When Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013, leading African philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah noted that “it would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing,” adding that “it would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”
Indeed, Achebe’s influence went beyond Africa to claim space in the England and Russia of which Shakespeare and Pushkin were the greatest cultural ambassadors. Like his own literary creature Okonkwo, Achebe was well known in the nine villages of Umuofia and beyond, and ‘his fame rested on solid personal achievements.’
Achebe’s works spanning 45 years, during which he exerted his ‘intense moral energy’ to capture the spirit of black consciousness, have over time become like the proverbial pot into which those inclined can always dip their hands for gems of literary wisdom.
It is three years now since Achebe died, three years of many literary minds going back to the literary pots in which Achebe prepared food for thought; from novels to short stories, essays to poetry to journalistic pieces, all geared towards illuminating an aspect or other of African consciousness and nourishing our sense of being as Africans.
James Ogude, himself a colossal Kenyan literary critic based in South Africa, organised in 2013 an intensely debated workshop on Achebe’s contributions to Africa’s literary and cultural philosophies.
At the workshop were seasoned scholars drawn from all over Africa, whose passion for Achebe the writer and African literary thought led to the recent publication of a highly acclaimed collection of essays, Chinua Achebe’s Legacy: Illuminations from Africa, with Ogude as editor. Mbulelo Mzamane, a highly regarded literary scholar from South Africa, delivered the keynote address, only to join Achebe a year later.
There was also Bhekisizwe Peterson, a South African professing literature at Wits University, and Nigerian Harry Garuba of University of Cape Town. Veronique Tadjo, the Paris-born Ivorian and Susan Kiguli of Uganda were present, joined by a battalion of Kenyan literati Garnette Oluoch-Olunya, Grace Musila, Chris Ouma and Dina Ligaga. Other contributors cumulatively contributed to this well edited and intensely intellectual book that should attract interest from all who care for African literature.
POSES A NUMBER OF QUESTIONS
While framing the debate in the book, Ogude poses a number of questions whose answers help to give perspective to Achebe’s contribution, while opening up new layers of meaning that may have eluded earlier critics who were largely preoccupied with the realist and new-historicist readings of the works.
“What then is the historical significance of Achebe which separates him from his contemporaries and predecessors?” In posing this question, Ogude reminds us that African literature had many antecedents, including South Africans Sol Plaatje, Tanganyika’s Shaaban Robert, and Achebe’s own countryman, Amos Tutuola. Hence, while Achebe was the most widely read African novelist of his time, he was perhaps not the father of the African novel.
That Achebe would outshine all these was partly due the painstaking philosophization of his themes, his wider vista that took on a continental rather than nation-statist view of issues, and his linguistic genius that he employed to ‘transform ordinary metaphors into myth and complex instruments of cognition.’
His intense focus on colonisation, the extent and depth of its violence and the curses it pronounced on post-colonial African histories were partly also reasons for his towering presence over African literature, even in death. Way back in 1991, Simon Gikandi had decried the sense in which colonialism had seized ‘the initiative in the organisation of African society’, after reading Achebe’s analysis of such dis-organization.
In a significant way, remembering Achebe entails being engulfed by all emotions that Okonkwo’s narrative evokes in us — fear, anxiety, love, and others. It is a recognition that continues the journey of collective apprehension.
In Chinua Achebe’s Legacy, Ogude writes that “the production of the novel (Things Fall Apart), as well as its reading and its circulation within the institutions of education, came to define who we were, where we were, and as Achebe would say, where the rain began to beat us.”
In Kenya, recent debates in the weekend papers have focused on the question of where the rain began to beat us, still pointing to the relevance of Achebe’s intellectual depth and its underpinning pan-Africanism in works like Anthills of the Savannah and A Man of the People, which could well have been set in Kenya — if the greed and grievance that we encounter every day is any indicator.
LIFELONG PREOCCUPATION WITH CRISIS OF POOR LEADERSHIP
Achebe’s lifelong preoccupation with the crisis of poor leadership, captured in The Trouble with Nigeria, similarly resonates in Kenya today, where central and county governments talk big on development while doing little to actualise it.
But Achebe’s legacy, as brought out by different contributors to the book, transcended the nationalist politics to gaze at internal, pre-colonial changes on the African subject within the context of cultural norms.
His characterisation was so complex that one can still see, in intergenerational relationships between Unoka and Okonkwo, for instance, the psycho-social impact of cultures of success and failure.
This is part of Grace Musila’s argument in her chapter that reads ‘Unoka’s, Okonkwo’s and Ezeulu’s Grandsons in Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air.’
That Okonkwo’s failure was caused by his father, Unoka, is a point that is often lost on many readers yet, as Musila argues, if only Unoka had attempted to subscribe to the Igbo cultural codes of manhood or success, Okonkwo would not have been under such immense pressure to fit in the same cultural frames that Unoka had quietly repudiated, even composing songs of merry to boot.
Other concerns highlight the inter-textual conversations that were inspired by Achebe’s thought, as seen in the works of such writers as Okey Ndibe, whose work Dina Ligaga places in the same discursive space of honouring Achebe, as does Unifier Dyer, who brings Chimamanda Adichie and Adaobi Tricia to dialogue with Chinua Achebe’s characters.
Three years since Achebe’s death is long enough for us to shed off our sack cloths and have a harder look at this man whose greatness is not in doubt, but who invites heated debates on why he was great, or just how great he was.
Perhaps Kwame Anthony Appiah was right and accurate to put Achebe on the same plane as Shakespeare and Pushkin, even if doing so points to the dangers of relativist comparisons that post-colonial scholars have warned us against. Yet, as unhelpful as they may sound, such comparisons still serve a particular use in calibrating our literary heritage because they compel us to be honest in appreciating our authors and their works.
So, was Achebe the greatest African writer? So far, yes. Was he the father of the African novel? Definitely no; Amos Tutuola, AC Jordan and Shaaban Robert were there before him.
Why do we celebrate him so energetically, then? Because in Things Fall Apart, he wrote the greatest novel ever and compelled those westerners to admit, albeit grudgingly, that we, too, could write. He appropriated a genre and a language, and did unimaginable things with them.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi