Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinua Achebe, 82, Wrote Anti-Colonial Novels That Remain Relevant Today

Chinua Achebe's anti-colonial novels are still relevant today

He traced the dehumanising effects of western cultural arrogance that are still at work today in Iraq and Afghanistan

Nesrine Malik, Sunday 24 March 2013 11.00 EDT

Chinua Achebe's mission statement, by his own admission, was to "set the record straight". His seminal work, Things Fall Apart, was the first in an African trilogy that set about establishing the validity of life in tribal Nigeria in the late 19th century, before the "civilising" colonialism of Christian missionaries arrived.

Achebe paints a picture of village life that is vivid, poignant, but also brutal. With no judgment or steer as a narrator, he succeeds in presenting a community that is robust, with strong mores and religious values, and morally upright characters trying to do their best. He succeeds so well that despite also being shown this life's cruelty, the reader is left reeling with sympathy when the Christian missionaries come to the village and impose their British colonial system, which stamps the old life out as one would kick over an anthill.

As an African Arab growing up in post-colonial east Africa, I had not read before an indigenous interpretation of regional history that wasn't either a non-critical celebration of pre-colonial past, or a wretched condemnation of it as one that must be deficient if it succumbed so easily to invasion. Achebe was the first African writer who painted a non-romantic picture of this tribal life without apologising for the bad, or praising the good. Yes, tribal society Africa was strong and functional, but Christian missionaries would not have made any inroads were there not dissatisfaction with its brutal justice, ethnic discrimination and religious rigidity.

Achebe's writing isn't anything as banal as cultural relativism – something he has been accused of – but a powerful refutation of the fact that before the white man, Africa was a "blank sheet of civilisation". Once things did fall apart, with the west fully taking the reigns of governance either directly or by proxy, what replaced the old way? An uncomfortable mix of modern and traditional that still ended in tragedy.

Perhaps the most relevant of Achebe's works to my generation is No Longer at Ease, the second book of his trilogy, which powerfully exposed the difficulty of navigating a world where one is expected to partake of western secular education and all the values and privileges that comes with it, and still be hostage to the commanding beliefs of one's own culture. It is a heart-wrenching account of the grandchild of the main character in Things Fall Apart, who joins the Nigerian colonial civil service after receiving a British education but struggles to escape the conflicting mores of his family – a tragic modern protagonist with a foot in both camps.

In the third novel, Arrow of God, Achebe elaborates on political disruption and shows how closely the land, agriculture and subsistence of villagers were tied to religion. When the new colonial administrator tries to co-opt the chief priest, the latter rejects the offer and is thrown in prison. In rebellion and religious hubris, he refuses to call for a harvest and the yams rot in the fields. There ensues a famine that results in many converting to Christianity in rejection of a system that the white Christian missionaries convinced them had allowed them to starve. It is a simple narrative of the practical difficulties in governing societies under two conflicting political systems rooted in incompatible values. There are still echoes of this in the present, where western-style democracy is offered as an absolute panacea for all the Orient's ills.

This African trilogy is still relevant today; western intervention is routinely justified under the guise of moral concern, and political turmoil is often sparked by an imposition of western-style governance. In our increasingly global world, civilisational superiority can also be cloaked in ostensibly benign concepts: the promotion of democracy, self-determination, the liberation of women.

Achebe's memoir begins with the Igbo proverb: "A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body." His work tried to isolate when the defeat of colonised societies began. It is an important question, if we are to carve a path independent of post-colonialist ushering into "civilisation".

Achebe was a visionary who traced the modern tragedy of the dehumanising effects of cultural arrogance and absolutism, and how they are manifested as the moral arms of cynical campaigns still at work today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the missionaries are still coming to the village.

Chinua Achebe Dies: Beyond ‘Things Fall Apart,’ And His Best Books

Mar 22, 2013 4:30 PM EDT

The titan of African literature has died at the age of 82. We know him as the writer of Things Fall Apart, but here’s a primer on his other great novels and nonfiction—and his life.

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer and statesman who changed African literature forever, has died at the age of 82. You know him as the writer of Things Fall Apart, his debut novel of 1958, about the decline and fall of the proud Okonkwo, leader of a collection of villages among the Ibo people of Nigeria who are besieged by changes wrought by British colonization. As Ruth Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, Achebe practically invented the Great African Novel. There were famous Nigerian writers before Achebe, like Amos Tutuola, who based his novels on folk tales, and Cyprian Ekwensi, who wrote memorable children’s stories. But, as Howard French wrote on the 50th anniversary of the publication, “among the greatest qualities of Things Fall Apart is the vigor of its revolt against the everyday amalgamations and condescension that treat Africa as an undifferentiated wasteland.” Things Fall Apart stood up and stood strong, as Achebe did throughout his career.

Things Fall Apart lives on in Achebe’s second novel, 1960’s No Longer at Ease, which follows the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi. Whereas Okonkwo’s downward spiral was Sophoclean, Obi’s path was supposed to be up, up, and up. He leaves his village, receives a British education, and takes a job as a civil servant in Lagos. But, in the end, he is “no longer at ease,” and things fall apart just as tragically.

Achebe was not only a chronicler—he’s even been considered an oracle. A Man of the People, his 1966 fourth novel, is about the conflicts of a young and educated school teacher, Odili, and his former teacher, Chief Nanga, now a corrupt minister of culture. The story ends with a coup, which anticipated a bloody one on January 15, 1966, the day the book was published. After a counter-coup and genocide, the Ibo people, of which Achebe is a member, seceded from Nigeria and formed the Republic of Biafra, leading to the civil conflict known as the Biafran War—which led to even more genocide. An estimated one million to three million people, mostly Ibo, were killed or starved when the Nigerian government blockaded the Biafran border.

The Essential Nonfictions

The Biafran War waged from 1967 to 1970, and is the subject of Achebe’s final book, the memoir There Was a Country. The accuracy of A Man of the People’s events was such that the Nigerian government that took over after the counter-coup thought that Achebe must have been a conspirator, and he was forced to flee to Britain. He fully supported the Biafran secession, and took a break from fiction, thinking that politics was more important. (He would not write another novel until his final one, 1987’s Anthills of the Savannah.) When the civil war ended in 1970 with the Nigerian government crushing the Biafra republic, Achebe increasingly took refuge in Britain and the United States. He moved to the U.S. for good when he was forced to undergo overseas medical treatment after a car accident in Nigeria that left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1990.

At the center of Achebe’s legacy is his clear analysis of Africa, which the world sees as a homogenous continent of malfunction and despair. Achebe attacks the use of Africa as an empty metaphor, which he voiced in a now-legendary Chancellor’s Lecture he gave at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, on Joseph Conrad’s racism. The classic essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” is included in Hopes and Impediments, a collection that commemorates one of the most brilliant minds of our time.

Nigeria in mourning for Chinua Achebe

From the bookseller on the street to the literary glitterati – grief at the death of a man who so encapsulated the African experience
Monica Mark in Lagos, Friday 22 March 2013 16.40 EDT

From Nobel laureates to roadside booksellers, Nigerians expressed their grief and shock at the death at 82 of Chinua Achebe, the literary giant whose works made him a household name and national hero. Many who had worked alongside him wept as they paid tribute, and bookstores in downtown Lagos said his books sold out as news of his death trickled in.

Despite his age and distance from his homeland– he died in Boston, where he had lived for years – Achebe's frequent and often barbed pronouncements against an oil-fed Nigerian elite kept him very much in the national psyche. He further endeared himself to a younger generation of Nigerians weary of corruption, when he twice turned down a national honour in 2004 and 2011.

African literature burst onto the world stage with Achebe's 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which portrays an Igbo yam farmer's fatal struggle to come to terms with British colonialism in the late 19th century. It remains the best-selling novel ever written by an African author, having sold more than 10-million copies in 50 different languages. Nelson Mandela, who read his books during his 27-year incarceration, once said of him: "He was the writer in whose company the prison walls came down."

Wole Soyinka, a fellow giant of African literature, who was informed by the Achebe family in a dawn phone call, said, "We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter."

Writing for the Guardian's Comment is free section, Soyinka said: "No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression."

Speaking from the town of Ogidi where Achebe was born in 1930, village head, Amechi Ekume, said: "There is deep mourning all over the village, both young and old are mourning."

"As we say in Igboland, when an extraordinary person dies, the iroko [African teak] has fallen," said a weeping Dora Akunyili, a former minister who worked with Achebe during his tenure at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Achebe's earlier works focused on the social upheavals wrought by British colonialism. "He was the first of our African writers to tell the story from our own perspective. But even beyond Africa, people who were colonised or oppressed could relate to his stories," said Denja Abdullahi, the vice president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, which was founded by Achebe and other writers in 1981.

Wheelchair-bound since a car accident in 1990, the octogenarian had made time to speak with hundreds of fans during a gruelling national tour to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Things Fall Apart. Abdullahi said, "He was always so welcoming to everybody we met, anytime. He was very humane, very reflective. Even when he wasn't speaking, he just had so much presence."

Speaking of Achebe's impact, Abdullahi said: "He's the father of African literature and children always try to imitate the good qualities of their fathers."

The celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, last year said she wept when she received a note from Achebe praising her best-selling novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. She was too awed to pluck up the nerve to call him back. Meeting him for the second time, she was again too shy to approach as writers including Toni Morrison and Ha Jin crowded around him backstage during an awards luncheon. "Before I went on stage, he told me, 'Jisie ike [more grease to your elbow]'. I wondered if he fully grasped, if indeed it was possible to, how much his work meant to so many."

Novelists from a younger generation described the freedom to write in their own voices, which Achebe's own writing opened up, and the daunting task of trying to live up to his works.

"In the last five decades, just about every post-colonial African author, one way or another, has been engaged in a creative call-and-response with Chinua Achebe," said author Lola Shoneyin. "You are never weaned off his fiction because it renews itself. It gives you something new every time. He was just that kind of storyteller."

Another novelist, Chika Unigwe, recalled reading Things Fall Apart as a young child: "I like to imagine it was on a Sunday afternoon, right after lunch, lying on my bed. I [clearly] recall … the wonder of reading the world he creates in the book so beautifully. Its power did not hit me until years later when I re-read it as a much older reader. I am immensely grateful to him."

His children's books on African folklore remain popular with Nigerian parents. "I just literally handed The Flute and also The Drum to my daughter two weeks ago. She was glued to them, reading and re-reading them. I was too," said Ifeamaka Umeike of her 7-year-old. "I feel like my granddad died."

Released last year, Achebe's final book, There Was A Country, was a deeply personal account of his experience during the 1967-1970 Biafran civil war.

"Even a lot of [white] people buy it," said Success, hawking books amid the choking Lagos traffic yesterday. "We don't have anymore to sell but people are still asking. That means he is a man of the people."

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