The Autumn of Chinua Achebe
The occasion of a new book by Chinua Achebe—Africa’s most celebrated writer and author of Things Fall Apart, the great African novel—cannot be ignored. It’s been twenty years since his previously published book and more than that since his last novel. Much has happened to Achebe and Nigeria during those years, much of it not good. But even prior to those twenty years there was the civil war in Nigeria (1967-1970), after the country’s Igbos succeeded and formed their own country called Biafra. It took years for the scars of those events to heal (if they ever did). Achebe and many other Igbos were left in a state of emotional collapse and, if you talk to Igbos today in southeastern Nigeria, they’ll tell you that a similar situation could occur again.
An automobile accident in Nigeria in 2001 left Achebe paralyzed and wheelchair bound. A person of less inner strength would not have survived. Finally, there has been a kind of downward spiral in the country’s ability to emerge as the major moral force that it might have become on the African continent, leading the much-heralded but still unrealized African renaissance. Military coups, terrible leadership, the waste of the billions and billions of dollars from oil revenue, rampant corruption—even the “Nigeria scam”–have left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. You can’t call Nigeria a failed state, but it’s certainly difficult to see the country as much beyond that because of the extraordinary toll of wasted potential in all areas. Achebe speaks about many of these issues in his new collection of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child, an especially ironic title given the writer’s ambivalent feelings about his country of birth vis-à-vis its current status in the world.
How odd, I thought, when I learned of the title of the new book. Achebe first used the term in a lecture delivered at Cambridge University in January of 1993; apparently the text was not published until now. In 1957, he states, after a failed attempt to gain entrance to Cambridge for graduate work, he traveled to the United Kingdom “to study briefly at the BBC Staff School in London. For the first time I needed and obtained a passport, and saw myself defined therein as a ‘British Protected Person.’ Somehow the matter had never come up before! I had to wait three more years more for Nigeria’s independence in 1960 to end that rather arbitrary protection.”
Thus, as a child growing up in a British colony, Achebe was a ‘British-Protected Child”; even if he had been an adult, the British would probably still have considered him a child. But that is not the irony that I mentioned above. Since Nigeria’s independence, Achebe has hardly been able to consider himself a “Nigerian-Protected Person.” He does not state this as directly as I just did, but one can’t help believing that if Nigeria had fulfilled its promise at independence, Achebe would be living not in the United States but in the country of his birth. It’s easy to extend the implication that the country’s sizeable brain-drain (artists, musicians, writers, professionals) would not have occurred with such magnitude were Nigeria able to nurture its intellectuals. Nigeria is only one of a number of African countries that are unable to “protect” its citizens and prevent them from fleeing their homelands–sometimes in search of jobs and a better standard of living but more often today because of wars.
Achebe has not been known for talking about himself, but there are memorable passages in the new collection of essays in which he reveals fascinating autobiographical information. As a child, his concern with education and words earned him the nickname, “dictionary.” In an essay titled “My Dad and Me,” he writes warmly about his father’s religious faith (he was an Anglican catechist) as well as Christianity itself. Inevitably, the new religion and education were fused, as anyone who has read Things Fall Apart already knows. “I am a prime beneficiary of the education which the missionaries had made a major component of their enterprise. My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, and so have I. But I have also learned a little more skepticism about them than my father had any need for. Does it matter, I ask myself, that centuries before these European Christians sailed down to us in ships to deliver the Gospel and save us from darkness, their ancestors, also sailing in ships, had delivered our forefathers to the horrendous transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?”
Related to the issue of slavery and Africa’s “darkness,” Achebe includes several essays in the collection that return to his on-going struggle to understand Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), which, he has said on other occasions, became a kind of springboard that provoked him to begin writing himself. Paraphrasing Conrad, who said that all of Europe had contributed to the making of Kurtz, “[S]o had all of Europe collaborated in creating the Africa that Kurtz would set out to deliver and that he would merely subject to obscene terror.”
In one of the most important essays in the collection, “Africa’s Tarnished Name,” Achebe once again challenges those who argue that Conrad could not be expected to present an enlightened picture of Africa because of the era in which he lived, i.e., no one else did. Achebe totally obliterates that ignorant position by identifying other writers and artists well before Conrad’s racist story was published who had nothing to do with that argument. Unfortunately, it is Conrad’s version that has mostly prevailed, but that can only be additional evidence—is it needed?–that racism has always contributed to the West’s distorted view of Africa.
Make no mistake. Achebe is just as hard on Africans as he is on myopic Westerners, particularly with regard to his own country. “Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredibly wayward.” Bad leadership is at the core of Achebe’s on-going litany about “the trouble with Nigeria.” Those last four words are, in fact, the title of a book the writer published way back in 1984. His agony over his country and his people has not diminished; if anything, it has evolved to a state of “anxious love, not hate. Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all.”
This simple observation could easily be made about many of the world’s populations—especially about Americans, America being Achebe’s adoptive land. And, yet, the man has always been a person of good cheer, not a pessimist. We see his generosity of soul in virtually every essay in this collection, whether it be about his family, his defense of English as the language of his writing (and not Ibgo as some Africanists have questioned), or the importance of African literature. He asks why African writing in European languages came into being and answers that the African’s “story had been told for him, and he found the telling quite unsatisfactory.” More specifically, about himself he adds, “The day I figured this out was when I said no, when I realized that stories are not always innocent; that they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you.”
Chinua Achebe was born near Ogidi, in eastern Nigeria, in 1930. The first thirty years of his life, until 1960, were lived under colonialism, but you could say that Achebe had already broken the colonial yoke on his country by writing and publishing Things Fall Apart two years earlier. In the early years after the novel’s publication, Things Fall Apart was read more widely in Africa than in the West—as it should have been. But in the last decade or two, Achebe’s masterpiece has achieved iconic status in the West where it is often taught as the African novel. The novel merits such status, which is not to overlook Achebe’s five subsequent novels, all uniquely addressing more contemporary issues. Last year, Achebe lived to see the publication of a special fiftieth anniversary edition of his masterpiece. Few writers are so fortunate.
But there is an additional side to Achebe’s importance that few people know about. In the early 1960s for William Heinemann, the original British publisher of Achebe’s work, the still young writer began editing the “African Writers Series,” a daring series of literary works from writers across the continent. Achebe selected and edited the first two hundred titles. Thus, almost single-handedly he shaped the concept of African literature in a way no other writer has ever accomplished, defining the inspiration and development of an entire continent’s literature.
Both in his own unique novels and in his role as editor of African Writers Series, Chinua Achebe has left an indelible mark on our concept of world literature. Without his own writings and the works of dozens and dozens of African writers whom he mid-wifed into publication, world literature would be much less rich and diverse, still locked into the geography of Europe and America.
The Education of a British-Protected Child
By Chinua Achebe
Knopf, 172 pp., $24.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.