The recent end of the lecturers’ strike coincided with my completion of an annual rereading of Things Fall Apart, which is now part of my dearly cherished Every Man’s Library edition of The African Trilogy.
After savouring the poetry, the idioms, characterisation and the sheer joy of my return to the beauty of a village life, if only symbolic, I wondered: what would the African novel look like, in form, content and function, without the influence of Things Fall Apart?
While it is in the common domain that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart pioneered the African post-colonial response to Europe’s disabling portrayal of the African as a benighted being, empty of faith, philosophy or reason, but with abundant instincts and superstition, it was this novel that not only negated those claims for Africans, but also set the stage for a closer scrutiny of Europe’s generic portrayal of Africans.
In an article published in The Guardian, an enraged Soyinka charged: “Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe etc etc literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It’s as ridiculous as calling WS (Wole Soyinka) father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate.”
As the inaugural literary project with a post-colonial bent, Things Fall Apart and, later, Arrow of God, imposed themselves on the continental and global literary maps, demanding critical responses from the West, while inviting an enthusiastic and critical pan-Africanist embrace from a thin intellectual and political elite of the 1950s onwards.
It was, perhaps, on the basis of this that Achebe accepted to work closely with Alan Hill at the Heinemann Educational Books (HEB), as an Editorial Advisor to the African Writers Series (AWS) that went on to publish in quick succession slightly over 30 titles.
Via the established networks of the HEB, through its subsidiary the AWS, a vibrant African literature was published and circulated to international audiences, pushing forth the vistas of literary imagination for writers who had recently emerged from colonial strictures.
By rejecting the colonialist projections of the African, writers like Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Beti, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ngugi and Achebe himself sought to set the record straight, by dismantling the racist logic that existed in the so-called great tradition of the European canon, notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Achebe’s dismissal of Conrad as a “bloody racist” met with stiff and sustained resistance from the western critics who accused Achebe of misreading Conrad. Only recently, Chimalum Nwankwo writes, has the American and British academies begun to concede that Achebe was right in his judgement of Conrad.
Achebe’s rejection of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, together with his consistent equation of the white skin with leprosy in Things Fall Apart, or even his attack on Albert Schweitzer, the supposed embodiment of European philanthropy and compassion to Africa, did not endear Achebe to Europe and its literary overseers that much.
It didn’t help that, even in his essays, Achebe was relentless in his admonition of the white normative order, championing a counter-cultural agenda that, in his widely quoted words, meant to “help my society regain belief in itself” through a broad based education that would make Africans appreciate themselves and their past.
Perhaps because of all these, many Africans consider Achebe to be the father of African literature, much to the annoyance of his compatriot and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.
Speaking soon after Achebe’s death four years ago, Soyinka labelled all those honouring Achebe this way with ignorance. In an article published in The Guardian, an enraged Soyinka charged: “Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe etc etc literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It’s as ridiculous as calling WS (Wole Soyinka) father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate.”
Of course, calling Achebe the father of African literature is not as ridiculous as Soyinka claims, if at all. It may well be true there exists a hell of a novel or drama or poetry written by the names that Soyinka advances.
But, as Chimalum Nwankwo rightly observes in a rejoinder to Soyinka, such a work is yet, and may never, achieve the international reach that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alone, not to mention any other works, has done over the years.
If, as statisticians insist, numbers do not lie, then those associated with Achebe’s works are simply mind boggling. Things Fall Apart has reportedly sold over 12 million copies, and has been translated into over 65 different languages spread the world over.
And even though the collection of Achebe’s writing varies in quality and popularity, none of them, in my view, is out rightly mediocre. The novels, short stories, and poems that Achebe wrote, each reflected a depth in philosophy and creativity, and presented in a uniquely accessible language whose use reliance on Igbo idioms and personal anecdotes, make for memorable readings.
It is simply not true, therefore, as Soyinka claims, that anyone and everyone who thinks of Achebe as the father of African literature is ignorant.
What may be the case is the sad reality that Achebe seems to a cast a huge shadow of recognition over Soyinka, whose credentials as the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, have not been adequate to eclipse Achebe’s own standing, for good reasons, as the darling of many literary critics in Africa.
Where I agree with Soyinka is that it is unhelpful for these critics to continue whining about why Achebe was never awarded the Nobel because, since Soyinka’s own example — with his fellow laureates in Africa Gordimer, Coetzee, and Mahfouz — shows, it is one thing to win the Nobel and visit the world with lectures and all, but quite another sinking into the hearts of your immediate readers.
That is why, even in Nigeria itself, critics like Chimalum Nwankwo and others take umbrage at Soyinka’s remarks on Achebe’s Nobel that never was. So, that Achebe died without the Nobel is irrelevant, his place in world and African literature remains firmly secured.
He earned the respect and admiration of the finest writers and thinkers from all over the world, whose direct quotes should speak for me.
For Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ghanaian philosopher and writer based in the United States, “for so many people around the world, it is Chinua Achebe who opened the magic casements of African fiction.”
Toni Morrison, herself the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, affirmed that “African literature is incomplete and unthinkable without the works of Chinua Achebe. For passion, intellect and crystalline prose, he is unsurpassed.”
And Michael Ondaatje, the Sri-Lankan Canadian novelist and poet, thinks of Achebe as “one of the few writers of our time who has touched us with a code of values that will never be ironic.”
To understand distorted histories in the world, Chimamanda Adichie says she turned to Achebe’s novels: “In the stark, sheer poetry of Things Fall Apart, in the humour and complexity of Arrow of God, I found a gentle reprimand: Don’t you dare believe other people’s stories of you.”
Thus, we all remember Albert Chinualumogu Achebe.
The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi