RIP Chinua Achebe

Yes, you should read Things Fall Apart, the 1958 novel by Chinua Achebe that made many sit up and acknowledge that there is such a thing as modern literature being created in Africa.

The novel wasn’t on any of my syllabi — which is what happens when you grow up in educational institutions that are postcolonial only chronologically, not temperamentally — and I remember rolling my eyes as a teenager when someone told me I must read Things Fall Apart. Fortunately, instead of giving me a lecture on how amazingly well-written the novel is, this someone gave me a thin sheaf of photocopied pages. The first had this title: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness“. Some have argued that Achebe is over-sensitive and paranoid about Conrad’s racism. You’ll have to read Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s lecture and come to your own conclusion. For me, what made reading Achebe’s lecture unforgettable was a vague shame. Because his words made me aware of how much I’d bought into the dead white men’s definition of literature and culture. But more powerful than my own feelings was the pride that roared in Achebe’s words and argument. Not arrogance, not vanity, but pride. Pride that was rooted in knowledge and conviction. It was like an academic haka.

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Here are the three passages that I remember reading and re-reading when I first encountered “An Image of Africa”.

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

Travelers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves. But even those not blinkered, like Conrad with xenophobia, can be astonishing blind. Let me digress a little here. One of the greatest and most intrepid travelers of all time, Marco Polo, journeyed to the Far East from the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century and spent twenty years in the court of Kublai Khan in China. On his return to Venice he set down in his book entitled Description of the World his impressions of the peoples and places and customs he had seen. But there were at least two extraordinary omissions in his account. He said nothing about the art of printing, unknown as yet in Europe but in full flower in China. He either did not notice it at all or if he did, failed to see what use Europe could possibly have for it. Whatever the reason, Europe had to wait another hundred years for Gutenberg. But even more spectacular was Marco Polo’s omission of any reference to the Great Wall of China nearly 4,000 miles long and already more than 1,000 years old at the time of his visit. Again, he may not have seen it; but the Great Wall of China is the only structure built by man which is visible from the moon! Indeed travelers can be blind.

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. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else!

You can read the lecture here.

I actually didn’t end up reading Things Fall Apart until years later and I’ve read nothing else by Achebe, which means I should probably be adding a few books to my already massive to-read list. But this lecture/essay of Achebe’s, this stayed with me and over the years, the only thing it has gained is gravitas. Like I said earlier, you don’t have to agree with him and there are cogent arguments that have been offered as counterpoints to his. However, to quote Achebe, “all that I’m really demanding, I’m not simply putting it, I’m demanding that my reading stand beside these other readings.”

RIP, Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930-March 21, 2013).

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