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Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

African writing is thriving and enjoys a worldwide readership.  It was not always so. The late Nigerian Ibo novelist, short story writer, editor, political activist and critic Chinua Achebe was for many the years the only African writer other than Wole Soyinka who European audiences could name if asked. Things changed slowly, however. Many of us can remember the orange covers of the Heinemann African writers series and the authors published: Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, among others.

Achebe’s novel of 1957 Things Fall Apart takes its title from a poem by W.B. Yeats to critique western cultural and political domination of colonised Africa. Blending oral and written traditions in his novels, Achebe refuses to allow the fictions of universalism to co-opt African representation:

Does it ever occur to these universalists to try out their game of changing names of characters and places in an American novel, say, a Philip Roth or an Updike, and slotting in African names just to see how it works? But of course it would not occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature.
(From Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1989), p. 75

Achebe may have considered a lecture he gave on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in 1974 just one piece of writing from his professional career. It caused outrage among academics and gave him a certain notoriety (we are judged by the quality of our enemies). As part of his programme of satire by reverse psychology, Achebe dared to anlayse what T.S. Eliot had called ‘the mind of Europe’ sixty years earlier:

[…]  Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray — a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate.

Wilde stated in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’. Rage of Caliban? ‘The main thing’, as Edward W. Said writes, ‘is to be able to see that Caliban has a history capable of development, as part of the process of work, growth, and maturity to which only Europeans had seemed entitled’ (Culture and Imperialism (1994), p. 257. But it took Achebe to turn the mirror back to face Europe.

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