Thursday, March 28, 2013

Chinua Achebe: choosing to side with the powerless

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe died last week at the age of 82. He mattered:
Mr. Achebe was a source of pride to many Nigerians, an elder we could point to when the world laughed at our shortcomings. We often invoked his name like that of a fierce god.

… With fiction and nonfiction, he helped us deride colonialism. … He also addressed corruption head on, teaching younger Nigerians not to be hungry to the point of selling our birthrights. His soul and conscience were nonnegotiable. He turned down Nigeria’s national honors twice because he was one who believed an elder should not eat his meal atop a heap of malodorous rubbish.

Mr. Achebe was a gentle rebel who refused to shake the necrotic outstretched hands of corrupt leaders. He was an old breed, a wise man from a different generation who could not stand the wanton looting of Nigeria’s public coffers.

Mr. Achebe would have loved to spend his twilight years among his own people instead of in America. With the bastardization of a nation he was once proud of by kleptocratic military and civilian rulers, the old man had no country to return to alive.
By coincidence, I have just finished reading Achebe's memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. The book is a chronicle of his hopes for Nigeria independence in 1960; how hope turned sour amid corruption, continued Western interference, and ethnic competition; and the terrible story of how his native Biafra (region) attempted and failed to secede from the federal state. A massacre of some 30,000 Eastern region Nigerians -- members of his Igbo people -- prompted the secession in 1967; federal Nigerian forces killed some three million Biafrans by direct military invasion and a blockade of food stuffs in the war that followed. The war (and Biafra's independence) ended in 1970 but Achebe still was moved to add his final witness to that terrible experience in this 2012 book.

Achebe published his first novel about one African experience of British colonialism, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 and was immediately recognized as an accomplished literary interpreter of his country to English speaking readers. I remember reading Things Fall Apart in high school in the early 1960s while studying decolonization. In this new book, he recalls meeting some South Korean students who had also read it in high school -- and who recognized the sort of interaction it portrays between colonizer and indigenous people because they too had been colonized -- not by Britain, but by Japan.

Achebe's memoir is well worth reading for its history of the Biafra war and insight into the failure of the Nigerian state to deliver on the promise of democracy and independence. But, in light of the author's passing, it seems more important to dwell on some of his observations on his vocation as a writer; this was a man who viewed his own talents within the frame of his responsibilities to his community.
… Writing has always been a serious business for me. I felt it was a moral obligation. A major concern of the time was the absence of the African voice. Being part of that dialogue meant not only sitting at the table but effectively telling the African story from an African perspective -- in full earshot of the world.

… Some of us decided to tackle the big subjects of the day -- imperialism, slavery, independence, gender, racism, etc. And some did not. One could write about roses or the air or about love for all I cared; that was fine too. As for me, however, I chose the former. Engaging such heavy subjects while at the same time trying to help create a unique and authentic African literary tradition would mean that some of us would decide to use the colonizer's tools: his language, altered. sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition. I borrowed proverbs from our culture and history, colloquialisms and African expressive language from the ancient griots, the world views, perspectives, and customs from my Igbo tradition and cosmology, and the sensibilities of everyday people. … My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, "Now we've heard it all."

… I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest. In my definition I am a protest writer, with restraint. Even those early novels that look like very gentle re-creations to the past -- what they were saying, in effect, was that we had a past. That was the protest, because there were people who thought we didn't have a past. What I was doing was to say politely that we did -- here it is.

… The question of involvement in politics is really a matter of definition. I think it is quite often misunderstood. I have never proposed that every artist become an activist in the way we have always understood political activity. Some will, because that's the way they are. Others will not, and we must not ask anyone to do more than is necessary for them to perform their task. At the same time it is important to state that words have the power to hurt, even to denigrate and oppress others. Before I am accused of prescribing a way in which a writer should write, let me say that I do think that decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly there is no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. …
The United States seems bent on meddling further in the affairs of Africans, extending our military presence (AFRICOM), competing with China for the continent's resources. Somehow, I cannot trust we'll have much care for the powerless. That, if it comes at all, will have to start with Africans.

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