Reflections on Chinua Achebe and his legacy

2013-06-09 06:00

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“Achebe’s sad passing is a deep loss to me personally and to the world of letters at large. Defined by a quiet dignity and the intensity of his intelligence, he had an infectious laughter, which those of us who knew him will continue hearing in our ears forever.” – Nuruddin Farah

Set against the deluge of tweets and online postings that spread word of Chinua Achebe’s death in Boston on Friday, March 22, Farah’s tribute is imbued with the kind of grace under pressure that characterised the Nigerian writer and his work.

Discussions of Achebe’s legacy, not only in terms of the evolution and expansion of Anglophone African literature, but the world of letters at large, must, by their very nature, remain open-ended.

While his global readership, colleagues and comrades mourn his loss, my aim here is to place both his creative and critical influence in some kind of context. This, in turn, allows us to reflect on how and why his achievements have set the stage for succeeding generations of writers, on the African continent and beyond, to tell their own stories in their own inimitable ways.

There can hardly be an author today, postcolonial or otherwise, who has not wrestled with the singular, still resonant voice of Things Fall Apart (1958).

Despite ongoing attempts to frame the novel in relation to everything from Ernest Hemingway’s crystal-clear prose to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Things Fall Apart is a product of the unique sociohistorical, geopolitical and cultural conditions of its author.

By refracting Igbo tradition through an English that embeds itself in the reader’s consciousness from the book’s opening lines, Achebe avoids mockery and mimicry, as well as some of the rather more reductive tendencies associated with literature that fights/writes back.

The result is a narrative which, as in many an epoch-defining text, introduces us to an imagined community, in transition and rife with tensions, as a way of exploring the wider order of things.

Achebe’s prose is thus stamped with what Daniel Barenboim, in an alternative context, would come to call the true hallmark of genius: “The genius attends to detail as though it were the most important thing … this attention to detail enables him to manifest his vision of the big picture.”

If, for some, the satire of novels such as A Man of the People (1966) or Anthills of the Savannah (1987) had more bite, Achebe’s enigmatic debut retained its place as a creative touchstone throughout his life.

While “voice” has become an overly used and abused term within postcolonial studies, it still provides a useful way of thinking not only about Achebe’s own artistic evolution but also the very pragmatic role he played in the lives of countless authors and their readers.

For a decade, from 1962, Achebe was editor of the Heinemann African Writers series, the iconic collection that provided openings for everyone from Ayi Kwei Armah to Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head.

As many commentators have noted in the immediate aftermath of his passing, the fact that contemporary authors such as Chimamanda Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina can command such lucrative contracts from global publishing houses is in no small way owing to Achebe’s pioneering efforts, as well as the struggles and sacrifices of this first post-independence group of writers.

If questions of voice dominate debates about Achebe’s vanguard role, both creatively and commercially, they have also framed much of the critical discourse surrounding postcolonial studies in general and African literature in particular.

The experience of reading the infamous “politics of language” tussle between Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o remains as enlivening now as it ever did.

When it came to defending his belief that the imposition of Prospero’s language had given Caliban a unifying mode of communication, Achebe did so in typically eloquent prose: “If (English) failed to give (the colonised) a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing.”

In his robust counter, Ngugi argued that writing in the master’s tongue not only fortified the essential alienation of colonialism, it also threatened the very survival of African-language literatures. That a new generation of readers has been alerted to these debates in many obituaries of Achebe is a sign of their critical vitality.

In Anthills of the Savannah, the poet/editor character Ikem declares “writers don’t give prescriptions ... they give headaches!” For all the genuine outpouring of emotion that has accompanied Achebe’s death, a return to this statement invites us to drag some of the nagging questions and conundrums posed by his work and life into starker focus. Mention his name in the company of a Conrad scholar, for instance, and you are bound to get a rise.

With this in mind, it is entirely fitting that one of Achebe’s last books, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012) sparked such intense critical debate, within Nigeria and beyond. The controversy it generated accords with the strident, combative and interrogative life that Achebe led, as well as the legacy he has left behind.

The work of grappling with it now falls to new generations of writers, readers, students and scholars. If, as Philip Gourevitch reminds us in his New Yorker postscript, Achebe “has gone to his grave without ever receiving the Nobel Prize he deserved as much as any novelist of his era”, the impact of his interventions as a “provocateur” will be felt for some time to come.

Indeed, given our current context, in which art rubs up against the anodyne, often obfuscatory, rhetoric of officialdom to provide a necessary refraction of life as lived, some of the prickly questions posed by, but never fully resolved in Achebe’s creative and critical work, seem more prescient than ever.

In 2008, I attended a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication of Things Fall Apart. Achebe was there, graciously signing books, shaking hands and speaking to participants. What I remember most vividly about the experience, however, was his comparative unease with some of the more fawning tributes paid to him and his writing.

Sitting in the audience, Achebe seemed most enthralled when contemporary authors, artists, singers and poets performed their own work before talking about the diverse ways in which it had been sparked into life following their encounter with his seminal novel.

In the immediate aftermath of his death, Chimamanda Adichie, who read from Half of a Yellow Sun at the London event, released an Igbo elegy. In it, she asks: “Who are we going to tell the world about / take to other lands?”

On the basis of his life and work, one can only imagine Achebe’s response would have been “tell about yourself”. While readers the world over continue to join Adichie in mourning, the highest tribute we can pay to the man and his legacy is to defend, as he did, the principles of critical thinking and the practices of creative innovation. In so doing, we can ensure that, to borrow from his friend and fellow provocateur Nuruddin Farah, Chinua Achebe’s achievements and influence will echo “in our ears forever.”

» Masterson is a senior lecturer in the department of English at Wits University. His latest book, The Disorder of Things, A Foucaldian Approach to the Work of Nuruddin Farah is published by Wits University Press (280 pages; R270)

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