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Interview by Chinua Achebe with Eleanor Wachtel
SOURCE: "Eleanor Wachtel with Chinua Achebe," in The Malahat Review, No. 113, December, 1995, pp. 53-66.
Wachtel is a writer and radio personality who hosts CBC Radio's Sunday literary program "Writers & Company." In the following interview, originally broadcast in January, 1994, Achebe discusses his personal and literary background, the evolution of his literary career, and his role in and hopes for the Nigerian political economy.
The first book I ever read by a black African was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it some twenty-five years ago, just as the Nigerian civil war was winding down. It was often referred to as the Biafran war, because Biafra was the name of the breakaway Ibo nation. And it was the first time in my memory that Africa became associated with that horrific image of starving children with distended bellies. Casualties were very high—most of them Ibo civilians who starved to death after federal forces blockaded the rebel-controlled area.
Things Fall Apart provided a rare and original picture of Ibo society in the late nineteenth century. By focusing on a single village and its leader, the novel illustrated Nigeria's early experience of colonialism and British rule. The book sold millions of copies worldwide, was translated into thirty languages, and adapted for stage, radio, and television. It was the first novel by an African to be taught to African secondary students throughout the English-speaking parts of the continent. By the late sixties, when I caught up with it, Things Fall Apart had come to be recognized as the first "classic" in English from tropical Africa, and Achebe became known as the "father of the African novel in English."
Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with three other novels in fairly quick succession: No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and in 1966, A Man of the People. But when the Biafran war ended in 1970, Achebe wrote poetry, short stories, and essays, but not novels. In the early 1980s, he became directly involved in Nigerian politics—first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party, and then as president of the town union of his hometown, Ogidi.
Finally in 1987, twenty-one years after his previous novel, Chinua Achebe wrote a dark political work of fiction called Anthills of the Savannah. It was short-listed for Britain's Booker Prize.
Nigeria is Africa's most populous country—with ninety million people. It won its independence from Britain in 1960, but this oil-rich country has been run by the military for all but nine of those thirty-five years. Most recently, in June 1993, the presidential elections were declared invalid and the generals maintained control.
Five years ago, Chinua Achebe was injured in a car accident on a highway in Nigeria. The circumstances were unsettling and a military vehicle was said to be involved. Achebe spent six months in England undergoing operations and therapy, and then moved to the United States. He was very close to death. In fact, the American doctors who examined his X-rays didn't think he'd survive.
But Achebe continues to write and teach. His most recent book of essays is called Hopes and Impediments. In his novel, Anthills of the Savannah, the traditional storyteller says. "It is only the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters…. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind."
I talked to Chinua Achebe from his home in Anandale, New York, in January 1994.
[Wachtel:] You have said that your father revered books and hoarded paper, and that when he died the family made a bonfire of his life's accumulation of paper. It's a powerful image, but did it feel strange to see all those things that he'd saved go up in smoke?
[Achebe:] In retrospect, yes it did, but it wasn't archival material, it was old church magazines and so on. We just needed space. You know, even though I'm a writer, I don't like paper. When my table is full of paper I always like to get rid of it. So it's a matter of temperament. You are right, though, looking back; one should save what can be saved. But I do think that there's too much paper in the world.
So your father's legacy to you was a love of literature and a revulsion for paper.
Yes, that's right. It's a great paradox.
You were born in a village in eastern Nigeria to Christian missionary parents, and you've talked about "living at the crossroads of culture." Can you give me a sense of the early days in your life with those two influences, the Christian and the traditional Ibo?
It's not easy to put into words. It's like being in two worlds, or being at the confluence of two rivers, but it's never quite the confluence. The image of crossroads is a good one, because crossroads are a place where there's a lot of traffic, not just human traffic but also spirit traffic. So it's a very powerful location. That's the idea I was trying to convey. Christianity was new, strange in many ways, but it was powerful, and so was the traditional life of the people. When I was growing up, we had already passed the initial encounter, which involved fighting at times—literally, actual battles. Things had become more settled, and the advantage was that you saw a bit of the past and a bit of the future. That was where you stood. Of course, being of the Christian party, the missionary party, I was not really supposed to pay much attention to the traditional; what they did was thought to be heathenish, and I was not supposed to be interested in it, but I was.
You've written about how on one arm of the cross in this crossroads you sang hymns and read the Bible, and on the other there was your uncle's family, as you ironically put it, "blinded by heathenism, offering food to idols." As a child, which one were you drawn to more?
The one which I was not supposed to see. The fact that it was forbidden was part of the attraction. I wasn't evaluating the two. If anyone had asked me, I would have said that the Christian faith was the right one. But I was curious about what was going on in the other place.
Which impulse do you feel most strongly now?
The traditional, because it is the underdog; and of course I've learned more and more about it. I was not exposed to it, nor was anyone in my generation; it was not taught in the schools, and so it was always something half-understood. Now that I have had time and years to look at it, I have discovered profound truths and profound significances that are very valuable, and so I'm in a position to look at Christianity from the position of traditional religion.
Would you describe yourself as speaking three languages—Ibo, English, and Nigerian pidgin?
I've never really described myself that way but you are right. Nigerian pidgin is something which we all pick up; I didn't grow up with it, it's more a language, or dialect, of the cities, but as one grew up one encountered it and picked it up.
You use it quite a lot in your novels. How your characters speak seems to depend on a number of things: their class or level of education, the context, and how intimate they're feeling. Is this something you consciously do?
Yes and no. A closeness to life as it is lived is for me very vital. What I try to achieve in my novels is as close a version of events as would happen in real life. That's an aspect of realism that I think is valuable, so that then you can delve into magic or whatever you do.
Ibo proverbs figure prominently in your novels. Did they always resonate for you, even when you were growing up?
Yes, I loved them. The language of the Ibo people, their imagery is all very picturesque, and I always found it, and still find it, very moving and very powerful. A very simple example, for instance: in English we would say, "Two heads are better than one." The Ibos would say, "Two heads, four eyes." They always bring in a picture so you see it at once. It's not just that it's better, they tell you how it's better.
There's a line in your first novel that "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten." It's a very vivid image. There's another one that you use and I think the idea of it really is implicit in several of your novels, and the English translation is, "To every man his due." What does that mean to you in its broadest sense?
It's extremely central to my understanding of reality, and it is so important to the Ibo that they say it in many different ways. The world is very complex, that's what they are saying. We must be aware of that complexity, and not just be aware but actually recognize it in the way we behave by according to every reality its own respect. You are not expected to admire or to love every thing, but you are expected to recognize that that thing has its own validity. That is what is meant by "To everyone his due."
For example, if you entered a hall in which Ibo elders were assembled for a meeting, if you came in and there were many, many people seated, the polite thing would be to shake hands with everybody and call them by their chosen names, not the names which they were given at birth but their titles. Everyone who becomes a titled person takes a new name, and you are supposed to know that and address them that way when you meet. Now, that's how you should deal with this crowd. But it's impossible! It would take the whole day if you were to go around shaking hands with everybody there and calling them by their names. So what you then do is greet them generally and say, "To everyone his due," which means you recognize everyone's title.
Your first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published thirty-five years ago. It sold more than three million copies, and it's been translated into thirty languages. How does it feel to be described as "the father of African literature in English"?
Oh, I don't mind that. I don't mind that at all. [laughs] It couldn't have even come close to my mind when I started writing. It's just one of those amazing developments, the way that my work has grown. It has been an amazing and gratifying surprise. Actually, the figure that my publishers give is not three million but eight, and it's still spreading—right now it's spreading very fast in the Far East. So I'm very happy and of course humbled by this, and that's all I can say, really.
You've said that one of the reasons you became a novelist was to tell the story from the inside. Do you remember how you felt when you first read books like Mr. Johnson, by Joyce Cary, which was actually set in Nigeria, or when you read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was set in what was then the Congo?
That's a long story. I encountered Conrad before I was old enough to see what was going on and so it didn't make the kind of impact that it would have made if I had been older. It was only when I reread it at college, at the University of Ibadan, as an undergraduate in the English department, that I then began to realize just what was happening there. Joyce Cary was different. The Joyce Cary was a later book; it was published in the forties, so I read it for the first time in college. Not just my response but the response of the whole class was quite definite: we didn't like what Joyce Cary was doing. I remember it was interesting because our teachers were all English and we were all Nigerian, and our teachers thought it was a marvellous book. In fact it is still called by some people in the West the greatest African novel. It's just amazing. One of my colleagues shocked our teacher by saying that the only moment he enjoyed in the book was when Johnson was shot. That was a very drastic response but it conveys the exasperation that we Africans feel when we encounter this kind of mindless racism.
When you first read Heart of Darkness, and you say you were too young to understand it, did you identify with Marlowe?
You identify with whom the author wants you to identify with, that's what fiction does; and until you are strong enough to break away from that, you don't see what's going on. I believe this is the problem with professors in the West today who don't see racism in Heart of Darkness; they are still reading like young boys and girls who are fascinated by the sound of adjectives and the creation of emotion, a cheap emotion, with fear and stereotype. That's really what's happening. But when you become experienced with literature, you should be able to get rid of that response.
Do you buy into what's called "appropriation of voice," the argument that only a black African is truly able to write about black Africa?
No, I don't. I think anybody can write about any place, even places they have never visited. Kafka wrote about America without leaving Prague. But a good writer knows just what kind of story to write about the place you don't know deeply. There are many different levels on which a story can move; you don't have to be an expert about place.
You were what's sometimes called "a been-to," in that you studied in Ibadan but you also studied in London. When you came back to Nigeria, just before independence, what were your hopes or expectations?
Actually, I wasn't a proper "been-to." I went to London, to the BBC School, for less than one year. I was already working; I was not a young student. Although it was an important experience, to spend seven months in Europe, it wasn't really formative. But as to what that period meant, it was a time of excitement; it was four or five years before our independence, and independence was very much in the air. We all felt happy and excited and hopeful, optimistic. It was the optimism that at last we would be on our own again and take hold of our history and manage our lives. It was a heady moment. About a year after I came back from London, Ghana got her independence; Ghana was the first in modern Africa. And it was so exciting! We were not Ghanaians, we were Nigerians and Nigerians and Ghanaians tend to be rivals, yet the independence of Ghana felt like our own. People stayed up at night till one a.m. in the morning, which was twelve midnight in Ghana, to hear the handing over of power. So it was that kind of heady, exciting feeling.
You once described your first novel, Things Fall Apart, as "an act of atonement, the homage of a prodigal son." What did you mean by that?
What I meant was that being a Christian, being educated in things of the West, being a university graduate and all that, one really shouldn't be any of those things. Our business should be to restore what was lost, to take on the task of redefining ourselves. That is what I tried to do in my writing, and I see that as a kind of service which is demanded of us by Africa because we betrayed her in doing all these other things. My father, for instance, was one of the first generation of Christians; he abandoned the faith of his fathers. I'm putting it rather strongly so that what I'm trying to say will be clear. In actual fact, one's life doesn't stop because you've become a Christian; there are even some advantages in getting acquainted with another culture and all that. But basically, we were led into accepting that what our forefathers, our ancestors, had done through the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who's come from afar could straighten us out, that he was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that we had been sunk in blindness. That's an outrageous thing to accept. In retelling, in redefining ourselves, we are making amends for this betrayal.
Yet I think one of the reasons that Things Fall Apart is so successful is that you don't romanticize the old Africa.
No. Making amends doesn't mean glorifying. It simply means giving to everyone his due, you know, that salutation. This is due to Africa. At no point in the history of Africa, at no point was it inhabited by people who were less than human—we have to be absolutely strict about that. You must give it its due. Then, having said that, you have to recognize that things were not perfect. Things were not supposed to be perfect. God did not make a perfect world. The Ibo people have a different notion of creation. They have a notion in which God is constantly having a conversation with humanity on how to improve the environment. It was not finished in six days; we have a role to play. So we recognize the fact that things are not perfect, things are not even good. But that does not mean that this place is less than a human habitation.
Between 1958 and 1966 you published four novels, including your post-independence political satire A Man of the People. Then in the late sixties, from '67 to 1970, there was the Nigerian Civil War, which is sometimes called the Biafran War. You've described the war as a watershed for you. Can you talk about what happened to you during that time?
If we go back to that spirit of euphoria I described, when we got our independence—the feeling that we were new people, that we were reinventing ourselves—all that hope and promise seemed smashed in the catastrophe of the civil war, in which Nigerians set upon one another and people were massacred in the thousands, hundreds of thousands. It was a war in which perhaps a million people died in the short period of two-and-a-half years. It seemed as if everything we had planned for and looked forward to was going to be taken away and that independence itself was perhaps a hoax. It was a very savage war. Beginning to deal with that reality was very difficult.
I was quite involved in the war, not in the sense of going to the front or anything, but it was close, it was close to everybody. Everyone lost friends and relations, their homes; we all became refugees, running from one place to another. So at the end of it you had to reassess what you'd been doing in this redefining of yourself. You realized that it had perhaps been too optimistic, and that now you had to look more closely at what happened. And that was why I virtually put aside the novel I had been planning. Actually, I didn't put it aside, the novel just refused to come. Again and again I wrestled with this novel that I'd had in mind for years, and it just wouldn't make itself available. I realized that this was understandable, that what had happened to us was so devastating that we couldn't just get up and say, now it's business as usual again. Some people thought, when the war ended and the leader of Biafra and the leader of Nigeria were seen embracing, that the whole thing was over. That's not true. You don't lose a million people and shake hands and just go back to business as usual.
Was there a way in which you felt you had to heal yourself as well?
Yes, and I wasn't sure just what to do. One of the things I did was leave the country, though not right away; I felt that my role during the war was so well known that I couldn't run away. If there was going to be any punishment, it would be right that I would be one of those punished. So I sat around for two years after the war ended and when it was clear that I could go away, then I left the country for four years.
What was your role during the war?
I was more of a traveller. I travelled to the United States, to Europe, to other parts of Africa, and spoke about what was happening. I gave lectures, but I always came right back, to the fighting itself and to the war. And my family was there, my wife and three little children. My role was described as diplomatic in some places, but that's a very grand way of putting it, because I didn't really have any official position. I was simply a writer who travelled and spoke about what was going on.
More than twenty years elapsed between the last novel of your earlier period, A Man of the People, and the publication of Anthills of the Savannah in 1987. The poet in Anthills of the Savannah is a man poised between action and reflection, and at one point he's addressing a group of students and, in answer to a question about what the country should do, he says, "Writers don't give prescriptions, they give headaches." When I read that I felt it was you. Is that true?
Yes, I think you are right. Just at that point, as long as you don't take it that that character is me; no characters of mine are allowed to be me. They may reflect, they may share some common ideas here and there with me. On that point, yes, he is talking like me, that's exactly what I would say in that circumstance.
That whole dilemma of action or reflection seems to be one that you have alternated between in your own life. You were involved in actual Nigerian politics in the 1980s. Then you published a novel. Do you find yourself going back and forth on this issue?
Yes, I think there's an inevitable seesaw position for someone like me, because you get so frustrated that things are not working out, and you want to go in and do something. Then you find that it isn't really that kind of action where your best work can be done. I discovered, for instance, that party politics was really going to be a waste of my time. I got into it because I felt so desperate to indicate that, out of all the bad leaders we had, this particular man was least bad and our people should know that and recognize it. There is a certain amount of value in that kind of work, but it's time-consuming and it's also energy-consuming. In the end you say, no, I really should be writing my books. So one does alternate in that kind of desperate way in our situation, and our situation is very desperate.
The novel Anthills of the Savannah is in some ways a very political book. It's set in a fictional country called Kangan, but it feels as if it's probably not a very distant relation from a country like Nigeria, and it's a place where corruption is everywhere. Have people in Nigeria ever criticized you for being disloyal to your country by painting such a bleak picture?
They have on and off, yes. But Nigerians are very critical of themselves, generally. I think you will find more people who regard me as a truthful witness and as a seer and prophet rather than as somebody who is disloyal. You will find some who take the other position, maybe among the leaders, but even there I'm not so sure. Nigerians tend to recognize their faults and it's amazing that we don't do very much with that recognition.
Has there been any personal price that you've had to pay for being a writer who speaks the truth?
Oh, little ones. I wouldn't really bother even to discuss them because I got off very lightly. For instance, at the end of the Biafran War, someone who was on the other side, who was very powerful on the federal side, told me that I personally gave Nigeria more trouble than all the other Biafrans put together. That was of course an exaggeration, but even so I got off very lightly. Having one's passport seized is not something one can complain about when one could have been charged with high treason. I think by and large my political work has been accepted as valid and valuable for Nigeria.
You were involved in a terrible car accident in Nigeria in 1990, which necessitated surgery and many months of therapy. Did you ever feel that the accident wasn't an accident?
We have not bothered to pursue any investigation along those lines, but it did cross our minds. There were a few strange things that happened just before the accident. But we are very lucky, we are very lucky that it wasn't worse than it was, and so we have simply left it there. Also, the outpouring of love and sympathy that we saw, from all over Nigeria, makes it unnecessary for us to pursue what happened.
What is your physical condition now?
It's more or less where it was when I left the hospital. I broke my spine and so, as you know, I am a paraplegic. I'm in a wheelchair and it looks as if that's the way it's going to be.
The anthills of your novel's title, Anthills of the Savannah, stand as a powerful metaphor, some indication of hope. Can you tell me what that metaphor means?
It's about hope, promise, but most importantly it's about memory. The grassland, the savannah, is generally consumed by a fire at the end of every year in the dry season, and all the grass is burnt. If you came there you would see nothing except these anthills dotted across the landscape. That's all that survives until the rains return and the new grass comes up. But that new grass wasn't there when this disaster happened, it doesn't know anything about it, and if it's going to find out what happened last year, the only person it can ask is the anthill, that's all that was there. So that's the image. It's hope, it's survival, and it is memory, because if you survive without knowing who you are, then it really doesn't make any sense. You have to be told the importance of the story. It's the anthill that has the story. If the grass is wise, it will ask, what was it that happened? And then the story will be told.
Nadine Gordimer has described you as a moralist and an idealist, but it would seem to me that your idealism has had to weather some very difficult things over the years. How is your idealism faring these days?
It's still alive and well, because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don't think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it's the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don't just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.
You have distanced yourself from your parents' Christianity, but in your essays especially and even in talking to you. I feel that you assign to literature and the imagination almost the same kind of spiritual or even religious value, that fiction is a kind of salvation, or can be a salvation.
Yes. And so one hasn't really moved all that far away. We have a proverb which says that the little bird that flies off the ground and lands on an anthill may think it's left the ground, but it hasn't.
How do you convince people of the redemptive powers of fiction?
I don't think it needs a lot of heavy work. I think good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I've never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky. I can't make a very large claim for what I do, I just make a modest claim because we really don't know.
I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don't want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don't really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it's better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that's my sense of the meaning of life. That's really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.
You're giving me a variation of a story that's told in the novel Anthills of the Savannah, which is about a leopard and a tortoise, and it's a story that's told twice, first in a village and then to university students. It's about what you're saying, the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, that to have struggled is important, so your children will know that you struggled. Can you tell that story, the story of the leopard and the tortoise?
It's a very short one. The leopard had been looking for the tortoise to deal with him for something or other, and hadn't found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, "Aha! at last, I've caught you. Now get ready to die." Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, "Okay, but can I ask you a favour?" and Leopard said, "Well, why not?" Tortoise said, "Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?" Leopard thought about it—he wasn't very bright—and he said, "Well, I don't see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time." And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" Tortoise said: "I'm doing this because when I'm dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, "Two people struggled here. A man met his match here."
You've been living in the United States on and off over the last twenty or so years. Do you think of yourself now as living in exile?
No, I don't. I spare myself that luxury, and as a matter of fact, I'm constantly planning for my return. I've been here now three years, since my accident, and it's partly medical, but I'm making arrangements to get back home. It's very important to me that I get back home. People at home also expect me back.
Despite the recent coup?
Perhaps because of the recent coup. The situation is so bad—
The fact that it's so bad means you feel a greater compulsion to be there?
Yes. People in fact do call or write me and say, when are you coming? I am very much involved in what's going on in Nigeria and I'd like to keep it that way.
Do you need to go back to Nigeria in order to write more about it?
I think so, though that's not an immediate problem. I have enough knowledge about the place to write the kind of fiction I want to write. I may not know what's happening politically this week, but that's never been my need; I've never really needed that kind of topical knowledge. I have enough residual information and knowledge to keep working for a time. What I need is the spiritual sense of connectedness one gets by being there.
I understand the way in which you are hopeful about the possibilities of literature, but are you also hopeful about Nigeria?
That's a tough question. I have said, and more than once, that always, even in my reincarnation, I would like to be a Nigerian. But as more and more bizarre situations occur, you sometimes wonder whether you haven't spoken too positively. I still think that we might just make it. We have squandered so much time and money and people, but I still hope. Here it's hope rather than belief. Even if we don't make it, then we'll have other arrangements. A country is simply an area or territory defined and called one thing and if the people there don't really want to live together in that definition, then they can make other arrangements. I think we should give Nigeria at least one more chance to see if we can make it as a country.
NOTE: In November 1994. Nobel Prize winning writer Wole Soyinka had his passport taken away when he was leaving the country, and he was forced into involuntary exile. Also in 1994, writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested. For more than a year, international groups such as PEN campaigned for his release. On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight other activists for the Ogoni people.
Saro-Wiwa had been president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, an organization founded by Chinua Achebe in 1988 expressly in order to protect writers by banding together. When reached for comment, Chinua Achebe said that even though he had little faith in the Nigerian military, he was stunned by the execution. "It was not only a terrible thing to do, but a stupid thing to do. But the way I read it is that nothing is impossible once you depart from government by consultation. It will simply get worse and worse. What we have seen in the last thirty years is an increasing wickedness within the military and at the same time a complete collapse of Nigeria. Nobody is talking about the suffering, the agony of millions of Nigerians on a day-to-day basis at all levels."
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