March 25, 2013
Hail & Farewell: Chinua Achebe
by Kelly Burdick
In 2000, via campus mail, I received an invitation to attend a party to celebrate Chinua Achebe’s 70th birthday. I was a student in his “Modern African Fiction” class at Bard College, and the college was sponsoring a conference to honor Achebe’s 70 years. Achebe wanted his students—there were 15 of us, I think—to attend a reception being held on campus for the conference’s invited guests.
How strange it seemed then, and stranger even now, to be standing near Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka, who had come to honor their friend, the revered Nigerian writer.
Achebe died Thursday in Boston, at age 82. He was a towering figure of world letters, most famous for his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958 and went on to sell some 10 million copies and be translated into 50 languages. It miraculously remains the most taught and talked about novel from Africa.
The book proved that there was a market for serious fiction by African writers and paved the way for a new generation of writers from Africa, including the giants that traveled to sleepy Annandale, New York, where Bard is located, to celebrate Achebe’s achievements.
Achebe’s work spanned all genres: he wrote novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He set down Nigerian fables and stories for children on paper. And he produced several volumes of critical essays—most famously an attack on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He denounced Conrad as a “bloody racist” in a famed 1975 lecture and later in an essay that has been widely anthologized.
Indeed, remembrances of Achebe have focused on his criticism, which included not only his controversial attack on Conrad but a playful assault on Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, which Achebe read as a student at University College, Ibadan, where he enrolled in 1948. Fifty years later, in a series of lectures and later a book titled Home and Exile, Achebe recalled his first reading of Cary’s novel, which showed how laughable imperial depictions of Africa could be. Because Cary’s novel was set in Nigeria, his British teachers thought their Nigerian students would read it with interest. Instead, Achebe’s colleagues revolted at the depiction of their home—the Nigerian character Johnson was a “nitwit,” in Achebe’s words, and his fellow students cheered only when a white colonial office shot Johnson.
Achebe’s own taste in the 1950s tended to be squarely British: he preferred the poetry of Eliot and Yeats, from whom he borrowed the title of Thing Fall Apart (from Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” as he felt the poet knew his characters “intuitively”). But it was in fact Cary’s novel that inspired Achebe to write his own Nigerian novel. If you didn’t like what you read about your own country, you had to tell your own story. Achebe chose to do this in English to boot, the language, he wrote, “able to carry the weight of my African experience.”
None of the remembrances of Achebe that I’ve read highlight the depth of his involvement in promoting African literature. But he was not only a successful writer of novels, he was also a prolific and successful publisher of books from Africa.
He served as a founding editorial advisor for the Heinemann African Writers Series, founded in 1962 and itself inspired by the success of Achebe’s pivotal novel. The series eventually published 273 books from Africa, including a paperback edition of Achebe’s Thing Fall Apart, as well as his novels No Longer At Ease, Arrow of the God, and A Man of the People. Achebe left his editorship of the series in 1973, about the time he moved to the United States to take a position teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
His efforts to publish other African writers surely took away from his own career as a novelist — perhaps contributing to a 20-year period of writer’s block that thawed only with the 1987 publication of Anthills of the Savannah. But my sense is that Achebe saw his work as a publisher and advocate of African writing as central to his life’s work.
It would have been impossible not to see how significant a breakthrough for African writers Things Fall Apart had been, and Achebe delighted in the explosion of African writing that followed. I recall his love for publishing history, particularly stories about African writers breaking into the mainstream. In class, he recalled with glee that his countryman Amos Tutola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard was published by Faber and Faber during the period that T.S. Eliot ran Faber’s editorial board.
And indeed the AWS series was an amazing hat trick: it put his own novel in conversation with books of widely varied theme and origin and practically invented “African literature” as an idea. And the development of the African Writers Series seems to have followed Achebe’s own thinking about African fiction as a connected cannon of work: the series slowly expanded from publishing writers from West African, to French-speaking Africa, and eventually represented the entire continent.
Assigned to write a paper in Achebe’s class on four or five novels we had read, many drawn from the AWS series, I asked Achebe what he had in mind. Should the paper attempt to say something about Modern Africa as the novels represented it? Or should we compare the books to other works of fiction produced around the world during the same period?
It was a difficult assignment, Achebe said. The point was to try and say something — Africa was such a huge idea, such a diverse continent, that there would probably be more differences than similarities. But he was interested in what we might come up with: What held these novels from a continent with 1 billion people and 50 countries together?
But the themes of the books Achebe taught — the legacy of colonial rule, the clash between tribal societies and the West, and the deep disappointment in post-colonial African leadership — turn out to have been Achebe’s own themes and surely some of the most important topics of our time. In fictional form, they also brought Africa to the world in all its complexity, history, and life.
Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.