Chinua Achebe: The Role of an African Writer
Chinua Achebe, whose full name is Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, is a prominent Nigerian novelist and critic. He is one of African writers most widely read in Africa and abroad. His numerous literary works include novels, short stories, poems, and essays. His works can help shed light on the role that an African writer plays. Does an African writer write primarily for European or American readers? Does he write primarily for an African audience? What role does he play? What messages does he convey in his writings?
A close look at Chinua Achebe's body of work can help answer some of these questions. Wole Soyinka notes in his book Myth , Literature and the African World , 1976 that “Chinua Achebe's works are not strictly works that project a social vision, being primarily concerned with evocations of actuality at points where, to use Cabral's accurate expression, “ Africa was made to leave her history, her true history”.
But perhaps the role of an African writer was well articulated by Chinua Achebe himself in his collection of essays, Home and Exile. He argues that he is there to capture the story of the African community, at home and in the Diaspora. With the respect, dignity and sensitivity that it requires given that Africa , as a continent has suffered and continues to suffer from stereotypes.
According to Chinua Achebe, the writer and his society live in the same place. Hence, the role of a writer is to celebrate what is positive about the community and to highlight the challenges within that community.
One of the many roles that an African writer assumes is that of a teacher. In his essay “ The Novelist as Teacher ” ( Hopes and Impediments : Selected Essays, 1989), Chinua Achebe revealed how he set out to play such a role. He writes that he wanted to help his society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.
Tanure Ojaide best describes it in his essay “Achebe, Chinua” published in Encyclopedia Americana , when he describes Chinua Achebe's response to Joseph Conrad's “ Heart of Darkness ” and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson. Ojaide notes that Chinua Achebe therefore sought to teach Africans that “their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first European acting on God's behalf delivered them.”
Chinua Achebe notes that most of his readers look to him as a kind of teacher. Quoting a letter from one of his readers, Achebe wrote in Hopes and Impediments : “I do not usually write to authors, no matter how interesting their work is, but I feel I must tell you how much I enjoyed your editions of Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease . I look forward to reading your new edition Arrow of God . Your novels serve as advice to us young. I trust that you will continue to produce as many of this type of books.”
To Chinua Achebe, African writers should write for Africans first and foremost as he puts it: “I don't know if African writers always have a foreign audience in mind. What I do know is that they don't have to. At least I know I don't have to.” An African writer is sometimes portrayed as someone who writes for a European or an American audience. That is not usually the case. Chinua Achebe showed in his book, Hopes and Impediments that the sales of Things Fall Apart was about 800 copies in Britain; 20,000 in Nigeria; and about 2,500 in all other places in 1987. No Longer at Ease followed a similar sales pattern around the same period of time.
As a writer, Chinua Achebe writes primarily about Africa (although he also writes about the world at large). He views Africa not only as a geographical expression but also as a metaphysical landscape. According to Achebe, being an African writer, “like being a Jew, carries certain penalties as well as benefits. But perhaps more penalties than benefits.”
There is an ongoing debate about the language of an African literature. Should it be written in local languages or in non-African languages? Achebe tackles this issue in his essay “Thoughts on the African Novel”, ( Hopes and Impediments : Selected Essays, 1989). Achebe wonders what a non-African language is. English and French certainly, he claims. But what about Arabic? What about Swahili even? Is it then a question of how long the language has been present on African soil? He asks. If so, he wonders, how many years should constitute what he terms “effective occupation”? For Achebe, it is a pragmatic matter. Defending the use of foreign and local languages, Achebe argues that “A language spoken by Africans on African soil, a language in which Africans write, justifies itself”.
More than any other African author writing in English, Achebe has helped the world understand the value of African culture without ignoring the difficult problems that African nations face in the post-colonialist era.
A lot of African writers have at some point in time been faced with the language controversy. Amos Tutuola, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Yves Mudimbe, etc. have all lent their voices to that debate. They may not have all agreed on what language best serves the African literature. Yet, they all agreed that African literature must be a tool that evokes the images of the vast African fauna and flora, its great people and its many struggles—past, present, and future.
Another role of an African writer, according to Achebe, is political. It is the duty of an African writer to inform the world that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is also the duty of an African writer to denounce some realities of many African republics: mismanagement, corruption, illiteracy, lack of national consciousness, influence of colonizers, etc.
In his first novel, Things Fall Apart , for example, Achebe effectively counters the persistent and self-serving European stereotypes of African culture, particularly the notion that traditional African cultures are authoritarian, amoral, and unsophisticated. In refutation of this stereotype, Achebe carefully describes the complexity and fluidity of Igbo culture, disclosing its essential pluralism. It is, however, a society that cannot survive unaltered in a modern world ( Carl Brucker, Chinua Achebe, 1930- In Survey of World Literature , 1992).
In Hopes and Impediments , Chinua Achebe attacks patronizing Western views of African culture. He focused on the role of the writer; he considers literature, writing as a social force. According to the author, literature is a body of verbal works, written or oral, related by subject-matter, language or place of origin, or by dominant cultural standards. And also a medium that can impact on social issues and as such can help Africa overcome the negativity learned in its encounter with the West.
“ Man of the people ” also tackles a number of social and political issues in the African community after the African countries obtain independence. The novel discusses the crisis of the African community and the disappointment of the African peoples in the post-independence phase. The rule in the novel is corrupt and dictator.
Chinua Achebe's literary works tackle the aspirations of the African peoples for freedom during occupation, the necessity of confronting corruption, social injustice, underdevelopment and civil wars.
An African writer is often torn between traditional values and modern values. Wole Soyinka argues that in literature, “the writer aids the process of desuetude by acting as the termite or by ignoring the old deity and creating new ones.” He observes that Sembene Ousmane, Yambo Oulouguem, Ayi Kwei Armah are among the leading practitioners of this method (Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World , 1976). Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a perfect illustration of this.
Achebe concludes that the writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he explains, he should march right in front. For he is, after all—as Ezekiel Mphahlele says in his African Image—the sensitive point of his community. The Ghanaian professor of philosophy, William Abraham, puts it this way:
Just as African scientists undertake to solve some of the scientific problems of Africa, African historians go into the history of Africa, African political scientists concern themselves with the politics of Africa; why should African literary creators be exempted from the services that they themselves recognize as genuine?
Achebe notes that he would be quite satisfied if his novels (especially the ones he set in the past) did no more than teach his readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them. He does not see that art and education need to be mutually exclusive.
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah . Great Britain : Doubleday, 1987.
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays . Great Britain : Doubleday, 1989.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart . Great Britain : 1958
Brucker, Carl. Chinua Achebe, 1930- In Survey of World Literature. 1992.
< http://lfa.atu.edu/brucker/Achebe.html >
Ojaide, Tanure. “Achebe, Chinua.” Encyclopedia Americana . Grolier Online. 2008
< http://ea.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=0002500-00 >
Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Great Britain : Cambridge University Press, 1976.