative texts, including Home and Exile, neither is more or less illusory than the other, if by illusory we mean constructed by the human imagination, since all narratives are so constructed. As well, neither is more or less "whole" than the other, since such an assertion begs the question of what "wholeness" means in narrative.
I would like now to turn to the "mediatope" of Achebe's Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe's extended meditation on his life and work framed within the experience of returning to his father's hometown of Ogidi after his father's retirement, when Achebe was five years old. After thirty-one years away, his father had become an outsider in the village, the villagers nicknaming him "Mister Nineteen-Four," after the year in which he'd left the village as an Anglican missionary. Achebe has elsewhere, in such essays as "Named for Victoria, Queen of England," described his family's alienation from the non-Christian population of Ogidi.
In Home and Exile, Achebe writes that his personal journey "home" from this condition of exile and outsiderness "ultimately [became] transformed into a lifelong quest,"14 leading back to "that dusty road in my town, and [to] every villager, living or dead, who has ever walked on it…. That dusty little road is my link to all the other destinations" (H [Home and Exile ] 91). These linked narrative tropes of journey, road, and quest provide a means of situating Home and Exile within inter-, intra-, and extratextual dimensions of narrative. I would make the same claims about the autobiographical narrative as of No Longer at Ease : that the three textual/narrative dimensions exist in dynamic tension with one another and that placing critical emphasis on one over another has the same distorting critical effect on the mediatope as it would by analogy to Schulte's biotope, where hypertrophy of a single component alters the environment as a whole. The intertextual dimension of Home and Exile employs the trope of the mythic journey home of the prodigal son and epic hero, a journey intertwined with the extratextual impact of the "wound of the centuries" of slavery and colonialism on Africa, and the intratextual construction of an Igbo epistemology able to provide a foundation for the epic wrestling match of narratives in which the hero is to become engaged.
The personal journey home at age five is rendered problematic by the protagonist's alienation from "home" represented by the conversations and disagreements between his father and their peers and relatives. Intertextually, too, it is impossible not to be aware of implicit, and sometimes explicit, connections with Achebe's fiction: with the child Chike of "Chike's School Days," enthralled with finding an African wizard in one of his readers; with another child, Oduche, in Arrow of God, silently spelling out words from one of his readers while his siblings listen to an oral tale told by their mother; with the retired missionary Isaac in No Longer at Ease surrounded by words on paper which he preserves regardless of their value; or with the "fragment of local lore" Achebe recalls, of Ogidi sharing its gods with its neighbors and Ezeulu's recollection in Arrow of God of Okperi sharing its gods with Umuaro. Beyond Achebe's own work, we are conscious of the explicit or implicit presence of other works with echoes in Achebe's fiction: the Old and New Testaments, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Pilgrim's Progress, Cary's Mister Johnson, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, among others.
The intertextual and extratextual/biographical become so inextricably intertwined as we read Home and Exile that it is tempting to treat the work as a gloss on Achebe's fictional work rather than a mediatope of contesting narratives, deployed around the trope of mythic journey as epic literary battle from "home under fire" through resistance and the "empire fighting back," to repossessing narrative, and finally to victory in "Today, the balance of stories." For this picture of a sustained intertextual battle culminating in victory runs parallel to and is qualified by the extratextual biographical journey in which the culture hero engaging in epic battle to reclaim narrative becomes the child who seeks to assemble "fragments" of his own existence into coherence and meaning out of a concept of "home" that is itself a "story … over which even today, decades later, I still do not have sufficient mastery" (H 38). The central image of home is, indeed, not the town itself, but "that dusty road in my town … my link to all the other destinations" (H 91), and is thus an image of displacement rather than permanent residence.
The creation of coherence out of a narrative concept of "home" as a locus of authenticity springs up in Home and Exile, as it does in Achebe's fictional work, not from a place but from the intratextual and narrative construction of an epistemology to which is ascribed permanence lacking in the absent place. The characteristics of that epistemology, articulated in essays like "Chi in Igbo Cosmology," include individual and communal autonomy, religious tolerance, and a capacity for accommodating dualities represented by the song called Egwu Obi, or "Song of the Heart," which Achebe recalls from his first year as a child in Ogidi. The song, he writes, had a nickname, Egwu Tochi, or Song of the Torchlight, combining Igbo and pidgin words within a sememe having inter-, intra-, and extratextual dimensions.
Intertextually, the reader will recall the "Song of the Heart" in No Longer at Ease, sung by villagers to the returning Obi Okonkwo, a song that plaintively remarks on the hegemony of the written word within an oral culture. Even the most fundamental of cultural tenets—kinship—appears to be represented and authorized by a medium that only a minority, the literate, can grasp. The Egwu Tochi of Home and Exile appears to have no thematic connection with the song in the novel, yet the song's English pidgin nickname proceeds from a similar cause: "Europe … unwrapping her wares of seduction at the threshold" (H 8).
The song, Achebe notes, remained popular for a decade while others came and went. Its popularity is related to a feature of the epistemology Achebe is constructing, its attraction to "tautness … torsion." The Igbo, Achebe writes, "have always lived in a world of continual struggle" while at the same time possessing a "cosmological fear of anarchy." The epistemological narrative Achebe constructs thus moves from autonomy or freedom to anarchy, contained within a framework of tension. Extratextually, this narrative formulation can be read as a countertext to representations of the African like that of G. T. Basden, Achebe's father's mentor: "The will of the tribe or family," wrote Basden in 1921, "permeates his whole being … there is seldom independent action."15 It parallels Achebe's countertextual assertion that the narrative of his life is "not the same story Joyce Cary intended me to have" (H 38).
The construction of an "Igbo epistemology," however, is as much a creative, narrative act as the creation of a personal narrative of home and exile. Intertextually, it creates links between Achebe's works and serves as a countertext to the assumptions of colonial narratives. Intratextually, its narrative elaboration provides what Riffaterre would call a subtextual "mirroring of the whole into one of its parts,"16 the most essential element for Riffaterre in creating fictional truth. Extratextually, it offers an explanatory interpretation of Igbo history: of its weakness in the face of "an enemy with a centralized power," and its flexibility in dealing with cultural dualities. Yet, I would argue, these "truths" are not mutually compatible and reinforcing, but mutually deconstructive, since each identifies truth or authenticity with a different locus: the extratextual with the biographical cum cultural quest for a counterpoise to "hundreds of years of sustained denigration we and our home had been subjected to in order to make colonization possible and excusable" (H 33); the intertextual with the wrestling match of texts for space and voice in a world which remains, Achebe writes, divided between two sides who will "never see the world in the same light" (H 77); and the intratextual with the effort of the autonomous author to create narrative truth, a different undertaking than winning the intertextual wrestling match.
Narrative truth, comments Riffaterre, rests on verisimilitude—not the mimetic presentation of the external world, but the creation of "a system of representations that seems to reflect a reality external to the text, but only because it conforms to a grammar. Narrative truth is an idea of truth created in accordance with the rules of that grammar."17 The Igbo epistemological narrative provides some of the basic rules of intratextual grammar, not only for Home and Exile, of course, but also for most of Achebe's fiction. All three textual dimensions are creative acts of storytelling, carried out within the different teleological frameworks within which the author must necessarily function. It is, perhaps, a necessary tonic to the hypocritical absorption of much postcolonial criticism with intertextuality, as if texts create themselves through mutual if sometimes raucous conversations with other texts in Borgesian libraries, to recall the authorial presence and the multiple worlds in which the writer's narrative invention functions.
The textual dimensions I have attempted to define are, for the postcolonial writer, necessarily incompatible. Because they proceed from a critical relationship to hegemonic forms and discourses, they tend toward the breaking down of the authority of the work of fiction through a relentless querying and undermining of any monolingual, monodimensional claim to truth or authenticity.
In Home and Exile, Achebe insists that fiction can be "true or false," and clearly wishes also to argue that fiction that is "true" must be rooted in the "writer's home address" (H 104), thus vindicating his critique of writers like Ayi Kwei Armah and Buchi Emecheta for abandoning their own metaphorical villages. Yet the village of Ogidi with its "dusty little road" is as much of an imaginative creation as Armah's grimy Accra, and equally rooted in the creation of a sustained intratextual epistemology. I am offering here not a critique of Achebe's own literary criticism, which is inseparable from his great fictional achievement, but of some aspects of criticism of his work whose emphasis on a single textual dimension—say, the intertextual—may suppress other textual dimensions in contestation or cooperation with that dimension. An intertextual analysis of an Achebean work, even if widened to incorporate varieties of social texts beyond written literature, is, I would argue, insufficient if it overlooks internal networks of intratextual allusion and reference that comment on and undermine the primacy of the written text.
In support of this position, I'd like to conclude by examining the "mediatope" or narrative environment of No Longer at Ease, a work bearing points of resemblance to Home and Exile. The novel has attracted relatively little critical attention in comparison to Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, or even Anthills of the Savannah. What criticism it has received tends to assign primacy to a single textual dimension. Yet perhaps no other of Achebe's fictional texts raises so clearly questions of textual primacy and authority.
The title, for example, comes from T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi," a poem which transposes a "secondary" narrative, that of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, into primary position, displacing the culturally authoritative narrative of the birth of Christ into secondary position: The witnessing of the baby, the speaker recounts, was no more than "satisfactory." Yet, it left the viewers placeless, "no longer at ease … in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods…."18 Thus, another narrative line is initiated: an implied narrative of alienation and placelessness. The position of Eliot's poem in the novel's title and epigraph appears to confer on this poet and on modernism in general an authoritative intertextual status, in the view of some critics. Philip Rogers, for example, in an article entitled "No Longer at Ease : Chinua Achebe's ‘Heart of Whiteness’," argues that No Longer at Ease parodies Conrad's Heart of Darkness and is a critique of Western influence on the world of its characters. Rogers sees Obi in the role of a black Kurtz: an idealist with optimistic theories, but in reality a hollow man.
Rogers has constructed a parallel narrative placing No Longer at Ease in an extratextual relationship to a European modernist narrative, Heart of Darkness, as Catherine Innes's reading treats it as a parody of Cary's Mister Johnson. Rogers's narrative treats Obi's "fall" as parodically equivalent to Kurtz's: while Kurtz falls because he succumbs to the uncivilized "heart of darkness" within, Rogers argues that Obi succumbs to the putatively civilized "heart of whiteness" he encounters in England, taking on English traits including a devotion to notions of efficiency and utilitarianism that alienate him from the realities of colonial Nigeria.19
Rogers's and Innes's approaches create a suggestive equivalency that nevertheless slights the complex nature of the novel's intratextual approach to modernism. If the citation of T. S. Eliot in the title and epigraph seems to confer authority on Rogers's characterization of Obi as a "hollow man," Obi's pedantic affectations of modernist style—his interpretation of Heart of the Matter, for example, or veiling of Lagos street life behind an Eliotic allusion to "putrid flesh in the spoon"—suggest that modernism legitimates a narrative track of withdrawal, alienation, and individualism in contest not only with intratextual and extratextual dimensions of the novel but also with other intertextual allusions to Things Fall Apart. Obi, for example, unknowingly cites a crucial proverb from the earlier novel when he remarks cynically to his friend Christopher on "what the old men say": "if you pay homage to the man on top, others will pay homage to you when it is your turn to be on top."20
The proverb rewrites Okonkwo's statement to Nwakibie in Things Fall Apart that "a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness"21 in a form which corresponds with Obi's individualist view, substituting a social position, "on top," for a morally recognized one, "greatness." The concept of a social covenant based on mutual obligations has been displaced by a grasping for privilege in which Obi is a participant, though he is convinced that younger men will not be corrupted since they "can afford to be virtuous" (NL [No Longer at Ease ] 23).
Obi has created a fanciful historical narrative of social renewal and rebirth, in which he is the protagonist. He imagines himself becoming a writer, although the only subject he can imagine is "the tragedy of the Greens of this country" (NL 122). His narrative trajectory is prefigured in his poem "Nigeria," written while he was in England. The poem, contained within the pages of a book of A. E. Housman's poems, calls on "God" to "bless our noble fatherland," and to "teach [our noble countrymen] to walk in unity / To build our nation dear; Forgetting region, tribe or speech, / But caring always each for each" (NL 171-72). The poem, repeated twice at full length in the novel, allowing the reader to reread it in light of events, reduces Obi's countrymen to passive roles in the creation of a new covenant, corresponding to Obi's conviction that only "one man with vision—an enlightened dictator" (NL 50) can achieve social reform.
The confinement of the poem "Nigeria" within the pages of Housman's book, and in close proximity to Housman's "Easter Hymn," Obi's favorite poem, underlines the depiction of a protagonist trapped unwittingly within webs of conflicting narrative texts. Against Obi's narrative of a God teaching and blessing, mirroring Obi's continual assumption of the role of teacher, Housman's posits a world without God, with the voice of the poem embarking on a journey that is the reverse of that of Israel out of Egypt: "To my inheritance amid / The nation that is not"—a wasteland. The contrary mythic journeys to promised land and desert contribute to the creation of the characteristic Achebean "mediatope" I alluded to earlier: the wrestling countertext.
From the beginning of No Longer at Ease, Obi is the locus for conflicting extratextual, intratextual, and intertextual narrative discourse. Extratextually, he is among the first fruits of the colonial grand récit of leading "the backward races into line" through immersion in European culture and education. This narrative has written Obi, so he can only echo the colonizer's judgment, "Our people have a long way to go" (NL 41), without having in mind a concept of destination. Like the autobiographical narrator of Home and Exile, the character of Obi is developed as the locus of inter-, intra-, and extratextual narrative tropes of journey, road, and quest, none assuming dominance in the novel.
The novel begins at the end of Obi's personal heroic quest. Its failure is interpreted through four narrative lenses, each implicitly questioning the legitimacy of the others' claim to truth. The first is that of the colonial court judge, who, framing his narrative within the colonizer's myth of the "been to" as the hope of the colonized, "cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this."
His judgment is preceded by a reproof of one of the court counsels related to "the problem of locomotion" (NL 2), an intratextual reference not only to the importance of automobiles in the novel, but also to the journey and the nature of its ultimate destination. A second is that of Mr. Greene, amidst his cohorts at the European club, who poses a tragic narrative against the judge's comic one: Colonialism could never have succeeded, in Greene's view, because "The African is corrupt through and through" (NL 32). Greene's narrative of decline ("over countless centuries the African has been sapped mentally and physically," NL 5) is evenly balanced with the court judge's tale of "brilliant promise" betrayed. The third narrative line is that of the Umuofians, both those in Lagos and those back in Umuofia, who embed Obi within a mythic line of heroes extending back to his grandfather and who have visited distant places and wrestled with spirits in order to preserve their communities. The Umuofian narrative line evolves amidst a continual ironic intertextual play of oral and written texts, the Old Testament and New Testament and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, all rewritten to conform to a self-serving ideology of kinship. Even the saying "Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it" (NL 181), which Achebe uses as a foundation for his articulation of an Igbo epistemology in his essay "Chi in Igbo Cosmology," is yoked by a speaker at a Umofia Progressive Union to "this thing called blood" and in turn to Obi's failure to attend his mother's funeral, though the reader is aware that the "pompous man" has completely misunderstood Obi's motives.
Each of these narrative constructions of Obi Okonkwo is complete in itself, and each eclipses and erases the other. The novel's characters are caught within webs of monologic narrative—and one could include in this examination the abundance of songs, stories, and proverbs to flesh out the picture of the mediatope—that exercise authority over them. Indeed, much of the novel's comic effect lies in their solemn efforts to rewrite texts to bring them into conformity with that dominant narrative. The Umuofians rewrite the history of Okonkwo into one of a hero who fought the English, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer's phrase "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end" (NL 60) into an affirmation of the traditional Igbo concept of the rebirth of titled men.
Given his status at the center of competing narrative constructions, it is not surprising that Obi himself seems barely to exist as a character at all: The continual rewriting and erasure of texts clustering around him mark him not as the hero of a piece of realistic fiction but as an artifact of his culture, or of an aspect of his culture, as his grandfather was the artifact of an aspect of his.
As I suggested at the beginning of this paper, it is this epic wrestling match of narratives that shapes a continually evolving epistemological narrative held in tension between what Achebe has called "continual struggle" and "anarchy." It is not simply a dichotomous vision of the type that Julie Newman refers to in Taroor's Great Indian Novel—a meeting of two texts from contrary traditions—but a "mediatope" of multiple narratives arriving from all three textual dimensions and affirming, by their dialogue, their resistance to conversation, and their interpenetration, the power of narrative continually to remake itself and to reshape the human imagination.
1. Wolfgang Klooss, ed., Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998).
2. Monika Reif-Hulser, ed., Borderlands: Negotiating Boundaries in Post-Colonial Writing (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999).
4. Simon Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (London: James Currey, 1991) 10.
5. Gikandi 9.
6. Bernd Schulte, "Unrest in the ‘Mediatope’: Symptoms of Hypertrophy in Inter-Cultural Studies and the New Literatures from the Perspective of a Media Theory," in Klooss 21-37. Schulte's "mediatope" is the environment of "mixed mediascapes" drawing on the media available to the writer, and it deals with how the "the functional interrelatedness of traditional and ‘new’ media is managed with a given—neither isolated nor static—cultural space, constituting a dynamic system that one might call a mediatope. This latter term is meant to evoke the image of an interactive media network made up of coexisting old and new media, and to underline the systemic functional relativity of individual media (such as literature) by creating a heuristic analogue to the notion of the biotope" (25-26). The usefulness of Schulte's concept for this discussion is in its insistence on interrelationships between all "available media" rather than strictly literary forms, and on its analogy to the "functionally closed" but interdependent system of the biotope, in which the character of the biotope is changed when any single element changes, is lost, or becomes dominant. Achebe's fiction (like that of Nuruddin Farah, for example) is replete with examples of what occurs when a single medium becomes dominant within the mediatope.
7. Simon Gikandi, "Nuruddin Farah and Postcolonial Textuality," World Literature Today 72 (1998): 755.
8. Cited in Judie Newman, "The Ballistic Bard: Intertextuality and Postcolonial Fiction," Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)National Dimensions of Literatures in English, ed. Wolfgang Zach and Ken L. Goodwin (Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1996) 96.
9. Newman 98.
10. Frank Schulze-Engler, "Cross-Cultural Criticism and the Limits of Intertextuality," in Klooss 4.
12. Riffaterre 27.
13. Riffaterre 3.
15. G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966) 10.
16. Riffaterre 27.
17. Riffaterre xiv.
18. T. S. Eliot, "Journey of the Magi," The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962) 68.
19. Philip Rogers, "No Longer at Ease: Chinua Achebe's ‘Heart of Whiteness,’ Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, ed. Michael Parker and Roger Starkey (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995) 53-63.
20. Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 23. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation NL.
21. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 19.
Beckham, Jack M. "Achebe's Things Fall Apart." Explicator 60, no. 4 (summer 2002): 229-31.
Character analysis of Okonkwo in which the critic emphasizes the clansman's persistent fears of weakness and failure.
Okpala, Jude Chudi. "Igbo Metaphysics in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart." Callaloo 25, no. 2 (2002): 559-66.
Examines how Achebe used the principles of Igbo metaphysics in Things Fall Apart.
Olufunwa, Harry. "Achebe's Spatial Temporalities: Literary Chronotopes in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God." Critical Survey 17, no. 3 (2005): 49-65.
Uses the concept of the literary chronotope—which involves time and space—in order to investigate the themes expressed in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.
Scafe, Suzanne. "‘Wherever Something Stands, Something Else Will Stand beside It’: Ambivalence in Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God." Changing English 9, no. 2 (2002): 119-31.
Details instances in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God in which, the critic argues, Achebe adhered to "the principle of duality and difference as necessary conditions of existence."
Additional coverage of Achebe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:1; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 20; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 26, 47, 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, 51, 75, 127, 152; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Authors and Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 2; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Something about the Author, Vols. 38, 40; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.
Achebe, Chinua 1930–
Chinua Achebe 1930–
Civil War in Nigeria
In his 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah, leading world writer Chinua Achebe examines a network of close relationships surrounding the fall of a dictator in a fictional African nation. The novel ends in an ambiguous chaos and foreshadows the coming of yet another, similar military ruler, rather than the installation of a new kind of government—one that is more accountable to the needs of the nation’s people. In a 1991 essay in Modern Fiction Studies, Robin Ikegami noted that at the center of this kind of political upheaval lies the potential power of a storyteller: through fiction, writers like Achebe highlight the need for change in a land of recurring, dismally oppressive governments.
Achebe is a Nigerian writer whose role as a socially committed storyteller is drawn from his ethnic Igbo traditions. He has written a number of novels, short stories, poems, essays, and articles, garnering worldwide critical acclaim and popular success. In addition to his numerous awards for his writing, including the 1972 Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Achebe has received more than twenty honorary doctorates from universities around the world. In an interview published in the scholarly journal Callaloo, literary critic Charles H. Rowell told Achebe that “here in the United States, those of us who read twentieth century world literature think of you as one of the most important writers in this era.”
Achebe explained his literary goals to Callaloo by describing an Igbo festival of art that celebrates humanity in all of its good and evil aspects. In this ceremony, called the mbari, art is made with the involvement of the community and in the service of the community. The festival itself is called into being by an Igbo goddess named “Ala” or “Ani,” who serves a double role as earth goddess and goddess of creativity, and who is responsible for both creativity and morality in the world. “So obviously by putting the two portfolios, if you like, of art and morality in her domain, a statement is being made about the meaning of art,” Achebe said. “Art cannot be in the service of destruction, cannot be in the service of oppression, cannot be in the service of evil.” The author’s writings reflect his belief in the need for all stories to have a purpose and teach a lesson.
Through his works, Achebe expresses a powerful cry for an end to worldwide oppression. In an autobiographical comment published in Contemporary Novelists, he described himself as “a political writer.” He explained that his politics are “concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect
Name pronounced “Chin-ew-ah A-chay-bay”; born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria; son of Isaiah Okafo (a Church Missionary Society teacher) and Janet N. (Iloegbunam) Achebe; married Christiana Chinwe Okoli, 1961; children: two daughters (Chinelo and Nwando) and two sons (Ikechukwu and Chidi). Education: Attended Government College, Umuahia, 1944-47; University College, Ibadan, B.A., 1953.
Worked for Nigerian Broadcasting Corp. as talks producer, 1954-57, controller, 1958-61, and director, Voice of Nigeria, 1961-66; cofounder, Citadel Press, Enugu, 1967; University of Nigeria, Nsukka, senior research fellow, 1967-73, professor of English, 1973-81, professor emeritus, 1984—; director, Nwamife Publishers Ltd., Enugu, and Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., Ibadan, both beginning 1972; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, visiting professor, 1972-75, Fulbright professor, 1987-88. Visiting professor at colleges and universities in the U.S., including Bard College.
Selected awards: Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, 1959; Rockefeller and UNESCO fellowships, 1963; Jock Campbell/New Statesman Award, 1965; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1972; Nigerian National Merit Award, 1979; named to Order of the Federal Republic (Nigeria), 1979; Booker Prize nomination, 1987; numerous honorary degrees.
Member: Association of Nigerian Authors; Commonwealth Arts Organization, London; Modern Language Association of America (honorary fellow); American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; Writers and Scholars International.
Addresses: P.O. Box 53, Nsukka, Nigeria; or c/o Department of Language and Literature, Bard College, Annandale on-Hudson, NY 12504.
for all people.” Throughout his life and in his writings, Achebe has attempted to keep pace with and respond to the particular demands of three major periods in recent African history: these include the era of the colonial years, into which Achebe was born; the years of nationalist protest, when Achebe grew up; and the succeeding years of resumed independence as modern Africa.
Achebe’s international reputation was firmly established with his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which has been translated into 45 languages, has sold over 8 million copies, and has been adapted for the stage, screen, and television. In Hopes and Impediments, his 1988 book of essays, Achebe remembered the writing of this novel as “an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” Through Things Fall Apart, the author renounces the negative view of Africa and Africans that he had unconsciously accepted during his upbringing in the British colonial era. In its rejection of the European denial of African culture and humanity, the novel forms a part of what Achebe terms a “mental revolution,” which accompanied the nationalist movement in British West Africa and led to eventual independence.
Born November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe was raised in what was then the Colony of Nigeria under British rule. His father, Isaiah Okafo Achebe, had been one of his village’s earliest converts to Christianity and taught the young Achebe to scorn those who held onto the traditional religion of the Igbo people. (However, Chinua Achebe did have an uncle who was not Christian.) Achebe felt drawn to the ways of his non-Christian neighbors and attended traditional village festivals despite prohibitions from his father and mother. At the colonial government secondary school, he studied the works of Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and William Shakespeare, as well as a number of “African” books such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. While he enjoyed these works early in high school, by the time he graduated in 1947 Achebe realized that he was forsaking his African roots by identifying with the white man—not the African, who was portrayed in such literature as a savage. Achebe was thus inspired to destroy such erroneous characterizations of Africa and Africans by writing his own fiction.
Achebe decided to become a writer while attending the University College in Ibadan. Although he entered the university to study medicine, he soon shifted to the liberal arts, an area of greater interest to him. While a student there, Achebe came across the 1939 novel Mister Johnson, by British writer Joyce Cary, and was particularly disturbed by the book’s entirely superficial and grossly inaccurate depiction of Nigeria. His exasperation at that novel convinced him to try his hand at writing.
As an undergraduate, Achebe wrote short stories about Nigeria and published a number of them in the campus newspaper, the University Herald. He then began work as a journalist for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1954, one year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in literature. It was at this time that Achebe first imagined the character Okonkwo, who would become the tragic hero of Things Fall Apa rt, which was published four years later. In an interview with Patrick Samway for America, Achebe described his understanding of Okonkwo: “Things Fall Apart needed a main character who saw things in terms of either/or and thought he was a defender of his own culture. And he was. The only problem is that the world was more complex than Okonkwo understood. Of course, this is the substance of tragedy.”
In his 1966 novel A Man of the People, published only six years after Nigeria’s independence from British rule, Achebe turned his piercing vision to the cynical failures of Nigerian democratic politics. The author’s autobiographical note in Contemporary Novelists describes the quick passing from one era in Nigerian history to the next and the corresponding shift of emphasis in Nigerian novels:“Europe conceded independence to us and we promptly began to misuse it, or rather those leaders to whom we entrusted the wielding of our new power and opportunity [misused it]. So we got mad at them and came out brandishing novels of disenchantment.”
A Man of the People was Achebe’s quintessential novel of disenchantment. World Press Review reprinted Chuks Iloegbunam’s summary of the novel: “In A Man of the People, Achebe focuses on the mess that African politicians made of nationhood once political authority devolved on them. Abuse of power, corruption, political thuggery, and electoral malpractices walked the streets in broad daylight.” Achebe’s vision in the novel proved altogether too accurate. Days after the book was published in 1966, a coup d’etat ended Nigeria’s first republic and thrust the nation into a chaos that would lead to a massacre of nearly 30,000 Igbo people and finally to all-out civil war. Achebe had predicted in his novel the fall of civilian government and the introduction of military coups and chaos.
While A Man of the People, Achebe’s fourth novel, marks the height of the author’s early disillusionment, his second and third novels also reflect a fall from innocence. No Longer at Ease, published in 1960, registers the confusion and immediate failure of idealism that came with Nigerian independence. The main character of the book, a fictional political leader, is at first hopeful and idealistic; he then falls through a crisis of cultural confusion into bribery and corruption. The government remains, however, and the corrupt politician is charged and imprisoned for his crimes.
In his third novel, Arrow of God (1964), Achebe returns to an earlier theme—/the response of Africans to their initial colonization by Europeans. This time the tragic hero, Ezeulu, is a traditional priest who still ultimately loses his power, but differs significantly from Okonkwo in his approach to the Europeans. Achebe explained in the America interview that “Ezeulu… is ready to listen to the other side…, provided his dignity is not insulted.” Ezeulu also sends his son to learn the ways of the white man; while this move ultimately serves only to quicken his own downfall, the possibility remains that the son may yet throw off the white man’s domination. Two years later when Nigerian civil order collapsed, A Man of the People would demonstrate eery foresight.
Civil War in Nigeria
By the time of the outbreak of the civil war, Achebe had become established as one of Nigeria’s leading novelists; but the war drove him away from writing long fiction for over two decades. His disillusionment had grown complete, and in the context of the atrocities of his nation’s struggle, the novel seemed to him an inappropriate form of expression. In Contemporary Novelists, Achebe remembered his disillusionment and frustration: Europe had only made a tactical withdrawal on the political front and while we sang our anthem and unfurled our flag she was securing her iron grip behind us in the economic field. And our leaders in whose faces we hurled our disenchantment neither saw nor heard because they were not leaders at all but marionettes.”
Achebe could not avoid involvement with the chaotic events of the time and chose to throw himself into the cause of his Igbo people. On January 15, 1966, about two years before the civil war broke out, a group of mainly Igbo army officers from southeastern Nigeria staged a successful coup that ended civilian rule in Nigeria. By July of that year, army officers from the Muslim northern region had staged a successful countercoup, toppling the Igbo-dominated government and ignoring the subsequent massacre of up to 30,000 Igbo people living in the North. After the countercoup, Achebe sent his family back to the southeastern region of Nigeria, a more predominant Igbo area. He then went into hiding and joined his family in the East in September.
In the spring of 1967, the Igbos declared the eastern region—now known as the Republic of Biafra—an independent state, thereby seceding from the central government. Achebe was in the new capital, Enugu, at the time, starting up the Citadel Press with fellow Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo (who was later killed in the war). After Enugu fell to federal troops in October of 1967, Achebe traveled to foreign capitals to publicize the plight of Biafran peoples, which included mass starvation as well as widespread casualties from the massacre and war. He worked through the duration of the war as Biafran Minister of Information.
Achebe’s preoccupation with the horrors of the Nigerian civil war made it difficult for him to write long fiction in the late 1960s. Instead of working on novels, he wrote poetry, short stories, children’s fiction, essays, and articles. In the volume Christmas in Biafra, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972, Achebe expressed his fierce anger, despair, and sorrow at the forces that were tearing his nation apart.
Biafra fell to the Nigerian federal government in January of 1970. Achebe continued his efforts in publishing by assuming the position of director of both Nwamife Publishers Ltd., based in Enugu, Nigeria, and Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., based in Ibadan. He had begun his work in publishing in 1962 as general editor of the Heinemann “African Writers Series,” and he viewed his new directorial positions in publishing as a vehicle for combatting racism in literature and fostering the efforts of African writers. Achebe also began teaching, notably during the 1970s at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka and overseas at the universities of Massachusetts and Connecticut. He delivered numerous addresses and wrote critical essays on racism in Africa, the aftereffects of colonialism on his people, and the need for more young voices in African literature. As James Curry, the editor in charge of the “African Writers Series” after Achebe left the role in 1972, put it, “Chinua Achebe, more than anyone else, reshaped the literary map of Africa.”
During the 1980s and early ’90s, Achebe focused on his teaching and lecturing while writing general essays, literary criticism, and a fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which many critics found to be his most powerful novel to date. Unlike his other novels, in Anthills of the Savannah women take the most significant role by inventing a new kind of storytelling—and thereby offering the glimmer of hope in the novel’s ambiguous ending. This marks a tremendous change in tone from Achebe’s earlier works, especially Things Fall Apart. In a 1990 interview for the Utne Reader, Achebe concluded, “Anger is a useless emotion,” thereby offering insight into his assumption over the years of a view of cautious optimism.
Chinua Achebe has worked variously as a journalist, publisher, teacher, and writer and has focused at different times on different literary genres, but he has continued throughout his life to work tirelessly in the service of his ideals. He told Patrick Samway in the America interview that he is working on a new novel and plans to write his autobiography.
Fiction—long and short
Things Fall Apart, Heinemann, 1958.
No Longer at Ease, Heinemann, 1960.
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories, Etudo, 1962.
Arrow of God, Heinemann, 1964.
A Man of the People, Heinemann, 1966.
Girls at War (short stories), Heinemann, 1972.
Anthills of the Savannah, Heinemann, 1987.
Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays, Doubleday, 1975.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria, Fourth Dimension, 1983.
The World of the Ogbanje, Fourth Dimension, 1986.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987, Heinemann, 1988.
“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” published in the authoritative Norton Critical Edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, 1988.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, ABIC, 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Beyond Hunger in Africa, Currey, 1991.
Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems, Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971, revised edition published as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, Doubleday, 1973.
Chike and the River, Cambridge University Press, 1966. (With John Iroaganachi) How the Leopard Got His Claws, Nwamife, 1972.
The Flute, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
The Drum, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria, Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971.
(With Dubem Okafor) Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, Fourth Dimension, 1978.
(With C. L. Innes), African Short Stories, Heinemann, 1985.
Also editor of “African Writers Series,” Heinemann, 1962-72; founding editor, Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing, 1971.
Chair/publisher, African Commentary Magazine.
Achebe, Chinua, Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Press, 1987.
Achebe, Chinua, Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, Anchor Books, 1973.
Achebe, Chinua, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1988.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 1989.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press, 1991.
Duerden, Dennis, and Cosmo Pieterse, editors, African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews, Africana Publishing, 1972.
Killam, G. D., The Novels of Chinua Achebe, Africana Publishing, 1969.
King, Bruce, Introduction to Nigerian Literature, Africana Publishing, 1972.
Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1972.
Petersen, Kirsten Holst, and Anna Rutherford, editors, Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, Heinemann, 1991.
America, June 29, 1991, pp. 684-86.
Callaloo, Winter 1990, pp. 87-101.
Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1991, pp. 493-507.
Studies in Black Literature: Special Issue—Chinua Achebe, Spring 1971.
Utne Reader, March/April 1990, p. 36.
World Press Review, June 1986, reprinted from Newswatch of Lagos, Nigeria.
—Nicholas S. Patti
Achebe, Chinua 1930–
Achebe, Chinua 1930–
(Albert Chinualumogu Achebe)
PERSONAL: Pronounced "CHIN-yoo-uh ah-CHAY-bee." Born November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria; son of Isaiah Okafo (an Anglican churchman and teacher) and Janet N. Iloegbunam Achebe; married Christiana Chinwe Okoli, September 10, 1961; children: Chinelo (daughter), Ikechukwu (son), Chidi (son), Nwando (daughter). Education: Church Mission Society School; a colonial government secondary school in which English was enforced; Government College Umuahia, 1944–47; and University College, Ibadan, 1948–53, B.A. (under London University) 1953; studied broadcasting at the British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Music.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 53 Nsukka, Anambra State, Nigeria. Office—Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Anambra State, Nigeria; and c/o Bard College, P.O. Box 41, Annandale on Hudson, NY, 12504. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC), Lagos, Nigeria, talk show producer, 1954–57, controller of Eastern Region in Enugu, Nigeria, 1958–61, founder and director of Voice of Nigeria, 1961–66; University of Nigeria, Nsukka, senior research fellow, 1967–72, professor of English, 1976–81, professor emeritus, 1985–; Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, pro-chancellor and chair of council, 1986–88; University of Massachusetts-Amherst, professor, 1987–88. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, 1967–69. Visiting professor of English at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1972–75, and University of Connecticut, Afro-American Studies department, 1975–76. University of California, Los Angeles, Regents' lecturer, 1984; Cambridge University, Clare Hall, visiting fellow and Ashby lecturer, 1993; Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literatures at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 1993–; lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the United States; speaker at events in numerous countries throughout the world. Chair, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, Nigeria, 1967; founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962–72, director, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., Ibadan, Nigeria, 1970–; director, Nwamife Publishers Ltd., Enugu, Nigeria, 1970–. Founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts, 1984–. Governor, Newsconcern International Foundation, 1983. Member, University of Lagos Council, 1966, East Central State Library Board, 1971–72, Anambra State Arts Council, 1977–79, and National Festival Committee, 1983; director, Okike Arts Centre, Nsukka, 1984–. Deputy national president of People's Redemption Party, 1983; president of town union, Ogidi, Nigeria, beginning 1986; goodwill ambassador for U.N. Population Fund, 1999.
MEMBER: International Social Prospects Academy (Geneva), Writers and Scholars International (London), Writers and Scholars Educational Trust (London), Commonwealth Arts Organization (member of executive committee, 1981–), Association of Nigerian Authors (founder; president, 1981–86), Ghana Association of Writers (fellow), Royal Society of Literature (London), Modern Language Association of America (honorary fellow), American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, 1959, for Things Fall Apart; Rockefeller travel fellowship to East and Central Africa, 1960–1961; Nigerian National Trophy, 1961, for No Longer at Ease; UNESCO fellowship for creative artists for travel to United States and Brazil, 1963; Jock Campbell/ New Statesman Award, 1965, for Arrow of God; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1972, for Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems; Neil Gunn international fellow, Scottish Arts Council, 1975; Lotus Award for Afro-Asian Writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit Award, 1979; named to the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation senior visiting practitioner award, 1984; A Man of the People was cited in Anthony Burgess's 1984 book Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in England since 1939; Booker Prize nomination, 1987, for Anthills of the Savannah, Champion Award, 1996. D.Litt., Dartmouth College, 1972, University of Southampton, 1975, University of Ife, 1978, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1981, University of Kent, 1982, Mount Allison University, 1984, University of Guelph, 1984, and Franklin Pierce College, 1985, Ibadan University, 1989, Skidmore College, 1991, City College of New York, 1992, Fichburg State College, 1994, Harvard University, 1996, Binghamton University, 1996, Bates College, 1996, Trinity College, Connecticut, 1999; D.Univ., University of Stirling, 1975, Open University, 1989; LL.D., University of Prince Edward Island, 1976, Georgetown University, 1990, Port Harcourt University, 1991; D.H.L., University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1977, Westfield College, 1989, New School for Social Research, 1991, Hobart and William Smith College, 1991, Marymount Manhattan College, 1991, Colgate University, 1993; nominated for Nobel prize in literature, 2000; German Booksellers Peace Prize for promoting human understanding through literature, 2002.
Things Fall Apart, Heinemann (London, England), 1958, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1959, abridged and annotated edition published as Things Fall Apart: An Adapted Classic, adapted by Sandra Widner, Globe Fearon (Lebanon, IN), 2000; Things Fall Apart: With Related Readings, Paradigm (St. Paul, MN), 2002.
No Longer at Ease, Heinemann (London, England), 1960, Obolensky, 1961, second edition, Fawcett (Uncasville, CT), 1988.
Arrow of God, Heinemann (London, England), 1964, John Day (New York, NY), 1967.
A Man of the People, John Day (New York, NY), 1966, published with an introduction by K.W.J. Post, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1967.
Anthills of the Savannah, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1988.
Things Fall Apart has been translated into 45 languages.
Chike and the River, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1966.
(With John Iroaganachi) How the Leopard Got His Claws, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Enugu, Nigeria), 1972, bound with Lament of the Deer, by Christopher Okigbo, Third Press (New York, NY), 1973.
The Flute, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
The Drum, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
Beware, Soul-Brother, and Other Poems, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Engigu, Nigeria), 1971, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972, revised edition, Heinemann (London, England), 1972.
Christmas in Biafra, and Other Poems, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.
(Editor with Dubem Okafor) Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enigu, Nigeria), 1978.
(Coeditor) Aka Weta: An Anthology of Igbo Poetry, Ok-ike (Nsukka, Nigeria), 1982.
Another Africa, poems and essays, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.
The Sacrificial Egg, and Other Stories, Etudo (Onitsha, Nigeria), 1962.
(Contributor) The Insider; Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria, Nwankwo-Ifejika (Enigu, Nigeria), 1971.
Girls at War (short stories), Heinemann (London, England), 1972, Fawcett (Uncasville, CT), 1988.
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
(Contributor) In Person—Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington, University of Washington (Seattle, Washington), 1975.
Editor, with Dubem Okafor, Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1978.
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays), Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enigu, Nigeria), 1983, Heinemann (London, England), 1984.
(Editor with C.L. Innes) African Short Stories, Heine-mann (London, England), 1984.
The World of the Ogbanje, Fourth Dimension (Enugu, Nigeria), 1986.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987, Heinemann (London, England), 1988.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics, Abic Books (Enigu, Nigeria), 1988.
The African Trilogy, (fiction), Picador (London, England), 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin: Black Writers Redefine the Struggle: Proceedings of a Conference at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, April 22-23, 1988 Featuring Chinua Achebe, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1989.
(Co-Editor) Beyond Hunger in Africa: Conventional Wisdom and an African Vision, Currey (London, England), 1990.
(Editor with C.L. Innes and contributor) The Heine-mann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1992.
The Voter, Viva Books (Johannesburg), 1994.
(With others) The South Wind and the Sun, edited by Kate Turkington, Thorold's Africana Books (Johannesburg), 1996.
Another Africa (poems and essay, with photographs by Robert Lyons), Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Order and Chaos (with others), Great Books Foundation (Chicago, IL), 1997.
Conversations with Chinua Achebe, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.
Home and Exile, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author of essay collection Nigerian Topics, 1988. Contributor to anthologies, including Modern African Stories, edited by Ellis Ayitey Komey and Ezekiel Mphahlele, Faber (London), 1964; Africa Speaks: A Prose Anthology with Comprehension and Summary Passages, Evans, 1970; and The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, edited by Okwui Enwezor, Prestel, 2001. Author of foreword, African Rhapsody: Short Stories of the Contemporary African Experience, 1994. Founding editor, "African Writers Series," Heinemann, 1962–72; editor, Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing, 1971–; editor, Nsukkascope, a campus magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: Things Fall Apart was adapted for the stage and produced by Eldred Fiberesima in Lagos, Nigeria; it was also adapted for radio and produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1983, and for television in English and Igbo and produced by the Nigerian Television Authority in 1985.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Our Shared Future, a series of books focused on the issues affecting children around the world, for UNICEF, edited with Toni Morrison.
SIDELIGHTS: Since the 1950s, Nigeria has witnessed "the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society," wrote Margaret Laurence in her book Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists. Thirty years ago, Chinua Achebe, who rejected the British name "Albert" and took his indigenous name "Chinua" in college in 1948, was among the founders of this new literature and over the years many critics have come to consider him the finest of the Nigerian novelists. His achievement has not been limited to his native country or continent (his work has been published in some 50 languages). As Laurence maintained, "Chinua Achebe's careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters place him among the best novelists now writing in any country in the English language."
On the level of ideas, Achebe's "prose writing reflects three essential and related concerns," observed G.D. Killam in his book The Novels of Chinua Achebe, "first, with the legacy of colonialism at both the individual and societal level; secondly, with the fact of English as a language of national and international exchange; thirdly, with the obligations and responsibilities of the writer both to the society in which he lives and to his art." Over the past century, African nations have been caught in struggles for identity between tradition, colonialism, and independence. These conflicts, deepened by the continuing presence of economic colonialism and neocolonialism among European educated rulers, has prevented many nations from raising themselves above political and social chaos to achieve true independence. "Most of the problems we see in our politics derive from the moment when we lost our initiative to other people, to colonizers," Achebe noted in a book of essays. He went on to explain: "What I think is the basic problem of a new African country like Nigeria is really what you might call a 'crisis in the soul.' We have been subjected—we have subjected ourselves too—to this period during which we have accepted everything alien as good and practically everything local or native as inferior." "We had all been duped," he wrote. "No independence was given … Europe had only made a tactical withdrawal on the political front and while we sang our anthem … she was securing her grip behind us in the economic field. And our leaders in whose faces we hurled our disenchantment neither saw nor heard because they were not leaders at all but marionettes."
In order to recognize the virtues of precolonial Nigeria, chronicle the ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and expose present-day corruption, Achebe desired to clearly communicate these concerns first to his fellow countrymen but also to those outside his country. Unlike Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo and others, who chose to return to writing in their native languages, Achebe judged the best channel for these messages to be English, the language of colonialism. He did so because he wished to repossess the power of description from those, like Conrad, Joyce Cary, and Rider Haggard, who had, as he said, secured "an absolute power over narrative" that cast Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. He explained that language need not to be viewed as an enemy, "but as a tool." Through repossession, he could "help [his] society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." He was taking up a long fight against European writers who were "bloody racists" in their descriptions of Africans and Africa.
Achebe's transformation of language to achieve his particular ends distinguishes his writing from that of other English-language novelists. To repossess description of Nigeria in English, he translates Ibo proverbs and weaves them into his stories with Ibo vocabulary, images, and speech patterns. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly," he wrote in his novel Things Fall Apart, "and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." "Proverbs are cherished by Achebe's people as … the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage," explained Adrian A. Roscoe in Mother Is Gold: A Study in West African Literature. "When they disappear or fall into disuse … it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away." Achebe's use of proverbs also has an artistic aim, as Bernth Lindfors suggested in Folklore in Nigerian Literature. "Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels," commented the critic, "because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society."
Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays—both literary and political—Achebe is best known for his novels: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah. Anthony Daniels wrote of Achebe's novels in the Spectator, "In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the … worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule." Set in this historical context, the novels develop the theme of what happens to a society when change outside distorts and blocks the natural change from within and offer, as Eustace Palmer observed in The Growth of the African Novel, "a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change." Even as he resists the rootless visions of postmodernist globalisation, Achebe does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past.
Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God—Achebe's first novels—focus on Nigeria's early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. "With remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences" of European colonialism, suggested Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe's work. "There is an artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction."
Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, early in the Nigerian renaissance. Achebe explained why he began writing at this time in an interview with Lewis Nkosi in African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews: "One of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary's novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture … not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character…. I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look … from the inside." Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction, said of Achebe's success, both in investing his novel of Africa with an African sensibility and in making this view available to African readers: "In 1964 … Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent." As Simon Gikandi recalled in a special issue of Research in African Literatures, "Once I had started reading Things Fall Apart … I could not cope with the chapter a day policy. I read the whole novel over one afternoon and it is not an exaggeration to say that my life was never to be the same again…. In reading Things Fall Apart, everything became clear: the yam was important to Igbo culture, not because of what we were later to learn to call use-value … but because of its location at the nexus of a symbolic economy in which material wealth was connected to spirituality and ideology and desire." Later in the 1960s, the novel "became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first 'classic' in English from tropical Africa," added Larson.
The novel tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800s and one of its great men, Okonkwo. Although the son of a ne'er-do-well, Okonkwo has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a title-holder among his people, and a member of the select egwugwu who represent ancestral spirits at tribal rituals. "The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart" maintained David Carroll in his book Chinua Achebe, "is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century." He explained: "Here is a clan in the full vigor of its traditional way of life, unperplexed by the present and without nostalgia for the past. Through its rituals the life of the community and the life of the individual are merged into significance and order."
In Things Fall Apart, the order of the village is disrupted with the appearance of the white man in Africa and with the introduction of his religion. "The conflict in the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart," observed Killam. Okonkwo is unable to counter the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration, he kills an African employed by the British, and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long remained true. The novel thus presents "two main, closely intertwined tragedies," wrote Arthur Ravenscroft in his study Chinua Achebe, "the personal tragedy of Okonkwo … and the public tragedy of the eclipse of one culture by another." Achebe reclaims the power of description from the colonial writer by depicting both tragedies from within Ibo culture.
Although the author emphasizes the message in his novels, he also receives praise for his artistic achievement. As Palmer commented, the work "demonstrates a mastery of plot and structure, strength of characterization, competence in the manipulation of language and consistency and depth of thematic exploration which is rarely found in a first novel." Achebe also achieves balance in recreating the tragic consequences of colonial damage to his culture. Killam noted that "in showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory." And, Killam concluded, Achebe's "success proceeds from his ability to create a sense of real life and real issues in the book and to see his subject from the point of view which is neither idealistic nor dishonest."
Arrow of God, the second novel, takes place in the 1920s after the British have established a presence in Nigeria. The "arrow of god" in the title is Ezeulu, the chief priest of the god Ulu, a deity created to unite Umuaro, a federation of six Ibo villages. As chief priest, Ezeulu is responsible for initiating rituals that structure village life and maintain the unity of the federation, a position with a great deal of political as well as spiritual power. In fact, the central theme of this novel, as Laurence pointed out, is power: "Ezeulu's testing of his own power and the power of his god, and his effort to maintain his own and his god's authority in the face of village factions and of the [Christian] mission and the British administration." "This, then, is a political novel in which different systems of power are examined and their dependence upon myth and ritual compared," wrote Carroll.
In Ezeulu, Achebe presents a study of loss of power in the face of colonial manipulation whose depth he does not understand. After the village council rejects his advice to avoid conflict with a neighboring village, Ezeulu finds himself at odds with his own people and praised by British administrators. The British, seeking a candidate to install as village chieftain, make him an offer, which he refuses and is therefore imprisoned. Caught in the middle with no allies, Ezeulu becomes more and more uncompromising and finally dooms the villages in his rigid opposition to the council. "As in Achebe's other novels," observed Gerald Moore in Seven African Writers, "it is the strong-willed man of tradition who cannot adapt, and who is crushed by his virtues in the war between the new, more worldly order, and the old, conservative values of an isolated society." The artistry displayed in Arrow of God, Achebe's second portrait of cultures in collision, has drawn a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem in which the writer is held. Charles Miller commented in a Saturday Review article that Achebe's "approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable." Concluded Miller, "It is a measure of Achebe's creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama."
Achebe's three other novels—No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah—examine Africa in the era of independence. This is an Africa less and less under obvious European administration, but still deeply controlled by it, an Africa struggling to regain its footing in order to stand on its own two feet. Standing in the way of realizing its goal of true independence is the persistence of European values pervasive in modern Africa, an obstacle Achebe continues to scrutinize in each of these novels. Tejumola Olaniyan commented in Research in African Literatures, "The postcolonial state was determined by, and is an expression of, the political superstructure elaborated by colonial power, and not an outgrowth of the autonomous evolution of the people…. The postcolonial state has been unable to escape the logic of its origin in the colonial state: absence of legitimacy with the governed, dependence on coercion, lack of political accountability, a bureaucracy with an extraverted mentality, disregard for the cultivation of a responsive civic community, uneven horizontal integration into the political community such that the government is most felt in the cities, extraction of surplus from the interior to overfeed the capital, and many more!"
In No Longer at Ease, set in Nigeria just prior to independence, Achebe extends his history of the Okonkwo family. The central character is Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. Obi Okonkwo has been raised a Christian and educated in England. Like many of his peers, he has left the bush behind for a position as a civil servant in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. "No Longer at Ease deals with the plight of [this] new generation of Nigerians," observed Palmer, "who, having been exposed to education in the western world and therefore largely cut off from their roots in traditional society, discover, on their return, that the demands of tradition are still strong, and are hopelessly caught in the clash between the old and the new," the demands the logic of colonialism continues to make on the ruling class.
Many faced with this internal conflict between individualistic and communal values succumb to corruption. Obi is no exception. "The novel opens with Obi on trial for accepting bribes," noted Killam, "and the book takes the form of a long flashback." "In a world which is the result of the intermingling of Europe and Africa … Achebe traces the decline of his hero from brilliant student to civil servant convicted of bribery and corruption," wrote Carroll. "It reads like a postscript to the earlier novel [Things Fall Apart] because the same forces are at work but in a confused, diluted, and blurred form." In This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French, Judith Illsley Gleason pointed out how the imagery of each book depicts the changes in the Okonkwo family and the Nigeria they represent. She wrote, "The career of the grandson Okonkwo ends not with a machete's swing but with a gavel's tap," but the legacy that destroys him is the same.
A Man of the People is satire, and in this "novel of disenchantment," Achebe further casts his eye on African politics, taking on, as Moore noted, "the corruption of Nigerians in high places in the central government." The author's eyepiece is the book's narrator Odili, a schoolteacher; the object of his scrutiny is the Honorable M.A. Nanga, Member of Parliament, Odili's former teacher and a popular bush politician who has risen to the post of Minister of Culture in his West African homeland.
At first, Odili is charmed by the politician but eventually he recognizes the extent of Nanga's abuses and decides to oppose the minister in an election. Odili is beaten, both physically and politically, his appeal to the people heard but ignored because he too has left his roots behind for abstract intellect. The novel demonstrates, according to Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, that "the society has been invaded by a wide range of values which have destroyed the traditional balance between the material and the spiritual spheres of life, which has led inevitably to the hypocrisy of double standards." Odili is both victim and perpetrator of these double standards.
Despite his political victory, Nanga, along with the rest of the government, is ousted by a coup. "The novel is a carefully plotted and unified piece of writing," wrote Killam. "Achebe achieves balance and proportion in the treatment of his theme of political corruption by evoking both the absurdity of the behavior of the principal characters while at the same time suggesting the serious and destructive consequences of their behavior to the commonwealth." The seriousness of the fictional situation portrayed in A Man of the People became real very soon after the novel was first published in 1966 when Nigeria itself was racked by a coup.
Two decades passed between the publications of A Man of the People and Achebe's 1988 novel, Anthills of the Savannah. During this time, rather than flee abroad as he might have done, Achebe became involved in the political struggle between Nigeria and the seceding nation of Biafra, a struggle marked by five coups, a civil war, elections marred by violence, and a number of attempts to return to civilian rule. He worked throughout the war as Biafran Minister of Information. Judging that novels could not express the horrors of the struggle, he wrote poetry, short stories, and essays that mourned and celebrated the attempted revolution.
Anthills of the Savannah is Achebe's return to the novel, and as Nadine Gordimer commented in the New York Times Book Review, "it is a work in which 22 years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal." It is a return to the themes of independent Africa informing Achebe's earlier novels but it gives the most significant role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. "This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die," wrote Observer contributor and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. "It is also about dissent, and love."
Three former schoolmates have risen to positions of power in an imaginary West African nation, Kangan. Ikem is editor of the state-owned newspaper; Chris is the country's minister of information; Sam is a military man who has become head of state. Sam's quest to have himself voted president for life sends the lives of these three and the lives of all Kangan citizens into turmoil. Neal Ascherson in the New York Review of Books, commented that the novel becomes "a tale about responsibility, and the ways in which men who should know better betray and evade that responsibility."
The turmoil comes to a head in the novel's final pages. All three of the central characters are dead. Ikem, who spoke out against the abuses of the government, is murdered by Sam's secret police. Chris, who flees into the bush to begin a journey of transformation among the people, is shot attempting to stop a rape. Sam is kidnapped and murdered in a coup. "The three murders, senseless as they are, represent the departure of a generation that compromised its own enlightenment for the sake of power," wrote Ascherson. At Achebe's 70th birthday celebration at Bard College, Wole Soyinka commented that "Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs." And, as Okri observed, "The novel closes with the suggestion that power should reside not within an elite but within the awakened spirit of the people."
Anthills of the Savannah was well-received and earned Achebe a nomination for the Booker Prize. Larson, in Tribune Books, estimated that "No other novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and regurgitated contemporary Africa's miseries and expectations as profoundly as Anthills of the Savannah."
Achebe's next book, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987, essays and speeches written over a period of twenty-three years, is perceived in many ways to be a logical extension of ideas in Anthills of the Savannah. In this collection, however, he is not addressing the way Africans view themselves but rather how Africa is viewed by the outside world. The central theme is the corrosive impact of the racism that pervades Western traditional appraisal of Africa. The collection opens with an examination of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness; Achebe criticizes Conrad for projecting an image of Africa as "the other world"—meaning non-European and, therefore, uncivilized. Achebe argues that to this day, the Condradian myth persists that Africa is a dark and bestial land. The time has come, Achebe states, to sweep away this racism in favor of new myths and socially "beneficent fiction" which will enable Africans and non-Africans alike to redefine the way they look at the continent. "I am a political writer," he said, and "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people…. As long as one people sits on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude us."
Achebe continues this critique, after a long silence while he recovered from a serious car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down, in Home and Exile, a memoir in the form of three essays, where he extends his attack on linguistic colonialism in its many forms: "the subject of naming, especially naming to put down, appears in a variety of forms in the course of his deliberations." For instance, he repossesses for the Ibo the word "nation" rather than "tribe." Adebayo, in an article in Research in African Literatures, contended that Achebe "resents the colonial categorization of non-Western nationalities as tribes distinguished by primordial affiliations and primitive customs. By sheer force of logic and weight of evidence, Achebe demonstrates that his own people … do not share most of the notorious attributes of tribal groups, particularly blood ties and a centralized authority." As Richard Feldstein wrote in a Literature and Psychology review, "Home and Exile calls for overwriting colonial narratives by painstakingly reviewing their articulation as well as their accumulated details while instituting a counter-discourse of repossession. Repossession … calls for the process of re-storying marginalized indigenes who have been silenced by the trauma of dispossession. Repossession presents counter-discursive 'stories,' along with new ways of telling them."
In his writings, Achebe has created a significant body of work in which he offers a close and balanced examination of contemporary Africa and the historical forces that have shaped it. "His distinction is to have [looked back] without any trace either of chauvinistic idealism or of neurotic rejection," maintained Moore. Achebe's writing reverberates beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the arenas of anthropology, sociology, and political science. As literature, it deals with universal qualities. And, as Killam writes in his study: "Achebe's novels offer a vision of life which is essentially tragic, compounded of success and failure, informed by knowledge and understanding, relieved by humour and tempered by sympathy, embued with an awareness of human suffering and the human capacity to endure." Concluded the critic, "Sometimes his characters meet with success, more often with defeat and despair. Through it all the spirit of man and the belief in the possibility of triumph endures." In 1990, only weeks after attending a celebration for his 60th birthday, Achebe was paralyzed in an accident in Nigeria, but has continued to publish, teach, and appear in public. He moved to the United States for therapy, and has lived there, "a reluctant refugee," according to Oluwole Adujare in an African News Service review, during a dark time of Nigerian dictatorship.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, Heinemann (London, England), 1958, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1959.
Awoonor, Kofi, The Breast of the Earth, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
Awosika, Olawale, Form and Technique in the African Novel, Sam Bookman (Ibadan), 1997.
Baldwin, Claudia, Nigerian Literature: A Bibliography of Criticism, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1980.
Carroll, David, Chinua Achebe, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.
Champion, Ernest A., Mr. Baldwin, I Presume: James Baldwin-Chinua Achebe, a Meeting of the Minds, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973; Volume 3, 1975; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 7, 1977; Volume 11, 1979; Volume 26, 1983; Volume 51, 1988; Volume 75, 1993.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Chinua Achebe: A Biography, Indiana University Press, 1997.
Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, Africana Publishing, 1977.
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Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Albert Chinualumogu in Ogidi, 16 November 1930. Education: Government College, Umuahia, 1944-47; University College, Ibadan, 1948-53, B.A. (London) 1953. Family: Married Christiana Chinwe Okoli in 1961; two sons and two daughters. Career: Talks producer, Lagos, 1954-57, controller, Enugu, 1958-61, and director, Voice of Nigeria, Lagos, 1961-66, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; chairman, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, 1967. Senior research fellow, 1967-73, professor of English, 1973-81, and since 1984 professor emeritus, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Visiting professor, 1972-75, and Fulbright Professor, 1987-88, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; visiting professor, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1975-76; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984; Visiting Distinguished Professor of English, City College, New York, 1989, visiting professor, Stanford University, 1990. Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Literature, Bard College. Founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962-72 and since 1970 director, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. (later Nwamife), publishers, Enugu; since 1971 editor, Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, Nsukka; since 1983 governor, Newsconcern International Foundation, London; since 1984 founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts. Since 1998 goodwill ambassador, United Nations Population Fund. Awards: Margaret Wrong Memorial prize, 1959; Nigerian National trophy, 1960; Rockefeller fellowship, 1960; Unesco fellowship, 1963; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman ), 1965; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1973; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1974; Lotus award for Afro-Asian writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit award, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation award, 1984. Litt.D.: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1972; University of Southampton, 1975; University of Ife, 1978; University of Nigeria, 1981; University of Kent, Canterbury, 1982; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1984; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1984; Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, New Hampshire, 1985; University of Ibadan, 1989; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1990; D. Univ.: University of Stirling, 1975; Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 1989; LL.D.: University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, 1976; D.H.L.: University of Massachusetts, 1977; Westfield College, London, 1989; Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1990; doctor of letters, honoris causa, Trinity College, Connecticut, 1999. Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (USA), 1975; member, Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Honorary Member, American Academy, 1982; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Member: University of Lagos Council, 1966; chairman, Society of Nigerian Authors, 1966, and Association of Nigerian Authors, 1982-86; member, Anambra State Arts Council, 1977-79; Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, 1986-88. Since 1981 member of the Executive Committee, Commonwealth Arts Organization, London; since 1983 member, International Social Prospects Academy, Geneva; since 1984 director, Okike Arts Center, Nsukka. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during Nigerian Civil War, 1967-69; deputy national president, People's Redemption Party, 1983. Address: P.O. Box 53, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Anambra State, Nigeria.
Things Fall Apart. London, Heinemann, 1958; New York, McDowellObolensky, 1959; introduction by Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York, Knopf, 1992.
No Longer at Ease. London, Heinemann, 1960; New York, Obolensky, 1961.
Arrow of God. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Day, 1967.
A Man of the People. London, Heinemann, and New York, Day, 1966.
Anthills of the Savannah. London, Heinemann, 1987; New York, Doubleday, 1988.
The African Trilogy. London, Picador, 1988.
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories. Onitsha, Etudo, 1962.
Girls at War. London, Heinemann, 1972; New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems. Enugu, Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971; revised edition, Enugu, Nwamife, and London, Heinemann, 1972; revised edition, as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Another Africa (essay and poems), photographs by Robert Lyons. New York, Anchor Books, 1998.
Other (for children)
Chike and the River. London and New York, Cambridge UniversityPress, 1966.
How the Leopard Got His Claws, with John Iroaganachi. Enugu, Nwamife, 1972; New York, Third Press, 1973.
The Flute. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
The Drum. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. London, Heinemann, andNew York, Doubleday, 1975.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.
The World of the Ogbanje. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1986.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. London, Heinemann, 1988; New York, Doubleday, 1990.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics. Enugu, ABIC, 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin. Amherst, University of MassachusettsPress, 1989.
Home and Exile. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Contributor, Order and Chaos. Chicago, Great Books Foundation, 1997.
Editor, with Dubem Okafor, Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1978.
Editor with C.L. Innes, African Short Stories. London, Heinemann, 1985.
Editor, Beyond Hunger in Africa: Conventional Wisdom and a Vision of Africa in 2057. Nairobi, Heinemann Kenya, and London, Currey, 1990.*
The Novels of Chinua Achebe by G.D. Killam, London, Heinemann, and New York, Africana, 1969, revised edition, as The Writings of Chinua Achebe, Heinemann, 1977; Chinua Achebe by Arthur Ravenscroft, London, Longman, 1969, revised edition, 1977; Chinua Achebe by David Carroll, New York, Twayne, 1970, revised edition, London, Macmillan, 1980, 1990; Chinua Achebe by Kate Turkington, London, Arnold, 1977; Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and C.L. Innes, London, Heimemann, and Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1978; Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe by Robert M. Wren, Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1980, London, Longman, 1981; The Four Novels of Chinua Achebe: A Critical Study by Benedict C. Njoku, Bern, Switzerland, Lang, 1984; The Traditional Religion and Its Encounter with Christianity in Achebe's Novels by E.M. Okoye, Bern, Switzerland, Lang, 1987; Chinua Achebe by C.L. Innes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, London, Currey, 1991; Approaches to Teaching Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" edited by Bernth Lindfors, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1991; Chinua Achebe: A Celebration edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, Oxford, England, Heinemann, 1991; Chinua Achebe: New Perspectives by Umela Ojinmah, Ibadan, Spectrum, 1991; Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction by Simon Gikandi, London, Currey, 1991; Gods, Oracles and Divination by Kalu Ogbaa, Trenton, N.J., Africa World Press, 1992; Art, Rebellion and Redemption by Romanus Okey Muonaka, New York, Lang, 1993; South Asian Responses to Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and Bala Kothandaraman, New Delhi, Prestige Books International, 1993; Chinua Achebe, the Importance of Stories (videocassette), 1996; International Symposium for Chinua Achebe's 60th Birthday. Ibadan, Nigeria, Heinemann Educational Books, 1996; Colonial and Post-Colonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-sop, Chinua Achebe, and Salman Rushdie by Soonsik Kim, New York, P. Lang, 1996; Form and Technique in the African Novel by Olawale Awosika, Ibadan, Nigeria, Sam Bookman, 1997; Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997; Conversations with Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Tallis O'Brien, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998.
Chinua Achebe comments:
I am a political writer. My politics is concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people. Such respect can issue only from understanding. So my primary concern is with clearing the channels of communication in my own neighborhood by hacking away at the thickets that choke them.
Africa's meeting with Europe must be accounted a terrible disaster in this matter of human understanding and respect. The nature of the meeting precluded any warmth of friendship. First Europe was an enslaver; then a colonizer. In either role she had no need and made little effort to understand or appreciate Africa; indeed she easily convinced herself that there was nothing there to justify the effort. Today our world is still bedeviled by the consequences of that cataclysmic encounter.
I was born into the colonial era, grew up in the heady years of nationalist protest and witnessed Africa's resumption of independence. (It was not, however, the same Africa which originally lost her freedom that now retained it, but a different Africa created in the image of Europe—but that's another story.) So I have seen in my not very long lifetime three major eras in precipitate succession, leaving us somewhat dazed. My response as a writer has been to try to keep pace with these torrential changes. First I had to tell Europe that the arrogance on which she sought to excuse her pillage of Africa, i.e., that Africa was the Primordial Void, was sheer humbug; that Africa had a history, a religion, a civilization. We reconstructed this history and civilization and displayed it to challenge the stereotype and the cliché. Actually it was not to Europe alone that I spoke. I spoke also to that part of ourselves that had come to accept Europe's opinion of us. And I was not alone nor even the first.
But the gauntlet had barely left our hands when a new historic phase broke on us. Europe conceded independence to us and we promptly began to misuse it, or rather those leaders to whom we entrusted the wielding of our new power and opportunity did. So we got mad at them and came out brandishing novels of disenchantment. Actually we had all been duped. No independence was given—it was never given but taken, anyway. Europe had only made a tactical withdrawal on the political front and while we sang our anthem and unfurled our flag she was securing her iron grip behind us in the economic field. And our leaders in whose faces we hurled our disenchantment neither saw nor heard because they were not leaders at all but marionettes.
So the problem remains for Africa, for black people, for all deprived peoples and for the world. And so for the writer, for he is like the puppy in our proverb: that stagnant water in the potsherd is for none other but him. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us.* * *
Chinua Achebe established his reputation with Things Fall Apart, one of the first novels to be published in post-independence Africa. It was admired for many reasons, notably the tragic profundity of its theme and the insights it offered on traditional Ibo life. Western critics also approved of Achebe's acceptance of the formal conventions of the genre even while he proved that the English language could be modified to express the very different African cultural context. This book became both archetype and classic, and many budding authors have attempted to emulate Achebe without demonstrating his competence. Things Fall Apart has been translated into many languages and is an established text in schools. It has sustained extensive critical examination and yet its poignant story still retains its capacity to move the reader.
Achebe's declared intention was to provide evidence that traditional African life was not the primitive barbarism that was the common judgment of the colonialists. Set in the early period of the initial British intrusion into Nigeria, the novel shows a society which, if not perfect, had structure and dignity; where human relations had order and security. Into this world came the foreigner and "things fall apart." The title, taken from Yeats, makes a subtle comment on the theme, because it expresses some degree of inevitability rather than calculated cause. Perhaps neither side could foresee the consequences of actions which seemed entirely reasonable within their own context. Though setting straight the record, this is not an anti-colonialist novel in the simplistic sense. Achebe discerns a terrifying truth, that when powerful worlds clash, even the best of men are defeated and only the accommodators prosper. Okonkwo exemplifies all the virtues of his people, but he is too harsh and inflexible to tolerate the inescapable changes. His friend Obierika is a far weaker but more sensible person. He survives, like others who yield their honor and adapt, preferring prosperity at the cost of their heritage. While understanding that this is a reasonable decision, which in time created the society which Achebe inherits, he clearly indicates where honor rests. Okonkwo is "the greatest man."
Three further novels form a tetralogy which covers Ibo history from the first arrival of the British to the violent coup of 1966. Though third to be published, it is Arrow of God which carries on the historical sequence. Its theme is similar to that of Things Fall Apart. Ezeulu, a distinguished village man, this time a high priest, finds himself in conflict with the now established British administration, a conflict activated as much by ignorance as malice. Angered by imprisonment and the failure of his people to assist him, Ezeulu imposes harsh penalties upon them. At last their misery is so acute they turn to the Christian missionaries who are preaching a less oppressive religion. With a terrible irony the priest's fierce battle to sustain the tribal god causes his destruction. Again there is the depiction of strength, admirable in itself, but too harsh to see the advantage and necessity of compromise. The man who most exemplifies traditional virtues, just like Okonkwo, brings about their destruction along with his own. In a further plot twist, Ezeulu sends his son to learn the ways of the white missionaries. He does not anticipate the conversion of the boy who then denies his heritage and begins to exemplify the cultural ambivalence and generational opposition which education inescapably brings.
The other two novels examine this dualistic situation. The revealing title of No Longer at Ease comes from T.S. Eliott. Obi, a bright, eager young man, is sent to England to study and returns to the luxury of the high Civil Service appointment previously reserved for the British. He is confident and optimistic, feeling he represents the hopes for a better Nigeria which will flourish under the direction of this new class of youthful, educated, and therefore honest and efficient administrators. In fact his position imposes peculiar strains. A salary, huge by village standards, proves insufficient to live the European life expected of him. His indifference, even scorn, of the values of his tradition, learned during his time in England, offends his people who had funded him. Obi is exposed as an alien and becomes uncomfortable and ineffective in both worlds. He drifts into taking bribes and is soon as corrupt as those he used to despise. He is an inept crook, however, and is charged and imprisoned. At one level this is a depressing tale. If someone as decent as Obi succumbs, can anyone succeed in improving conditions in Nigeria? The cynical colonial characters express only passing surprise, gloating to find their prejudice confirmed: "All Africans are corrupt." Achebe has something much deeper to communicate. Given this history and these conditions, how is it possible for even the idealist to maintain his integrity? In the final analysis when the struggle with the system destroys even the best, who shall be blamed? It is a contemporary application of the issue raised in the two historical novels.
The situation in A Man of the People is even more depressing. It reflects the terrible political deterioration which Nigeria has suffered since independence. "The Man," is Nanga, a brutally corrupt politician who nevertheless manages to remain both popular and successful. The novel examines this disastrous paradox. The term "man of the people" seems to indicate an admirable figure. Then, as Nanga's vile deeds are revealed, the reader reverses his judgment. How can a crook be "of the people?" In an ending of shattering pessimism, Achebe seems to accept that people as greedy and immoral as these deserve such a man who does nothing more than exploit their own similar values; envy not accusation motivates the voters. The dedicated intellectual, Odili, is drawn not as the hero come to redeem his people, but as an arrogant and incompetent fool. His ideas are far more remote from the people's than Nanga's. Corruption they understand, merely wishing to share in it; idealism seems absurd and irrelevant. Naively unpolitical Odili is defeated and in the dismal conclusion makes off with the funds committed to his election campaign, justifying his theft with typical intellectual rationalizations. The nation falls into chaotic violence.
Achebe's pessimism was prescient. Social cohesion in Nigeria disintegrated. When the disastrous civil war broke out he was a prominent participant on the Biafran side. These efforts so preoccupied him and induced so deep a discouragement that since 1966 his output has been slender. From the battle came some short stories which realistically depicted the sufferings—and the continuing corruption—within the cause to which he had dedicated himself with such idealism and hope. His most poignant comments on the war are in the poems of Beware, Soul-Brother.
In 1987 a new novel appeared. Anthills of the Savannah ad-dresses the same themes. The decades of independence have brought only minimal reasons for hope. Ruling governments have oscillated between corrupt citizens and violent army generals. For the first time Achebe chooses to disguise the setting by inventing a fictional state, Kangan. The rulers and their practices are closely modeled on the actual atrocities of Amin's Uganda. This may be intended to universalize the African situation, or indicate that Achebe can no longer bear to contemplate directly the misery to which his own country has come. But there are some flickers of hope. Interestingly enough, it is the female characters who display strength and assurance through the corruption and violence.
Perhaps Achebe has begun to lose confidence in the generation which he has served. Nevertheless, his early quartet stands as a masterly achievement that will inform generations of readers of the disasters colonialism brought to Africa—sometimes with benign intentions. The tragic realization in the books of the human misery that results from massive social and economic change brings to the mind the Wessex novels of Hardy.
BORN: 1930,Ogidi, Nigeria
NATIONALITY: Nigerian, African
GENRE: Novels, poetry, essays
Things Fall Apart (1958)
No Longer at Ease (1960)
Arrow of God (1964)
A Man of the People (1966)
Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
Chinua Achebe, whose work has been published in some fifty languages, is among the founders of contemporary Nigerian literature. Achebe, an ethnic Igbo, writes in English, but alters it to reflect native Nigerian languages. He does this to develop an appreciation for African culture in those unfamiliar with it. Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays—both literary and political—Achebe is best known for his novels, in which he offers a close and balanced examination of contemporary Africa and the historical forces that have shaped it.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in a Colony Pushing for Its Independence Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in the village of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria to Janet Iloegbunam Achebe and Isaiah Okafor Achebe. At the time, Nigeria was a British colony, and Western educational and economic models dominated. Achebe's father taught religion for the Church Missionary Society. Chinua Achebe was eight when he began to learn English and fourteen when he went to the Government College at Umuahia in
southeastern Nigeria, considered one of the best schools in West Africa. He enrolled in 1948 at University College, Ibadan, Nigeria, intending to study medicine, but soon switched to English literary studies. Achebe rejected the British name “Albert” and took his indigenous name “Chinua” in 1948, a time of growing Nigerian nationalism and increased pressure on Great Britain to grant the colony independence. He contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald, which were later published in Girls at War and Other Stories (1972).
After graduating, Achebe taught for a year and then began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1957, he went to London to attend the British Broadcasting Corporation Staff School. One of his teachers there was the British novelist and literary critic Gilbert Phelps, who recommended Things Fall Apart for publication.
Achebe was appointed director of the Voice of Nigeria (external broadcasting) by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961. That same year, on September 10, he married Christie Chinwe Okoli. They would have four children.
Nigerian Literary Renaissance Things Fall Apart (1958) is an account of colonial history from the point of view of the colonized rather than the colonizer: The perspective is African instead of Eurocentric, something highly unusual in English-language literature. The novel explores the philosophical principles of an African community, which is self-governing at the outset of the story.
The novel was published early in the Nigerian literary renaissance, two years before Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. The timing of the novel's release helped ensure its success: While Nigerians looked forward with excitement and optimism to the political freedom they would attain after more than a half century of British colonial rule, Achebe understood the need to show his countrymen the strength of their own cultures to assist in the task of nation building, a strength greatly diminished by the imposition of an alien culture.
Achebe's second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), is set in modern Nigeria in the days immediately before independence from British colonial rule. It reveals the changes to Nigerian society that result from foreign intervention—the extent to which things have fallen apart. The main character's experiences testify to the oppressive weight of doubt, guilt, and regret that the colonial experience has created.
Achebe returns to the past in Arrow of God (1964). He evokes a world rich in the complexities of daily domestic, social, political, and religious living further complicated by the now-institutionalized religious and political rules that the colonial force had introduced into Igbo society. The novel is a meditation on the nature and uses of power, and on the responsibility of the person who wields it.
Although the consequences of the loss of predictable political power at the village level can bring personal tragedy, at the national level the consequences are more widespread and longer lasting. It is to this latter reality that Achebe turns in his fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), which is set in the postcolonial period in an independent African country. The governance of the country is, nominally, in the hands of the people, and it is the quality of the leadership and the response of the people to that leadership that concern Achebe.
Nigerian Civil War and Politics Publication of A Man of the People coincided almost exactly with the first military coup d'etat in Nigeria, sparked by ethnic tensions between differing populations in the southern and northern parts of Nigeria. The worsening political situation led to the persecution of the Igbo people, which resulted in a series of massacres. Achebe resigned from his job with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation after these acts of violence and returned to his homeland.
The Eastern Region declared itself an independent state, called Biafra, in 1967, shortly after a thirty-month civil war began. Throughout the war Achebe traveled widely on Biafran affairs to Europe and North America. There was neither time nor inclination to write long fiction during this period. Rather, Achebe produced most of the poems in the
volume Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (1971; later revised, enlarged, and republished in the United States as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973).
Thirteen of Achebe's short stories, collected as Girls at War and Other Stories, were published in 1972. In 1975 Achebe published a volume of fifteen essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, written between 1962 and 1973, on various literary and political subjects.
In 1983, in the face of an impending federal election, he published The Trouble with Nigeria. The final chapter, “The Example of Aminu Kano,” comments on the qualities of the ideal leader for Nigeria in Achebe's view, and praises Muslim politician Aminu Kano. Kano died before the election, and Achebe was asked to become a presidential candidate. Instead he became the deputy national president, an honorary title. Before the election was held, however, the military intervened, resulting in a coup. It has been suggested that Achebe's words in part prompted this action.
In 1986 Achebe was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award for the second time. In his acceptance speech he acknowledged that literature is central in the quest to achieve the goal of creating a modern Nigeria.
Later Work Emphasizing West African Traditions Achebe confirmed his place as the leading African novelist with the publication of Anthills of the Savannah (1987). One of Achebe's primary interests in the novel is the way in which Nigeria's oral tradition, devalued by European colonizers and considered inferior to the tradition of written literature in Europe, is withering. This novel is set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, which resembles Nigeria. Achebe aims at reclaiming the art of storytelling in a society in which oral wisdom is in danger of dying out because of the increasing development of modern technocratic society. The communal and public act of storytelling also is yielding to the private form of the printed word. Anthills of the Savannah reveals that the two distinct forms of communication can meet and assist in closing the gap between the educated and the uneducated, so that the story is capable of fulfilling its traditional role. In this way, Achebe seems to be suggesting that Nigeria can make economic and social progress in the modern world without abandoning its cultural heritage in favor of European models. Anthills of the Savannah was well received and earned Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize.
Achebe's next book, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987 (1988), essays and speeches written over a period of twenty-three years, is perceived in many ways to be a logical extension of ideas in Anthills of the Savannah. In this collection, however, he is not addressing the way Africans view themselves, but rather how Africa is viewed by the outside world. The central theme is the destructive impact of racism that is inherent to Western traditional attitudes regarding Africa.
Still Writing and Working Despite Injury In 1990, only weeks after attending a celebration for his sixtieth birthday, Achebe was paralyzed in an accident in Nigeria. Despite this, he has continued to publish, teach, and appear in public. He moved to the United States for therapy and has lived there, “a reluctant refugee,” according to Oluwole Adujare in an African News Service review, during a dark time of Nigerian dictatorship.
At Achebe's seventieth birthday celebration at Bard College, Wole Soyinka commented that “Achebe never hesitates to lay blame for the woes of the African continent squarely where it belongs.” In 2007 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction.
Works in Literary Context
Africa, as an exotic place filled with “unknowable” people, has figured prominently in European literature and in the European imagination. Achebe has distinguished himself as a writer by presenting Africa from an African perspective and by pointing out the ways in which European cultural prejudices have affected not only the way Africa and Africans have been portrayed in literature and popular culture, but how Africa and Africans have been treated by imperial powers.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Achebe's famous contemporaries include:
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1938–): Kenyan novelist who argues that African writers should write in their native languages, not English, in order to rebuild the African literary tradition.
Bernard Kouchner (1939–): French physician who cofounded Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) as a result of the humanitarian crisis in Biafra during its brief independence.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (1938–): President of Liberia; the first elected female head of state in Africa.
The Decision to Write in English In order to recognize the virtues of precolonial Nigeria, chronicle the
ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and expose present-day corruption, Achebe had to clearly communicate these concerns first to his fellow countrymen but also to those outside his country. Instead of writing in his native language, Achebe judged the best channel for these messages to be English, the language of colonialism. He did so because he wished to repossess the power of description from those, like Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary, and H. Rider Haggard, who had, as he said, secured “an absolute power over narrative” that cast Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. Achebe views the English language not as an enemy, “but as a tool.”
Reclaiming the Oral Tradition Since the 1950s, Nigeria has witnessed “the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society,” writes Margaret Laurence. As she maintains, “Chinua Achebe's careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters place him among the best novelists now writing in any country in the English language.”
“Proverbs are cherished by Achebe's people as …the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage,” explains Adrian A. Roscoe. “When they disappear or fall into disuse …it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away.” Achebe's use of proverbs also has an artistic aim, as Bernth Lindfors suggests. “Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society.”
Works in Critical Context
Achebe's five novels to date follow some one hundred years of Igbo civilization. Europeans have not yet penetrated Umuofia, the setting of the first novel, when it begins. Over the course of the novels, colonial rule is established, significant change takes place, and the character of the community—its values and freedoms—are substantially and irrevocably altered. They therefore form an imaginative history of a segment of a major group of people in what eventually became Nigeria, as seen from the perspective of a Christian Igboman.
Anthony Daniels wrote of Achebe's novels in the Spectator, “In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the … worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule.” Set in this historical context, the novels develop the theme of what happens to a society when change outside distorts and blocks the natural change from within and offer, as Eustace Palmer observed, “a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change.” Even as he resists the rootless visions of postmodernist globalization, Achebe does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past.
Things Fall Apart “In 1964 … Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent,” writes Charles R. Larson. Later in the 1960s, the novel “became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first ‘classic’ in English from tropical Africa,” he adds.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The diversity found on the planet Earth is truly astounding and comprises a vast array of unique traditions, languages, customs, and beliefs. While this diversity can be an endless opportunity for learning and tolerance, it is often the seed of mistrust, discrimination, and hatred. Here are some titles that deal with oppression and prejudice.
Dia's Story Cloth (1992), by Dia Cha. Memoir of growing up in a Hmong family that struggles to maintain ties to their culture once they are removed from Cambodia, their native land.
Shame (1997), by Tasalina Nasarina. This novel examines the consequences of Muslim retaliation to the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu extremists in 1992.
Once Were Warriors (1990), by Alan Duff. The Hekes are a modern-day Maori family living in a slum in Auckland, New Zealand. They are torn between their native culture and the Pakeha (white) world in which they are forced to live.
Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) (1834), by Honoré de Balzac. Set in the new middle-class industrial life of France following the Napoleonic Wars, a brutal climate of early capitalism pervades society; money and power are everything, and love is merely a means to an end.
A Bend in the River (1979), by V. S. Naipaul. In this novel about a Muslim Indian trader in early postcolonial Zaire, the clash of cultures, mistrust, and anxiety are clear signs of Africa's colonial past.
Pilgrims in Aztlán (1974), by Miguel Méndez. Written in Spanish, in a style that reflects the author's native Mexican oral tradition, the stories in this complex and dense novel speak out for the growing silences in his traditions.
Ghanaian writer and critic Kofi Awoonor writes: “Achebe's thematic construction and dramatisation of the conflict in Things Fall Apart utilises the ‘chi’ concept—‘chi’ being the dominating ambiguous force in the life of an
individual. The structure of the novel is firmly based in the principles that are derived from this piece of Igbo ontological evidence. Okonkwo's life and actions seem to be prescribed by those immutable laws inherent in the ‘chi’ concept. It is the one significant principle that determines the rhythm and tragic grandeur of the novel. Okonkwo's rise and fall are seen in the significant way in which he challenges his ‘chi’ to battle.”
Arrow of God The artistry displayed in Arrow of God has drawn a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem in which Achebe is held. Charles Miller commented that Achebe's “approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable.” He concludes, “It is a measure of Achebe's creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama.”
“With remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels [Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God] a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences” of European colonialism, suggested Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe's work. “There is an artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction.”
Anthills of the Savannah Larson states, “No other novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and regurgitated contemporary Africa's miseries and expectations as profoundly as Anthills of the Savannah.”
Nadine Gordimer commented in the New York Times Book Review that Anthills of the Savannah is “a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal.” It is a return to the themes of independent Africa informing Achebe's earlier novels but it gives the most significant role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. “This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die,” wrote Observer contributor and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. “It is also about dissent, and love.”
Responses to Literature
- Colonialism is defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” How would the definition change if it read “control by one power over another area or people?” Which definition do you think Achebe would be more in agreement with?
- Certain social movements choose to use negative or pejorative terms as terms of pride. But these words can still be hurtful if spoken by an outsider. Can language and words really be reclaimed, or should one reject the language used by the colonizer or oppressor?
- Research a common American idiom or expression. Write an essay discussing its obvious meaning, as well as what its literal meaning implies about American culture. How would you explain it to someone unfamiliar with American culture?
- Africa is sometimes seen by Westerners as one country with one culture. In fact, Africa is the name of the continent, and it is made up of forty-eight countries and hundreds of ethnic groups, cultures, and languages. Research three writers from different African countries, and write an essay examining the similarities and differences in their outlooks. What, if anything, do they have in common, apart from the experience of colonization?
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. NewYork:Macmillan, 1990.
Ihekweazu, Edith, ed. Eagle on Iroko: Selected Papers from the Chinua Achebe International Symposium, 1990. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Education Books, 1996.
King, Bruce. The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Emenyonu, Ernest and Pat Emenyonu. “Achebe: Accountable to Our Society.” Africa Report (May 1972): vol. 17: 21, 23, 25–27.
Egudu, R.N. “Achebe and the Igbo Narrative Tradition.” Research in African Literatures (1981): vol. 12: 43–54.
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Albert Chinualumogu in Ogidi, 16 November 1930. Education: Government College, Umuahia, 1944-47; University College, Ibadan, 1948-53, B.A. (London) 1953. Family: Married Christiana Chinwe Okoli in 1961; two sons and two daughters. Career: Talks producer, Lagos, 1954-57, controller, Enugu, 1958-61, and director, Voice of Nigeria, Lagos, 1961-66, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962-72, and from 1970 director, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. (later Nwamife), publishers, Enugu; chairman, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, 1967; senior research fellow, 1967-73, professor of English, 1973-81, and from 1984 professor emeritus, University of Nigeria, Nsukka; from 1971 editor, Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, Nsukka; visiting professor, 1972-75, and Fulbright professor, 1987-88, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; visiting professor, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1975-76; from 1983 governor, Newsconcern International Foundation, London; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984; from 1984 founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts; pro-chancellor and chairman of Council, Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, 1986-88; from 1984 director, Okike Arts Center, Nsukka; visiting distinguished professor of English, City College, New York, 1989. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during Nigerian Civil War, 1967-69; deputy national president, People's Redemption Party, 1983. Badly injured in car accident, 1990. Since 1990 Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Literature, Bard College. Lives in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York Awards: Margaret Wrong Memorial prize, 1959; Nigerian National trophy, 1960; Rockefeller fellowship, 1960; Unesco fellowship, 1963; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman), 1965; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1973; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1974; Lotus award for Afro-Asian writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit award, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation award, 1984; Chinua Achebe Day, May 25, 1989 (proclaimed by the President of the Borough of Manhattan), New York City, 1989; Campion Medal, 1996. Litt.D.: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1972; University of Southampton, 1975; University of Ife, 1978; University of Nigeria, 1981; University of Kent, Canterbury, 1982; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1984; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1984; Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, New Hampshire, 1985; University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 1989; Skidmore College, 1991; City College, City University of New York, 1992; Fitchburg State College, Massachusetts, 1994; State University of New York, Binghamton, 1996; Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, 1996; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996. D. Univ.: University of Stirling, 1975; Open University, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 1989. LL.D.: University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, 1976; D.H.L.: University of Massachusetts, 1977. Honorary fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.), 1975; Georgetown University, 1990; The New School for Social Research, 1991; Hobart and William Smith College, 1991; Marymount Manhattan College, 1991; Colgate University, 1993. Member: University of Lagos Council, 1966; chairman, Society of Nigerian Authors, 1966; Anambra State Arts Council, 1977-79; Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Executive Committee, Commonwealth Arts Organization, London, from 1981; American Academy, 1982 (honorary member); fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983; International Social Prospects Academy, Geneva, from 1983; Association of Nigerian Authors, 1982-86.
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories. 1962.
Girls at War. 1972.
Things Fall Apart. 1958.
No Longer at Ease. 1960.
Arrow of God. 1964.
A Man of the People. 1966.
Anthills of the Savannah. 1987.
The African Trilogy. 1988.
Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems. 1971; revised edition, 1972; revised edition, as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973.
Aka Weta. 1982.
Attento, Soul Brother! 1995.
Other (for children)
Chike and the River. 1966.
How the Leopard Got His Claws, with John Iroaganachi. 1972.
The Flute. 1977.
The Drum. 1977.
Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. 1975.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria. 1983.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. 1988.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics. 1988.
A Tribute to James Baldwin. 1989.
Beyond Hunger in Africa. 1991.
Editor, The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria. 1971.
Editor, with Dubem Okafor, Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo. 1978.
Editor, with C. L. Innes, African Short Stories. 1985.
Editor, Contemporary African Short Stories. 1985.
Editor, with others, Beyond Hunger in Africa. 1990.*
Achebe: A Bibliography by B. M. Okpu, 1984.
The Novels of Achebe by G. D. Killam, 1969, revised edition, as The Writings of Achebe, 1977; Achebe by Arthur Ravenscroft, 1969, revised edition, 1977; Achebe by David Carroll, 1970, revised editions, 1980, 1990; Achebe by Kate Turkington, 1977; Critical Perspectives on Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and C. L. Innes, 1978; Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Achebe by Robert M. Wren, 1980; The Four Novels of Achebe: A Critical Study by Benedict C. Njoku, 1984; The Traditional Religion and Its Encounter with Christianity in Achebe's Novels by E. M. Okoye, 1987; Achebe by C. L. Innes, 1990; Reading Achebe by Simon Gikandi, 1991; Conversations with Chinau Achebe by Bernth Lindfors, 1997; Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, 1997.* * *
Chinua Achebe, best known for his five novels, has two story collections, which reveal the same interests as his longer fiction. The stories date from Achebe's undergraduate days at the University College, Ibadan, and were published as individual pieces between 1950 and 1971. The stories have been collected in The Sacrificial Egg and Other Short Stories and Girls at War. They can be divided into three classifications: those that show the conflict between traditional and modern values ("The Sacrificial Egg," "Dead Man's Path," and "Marriage Is a Private Affair", originally published as "The Beginning of the End"); those that display the nature of custom and belief; and those that deal with the Nigeria-Biafra civil war and its aftermath.
"The Madman," the first story in Girls at War, is about village life. Its hero, Nwibe, has a successful farm, wealth, several wives, and many children. He aspires to take the highest titles in his clan. Nwibe is cursed with a fierce temper, and his judgement deserts him when he is under its sway. After a day's work he goes to a nearby stream to bathe, where his clothes are taken by a madman. The naked Nwibe chases the madman, now wearing Nwibe's clothing, through the market where, inadvertently, he commits an offence against a deity. This ruins his chances of taking the Afo title; even though he is purged of his madness by the local "psychiatrist," he is marked forever: "Madness may indeed sometimes depart but never with all his clamorous train." The story is about pride, ambition, the nature of sanity, and the nature of tolerance. It implicitly asks what madness is, what just conduct is, and what is fit punishment.
"Uncle Ben's Choice" tells the story of a clerk of the Niger Company in the mid-1920s. "Jolly Ben," as he is known, is visited in the night by the seductive Mama Wota, the Lady of the River Niger, who promises Ben vast riches in exchange for possession of his being. Who would choose wealth over children? asks Ben. Rejected, Mama Wota bestows her favors on an eccentric, wealthy English trader. When he dies his money goes to outsiders. "Is that good wealth?" Ben asks: "God forbid."
"The Sacrificial Egg" deals with the conflict between generations and the beliefs held by each. Julius Obi, whose European education places him above a superstitious belief in the presence of the spirits, is forced through a moment of intense psychological violence and pain to re-examine his beliefs. Here, as in the "Dead Man's Path," "Marriage Is a Private Affair," and "Akueke," Achebe shows the prevalence, force, and inscrutability of traditional beliefs, which are antipathetic to rational scrutiny. The materials of the stories and the artist's approach to the treatment of materials coincide: Achebe's art in these stories is one of suggestiveness rather than explicit statement.
"The Voter" shows the inability to create a democratic system of government in Nigeria. Voters collude with corrupt politicians; deceit and bribery are commonplace. Rufus Okeke, a party organizer at election time, pledges his loyalty to one candidate but accepts a huge bribe from his opposition. Fearing reprisal from both parties, "Roof" solves the problem by tearing his ballot paper in half, casting a portion for each candidate.
In "Vengeful Creditor" a three-month experiment in universal primary education ("free primadu") is undertaken in Nigeria, affecting the lives of various representative citizens. The theme provides Achebe with the opportunity for wry and ironic comment on the self-interest of supposedly disinterested public bodies—politicians who care only about political survival, hypocritical missionaries, and a public sector welfare officer who drives a Mercedes-Benz. This is a powerful attack on the simplistic, complacent, and hypocritical attitude of the Nigerian middle class whose private attitudes and actions belie their public professions and practices.
Self-interest masked by profession of public and patriotic commitment in the context of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war is the subject of "Girls at War." The story spans the civil war in Nigeria and traces its dehumanizing effect; heroism and idealism are lost in the context of blood, sweat, and useless death in a fruitless cause. In "Civil Peace" Jonathan Iwegbu, a resourceful man who has survived the war, now falls victim to thugs and armed robbers who extract at gunpoint the little money with which he hopes to rebuild his life. A fatalist who believes that "nothing puzzles God," Jonathan claims he can accept his losses in peacetime as he has in war. But there is little to distinguish "civil peace" with civil war.
Achebe says in the preface to Girls at War that a dozen stories is a pretty lean harvest for 20 years of writing. He has added no more stories in the 20 years that have intervened. But if the harvest is small, it is not lean. The stories have a continuing and contemporary relevance. Few as they are, they have a central place in the canon of Nigerian literature.
—G. D. Killiam
See the essay on "Civil Peace."
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Albert Chinualumogu in Ogidi, 16 November 1930. Education: Government College, Umuahia, 1944–47; University College, Ibadan, 1948–53, B.A. (London) 1953. Family: Married Christiana Chinwe Okoli in 1961; two sons and two daughters. Career: Talks producer, Lagos, 1954–57, controller, Enugu, 1958–61, and director, Voice of Nigeria, Lagos, 1961–66, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; chairman, Citadel Books Ltd., Enugu, 1967. Senior research fellow, 1967–73, professor of English, 1973–81, and since 1984 professor emeritus, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Visiting professor, 1972–75, and Fulbright Professor, 1987–88, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; visiting professor, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1975–76; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984. Editor, 1971–82, Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, Nsukka; founding editor, Heinemann African Writers series, 1962–72, and since 1970 director, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) Ltd., and Nwankwo-Ifejika Ltd. (later Nwamife), publishers, Enugu; since 1984 founder and publisher, Uwa Ndi Igbo: A Bilingual Journal of Igbo Life and Arts. Member, University of Lagos Council, 1966; chairman, Society of Nigerian Authors, 1966, and Association of Nigerian Authors, 1982–86; member, Anambra State Arts Council, 1977–79; Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Anambra State University of Technology, Enugu, 1986–88; director, 1984–90, Okike Arts Center, Nsukka. Since 1981 member of the Executive Committee, Commonwealth Arts Organisation, London; since 1983 member, International Social Prospects Academy, Geneva. Served on diplomatic missions for Biafra during Nigerian Civil War, 1967–69; deputy national president, People's Redemption Party, 1983. Awards: Margaret Wrong Memorial prize, 1959; Nigerian National trophy, 1960; Rockefeller fellowship, 1960; Unesco fellowship, 1963; Jock Campbell award (New Statesman), 1965; Commonwealth Poetry prize, 1973; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1974; Lotus award for Afro-Asian writers, 1975; Nigerian National Merit award, 1979; Commonwealth Foundation award, 1984; Champion Award, 1996. Litt.D.: Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1972; University of Southampton, 1975; University of Ife, 1978; University of Nigeria, 1981; University of Kent, Canterbury, 1982; University of Guelph, Ontario, 1984; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1984; Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, New Hampshire, 1985; Ibadan University, 1989; Skidmore College, 1991; City College of New York, 1992; Fichburg State College, 1994; Harvard University, 1996; Binghamton University, 1996; Bates College, 1996. D.Univ.: University of Stirling, 1975; Open University, 1989. LL.D.: University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, 1976; Georgetown University, 1990; Port Harcourt University, 1991. D.H.L.: University of Massachusetts, 1977; Westfield College, 1989; New School for Social Research, 1991; Hobart and William Smith College, 1991; Marymount Manhattan College, 1991; Colgate University, 1993. Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (USA), 1975. Member, Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1979; Honorary Member, American Academy, 1982. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1983. Address: Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York 12504, U.S.A.
Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems. Enugu, Nwankwo-Ifejika, 1971; revised edition, Enugu, Nwamife, and London, Heinemann, 1972; revised edition, as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Things Fall Apart. London, Heinemann, 1958; New York, McDowell Obolensky, 1959.
No Longer at Ease. London, Heinemann, 1960; New York, Obolensky, 1961.
Arrow of God. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Day, 1967.
A Man of the People. London, Heinemann, and New York, Day, 1966.
Anthills of the Savannah. London, Heinemann, 1987; New York, Doubleday, 1988.
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories. Onitsha, Etudo, 1962.
Girls at War. London, Heinemann, 1972; New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Other (for children)
Chike and the River. London and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1966.
How the Leopard Got His Claws, with John Iroaganachi. Enugu, Nwamife, 1972; New York, Third Press, 1973.
The Flute. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
The Drum. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1977.
How Leopard Got His Claws. Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers, 1996.
Morning Yet on Creation Day Essays. London, Heinemann, and New York, Doubleday, 1975.
In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington. Seattle, University of Washington African Studies Program, 1975.
The Trouble with Nigeria. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987. London, Heinemann, 1988.
The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics. Enugu, ABIC, 1988.
Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Another Africa, with photographer Robert Lyons. New York, Doubleday, 1999.
Home and Exile. New York, Doubleday, 2000.
Editor, with Dubem Okafor, Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo. Enugu, Fourth Dimension, 1978.
Editor, with C.L. Innes, African Short Stories. London, Heinemann, 1985.*
Bibliography: In Africana Library Journal (New York), spring 1970; Chinua Achebe: A Bibliography by B.M. Okpu, Lagos, Libriservice, 1984; "Chinua Achebe: A Bio-Bibliography" by G. D. Killam, in Research in African Literature, 21(4), winter 1990.
Critical Studies: Chinua Achebe by Arthur Ravenscroft, London, Longman, 1969, revised edition, 1977; Chinua Achebe by David Carroll, New York, Twayne, 1970, revised edition, London, Macmillan, 1980; Chinua Achebe by Kate Turkington, London, Arnold, 1977; Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and C.L. Innes, London, Heinemann, and Washington, D.C., Three Continents Press, 1978, and Chinua Achebe by Innes, Cambridge University Press, 1990; Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; "Chinua Achebe: Novelist of Cultural Conflict" by Bernth Lindfors, inAmerica, 175(2), 1996; "Romanus Okey Muoneke. Art, Rebellion and Redemption: A Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe" by M.M. Goldstein, in Ariel, 27(2), 1996; Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Oxford, James Currey, 1997; Conversations with Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors, University of Mississippi Press, 1997; "Close Encounters: Margaret Laurence and Chinua Achebe" by Clara Thomas, in Journal of Canadian Studies, 32(1), 1997; "Chinua Achebe, a World-Class Writer" by Essie Baker, in The Crisis, 105(3), 1 July 1998; "Chinua Achebe, History-Teller" by A. Severac, in Commonwealth (Rodez, France), 21(1), 1998; "Women Writers, Women's Writing—Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tradition in Things Fall Apart" by Kwadwo Osei-Nyame, in Research in African Literature, 30(2), 1999.* * *
With the publication of his award-winning poetry volume Christmas in Biafra, Chinua Achebe showed the kind of mature and sensitive voice that had made his first novel, Things Fall Apart, a landmark in African writing fifteen years earlier.
Coming out of the incredible tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, the poems in the collection show remarkable restraint. Their language is simple and careful, yet never lacking in depth. Their imagery, as in the first few lines of "After a War," is exact and intense: "After a war life catches / desperately at passing / hints of normalcy like / vines entwining a hollow / twig." Many of the selections make use of biting irony, as in the title poem, "Christmas in Biafra," in which the seasonal music broadcast over the radio bears messages of "pure transcendental hate" and the starving mothers and children stare mutely at a manger where Jesus lies "plump-looking and rose-cheeked."
Not all of the poems are about the Biafran conflict, however. Achebe includes personal statements and far-reaching satirical comments on Western foreign policy, as in "He Loves Me; He Loves Me Not": "Harold Wilson he loves / me he gave me / a gun in my time / of need to shoot / my rebellious brother." But Achebe's subject matter, as in his other writings, is rooted in the confused landscape of postcolonial Africa, in which political corruption and international deals affect the lives of people who still follow traditional paths. One of his best poems, "Beware, Soul Brother," begins,
We are the men of soul
men of song we measure out
our joys and agonies
too, our long, long passion week
in paces of the dance.
This serves as a reminder to the African reader of his connection with the earth and warns against those "lying in wait leaden-footed, tone deaf / passionate only for the deep entrails / of our soil." Yet it is also a poem for all human beings who remember
where a man's
foot must return whatever beauties
it may weave in air, where
it must return for safety
and renewal of strength…
Born: November 15, 1930
Chinua Achebe is one of Nigeria's greatest novelists. His novels are written mainly for an African audience, but having been translated into more than forty languages, they have found worldwide readership.
Chinua Achebe was born on November 15, 1930, in Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. His family belonged to the Igbo tribe, and he was the fifth of six children. Representatives of the British government that controlled Nigeria convinced his parents, Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Ileogbunam, to abandon their traditional religion and follow Christianity. Achebe was brought up as a Christian, but he remained curious about the more traditional Nigerian faiths. He was educated at a government college in Umuahia, Nigeria, and graduated from the University College at Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1954.
Successful first effort
Achebe was unhappy with books about Africa written by British authors such as Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) and John Buchan (1875–1940), because he felt the descriptions of African people were inaccurate and insulting. While working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation he composed his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), the story of a traditional warrior hero who is unable to adapt to changing conditions in the early days of British rule. The book won immediate international recognition and also became the basis for a play by Biyi Bandele. Years later, in 1997, the Performance Studio Workshop of Nigeria put on a production of the play, which was then presented in the United States as part of the Kennedy Center's African Odyssey series in 1999. Achebe's next two novels, No Longer At Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), were set in the past as well.
By the mid-1960s the newness of independence had died out in Nigeria, as the country faced the political problems common to many of the other states in modern Africa. The Igbo, who had played a leading role in Nigerian politics, now began to feel that the Muslim Hausa people of Northern Nigeria considered the Igbos second-class citizens. Achebe wrote A Man of the People (1966), a story about a crooked Nigerian politician. The book was published at the very moment a military takeover removed the old political leadership. This made some Northern military officers suspect that Achebe had played a role in the takeover, but there was never any evidence supporting the theory.
During the years when Biafra attempted to break itself off as a separate state from Nigeria (1967–70), however, Achebe served as an ambassador (representative) to Biafra. He traveled to different countries discussing the problems of his people, especially the starving and slaughtering of Igbo children. He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and founded the Citadel Press with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. Writing a novel at this time was out of the question, he said during a 1969 interview: "I can't write a novel now; I wouldn't want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood." Three volumes of poetry emerged during this time, as well as a collection of short stories and children's stories.
After the fall of the Republic of Biafra, Achebe continued to work at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, and devoted time to the Heinemann Educational Books' Writers Series (which was designed to promote the careers of young African writers). In 1972 Achebe came to the United States to become an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (he taught there again in 1987). In 1975 he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut. He returned to the University of Nigeria in 1976. His novel Anthills of the Savanna (1987) tells the story of three boyhood friends in a West African nation and the deadly effects of the desire for power and wanting to be elected "president for life." After its release Achebe returned to the United States and teaching positions at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and other universities.
Back in Nigeria in 1990 to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, Achebe was involved in a car accident on one of the country's dangerous roads. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors recommended he go back to the United States for good to receive better medical care, so he accepted a teaching position at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In 1999, after a nine-year absence, Achebe visited his homeland, where his native village of Ogidi honored him for his dedication to the myths and legends of his ancestors. In 2000 Achebe's nonfiction book Home and Exile, consisting of three essays, was published by Oxford University Press.
For More Information
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Chinua Achebe (born 1930) is one of the foremost Nigerian novelists. His novels are primarily directed to an African audience, but their psychological insights have gained them universal acceptance.
Chinua Achebe was born into an Ibo family on Nov. 15, 1930, at Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. He was educated at a government college in Umuahia, and he graduated from the University College at Ibadan in 1954.
While working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, he composed his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), at a time when Nigerian prose fiction was represented solely by the fantastic folklore romances of Amos Tutuola and the popular stories of urban life of Cyprian Ekwensi. Achebe's novel introduced serious social and psychological analysis into Nigerian literature. It is set in the early days of colonization and tells the tragedy of a warrior hero who rigidly identifies with the values of traditional Ibo society. For this reason, he lacks the required flexibility of mind and heart to adapt to changing conditions under incipient European impact. This novel won immediate international recognition.
With his next novel, No Longer At Ease (1960), Achebe turned to the last phase of the colonial regime, describing with his usual poise and insight the tragic predicament of the young African idealist. His foreign education has converted him to modern standards of moral judgment without alleviating the inner and outer pressures of traditional mores. The catastrophe derives from the hero's inability to make his choice; it is the drama of a bungled destiny in a bewildering time of rapid cultural change.
Arrow of God (1964) reverted to the past once more. As the high priest of the village deity, the central character is a tribal intellectual who sees the weaknesses of the traditional outlook and senses the need for change. His mental alertness and consequent skepticism lay him open to the charge of betraying his own people. In a desperate outburst of arrogance he attempts to restore his prestige and to reassert the power of his god, but he merely succeeds in alienating the villagers, who begin to turn to the Christian missionaries.
So far, Achebe had been concerned with the clash of cultures, which is an all-pervading theme in the African novel. But by the mid-1960s the exhilaration of independence had died out in Nigeria as the country was faced with the terrific political problems common to the many poly-ethnic states of modern Africa. The Ibo, who had played a dominant role in Nigerian politics, now began to feel they were being reduced to the status of second-class citizens by the Moslem Hausa people of Northern Nigeria. Achebe turned his creative insight to an imaginative critique of public mores under independence. The result was A Man of the People (1966), a bitter portrayal of a corrupt Nigerian politician. The book was published at the very moment a military coup swept away the old political leadership and its abuses. That timing made some Northern military officers suspect Achebe played a role in the coup, but there was never any evidence supporting the theory.
During the Biafran succession from Nigeria (1967-70), however, Achebe served Biafra as a diplomat. He traveled to different countries publicizing the plight of his people, focusing especially on the Ibo children being starved to death and massacred. He wrote articles for newspapers and magazines about the Biafran struggle and living in Enugu, the designated capital of Biafra, and founded the Citadel Press with Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo.
Writing a novel at this time was out of the question, he said during a 1969 interview: "I can't write a novel now; I wouldn't want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood." Three volumes of poetry emerged from this mood, as well as a collection of short stories and children's stories.
After the fall of the Republic of Biafra, Achebe continued to work as a senior research fellow at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, a position he had assumed several years before. He also devoted much time to the Heinemann Educational Books' Writers Series, which was designed to promote the careers of young African writers, became director of Nwamife Publishers, Ltd., and founded Okike: A Nigerian Journal of New Writing.
In 1972, he came to the United States to become an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (he taught there again in 1987), and in 1975 he joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut. He returned to the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in 1976 and was appointed a professor emeritus there in 1985.
His novel Anthills of the Savanna was published in 1987 and appeared on the short-list for the Booker Prize. Set in the imaginary West African nation of Kangan, it tells the story of three boyhood friends and the deadly effects of one's obsession with power and being elected "president for life." Its release coincided with Achebe's return to the United States and teaching positions at Dartmouth College, Stanford University and Bard College, among other universities.
Over the years, Achebe has received dozens of honorary doctorates and several international literary awards. He is an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and his work has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 1994, he fled to Europe from the repressive Nigerian regime, which threatened to jail him. However, he later returned to Nigeria to serve as president of the town union of his native village of Ogidi, honored as such because of his dedication to his ancestors' myths and legends.
Information on Achebe is in Gerald Moore, Seven African Writers (1962); Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writings from 'Black Orpheus' (1967); Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munroe, eds., Protest and Conflict in African Literature (1969); Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 51 (1989); Zell, Hans M. et al, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature (1983). □
Born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi (southeastern Nigeria), Albert Chinualumogu (Chinua) Achebe is one of Africa's best-known writers. Isaiah Okafor Achebe, a Church Missionary Society catechist, and his wife, Janet, named their fifth child Albert, after Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. In college, Albert dropped his "Christian name" for his Igbo name, Chinualumogu ("may God fight for me")—Chinua, for short. He became a fighter himself through his writings—fighting to rectify the distortions in colonial narratives of Africa and her peoples in the works of writers such as Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad; and fighting to expose and challenge what is wrong with postcolonial Nigeria—specifically, the failure of leadership.
Chinua Achebe's long, brilliant career includes many years in broadcasting, teaching, publishing, and creative writing. Rejecting the art for art's sake school of thought, Achebe insists that art has social value and function and the artist has a role to play in social change. He sees the writer as a teacher, moral voice, truth-teller, and social critic (Morning Yet on Creation Day, Hopes and Impediments, and The Trouble with Nigeria), and as a storyteller and a guardian of the word and memory (Anthills of the Savannah).
A versatile writer who has published short stories, essays, and poetry, Achebe is best known for his novels, which are written with a simplicity that is both elegant and poetic. Achebe's first and best-known novel, Things Fall Apart (1958)—which takes its title from W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming"—is set in an Igbo village of the late 1800s and captures the violence, disruption, and humiliation of colonialism. It posits the inevitability of change in cultural encounters, and argues for the necessity to negotiate and reconcile with change. His second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), continues to probe the consequences of cultural collision and conflict, particularly the dilemma, ambiguity, and contradictions faced by those at the crossroads of cultures.
Achebe is a wordsmith for whom the use and abuse of language is a central concern. Not surprisingly, he joined the language question debates that exploded in African literary circles four decades ago. Disagreeing with those who insist that African writers write in indigenous languages, Achebe advocated the use of colonial languages, but in such a way that they are able to carry the weight and force of the African landscape, worldview, and imagination.
At seventy-four, Chinua Achebe speaks with the same moral clarity and writes with the same force and consistency as he did over four decades ago, when his first novel contributed to set the stage for what we know today as postcolonial literature. In 2004 Achebe was awarded Nigeria's second-highest honor, but in an open letter to the Nigerian president, Achebe turned down the honor in protest: "I write this letter with a heavy heart…. Nigeria's condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honor awarded me."
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. London: Heinemann, 1960.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann, 1964.
Achebe, Chinua. A Man of the People. London: Heinemann, 1966.
Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War and Other Stories. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann, 1975.
Achebe, Chinua. The Trouble with Nigeria. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1983.
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinemann, 1987.
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965–1987. London: Heinemann, 1988.
Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Achebe, Chinua. Collected Poems. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
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Innes, Catherine Lynette. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Ogbaa, Kalu. Gods, Oracles and Divination: Folkways in Chinua Achebe's Novels. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992.
Petersen, Kirsten Holst and Anna Rutherford, eds. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991.
Sallah, Tijan and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.
Wren, Robert M. Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1980.