Chinua Achebe: An icon of African literature: A man of the people

Chinua Achebe: An icon of African literature: A man of the people

Stephen Williams reviews Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, a book of eulogy in honour of the departed master storyteller.

One of the 49 contributors to this collection of essays that examine the life and legacy of Chinua Achebe is Ernest N Emenyonu, a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters who, as Achebe did, teaches African Literature in the US.

He is currently the Professor of Africana Studies, University of Michigan, Flint. And Achebe was the Distinguished Professor and Writer-in-Residence at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Emenyonu opens his contribution by writing: “When Achebe died on 21st March 2003, he was 82 years old. Since the middle of the 20th century he had been the most important figure in the field of African Literature.”

Emenyonu writes: “Some scholars described him as the ‘creator/inventor’ of African Literature, others called him ‘the grandfather’ of Nigerian Literature, and yet others referred to him as the creative genius and pre-eminent African literary philosopher of the 20th century.”

This is an opinion echoed by many (though not all) of Emenyonu’s fellow contributors, including Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, the late Nadine Gordimer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Many of the essays in this book share the general consensus that Achebe was the most important figure in contemporary African literature.

But Emenyonu adds something of Achebe’s own voice when he quotes from an article The role of the Writer in a New Nation, written in 1964, that Emenyonu describes as “a kind of blueprint for his contemporaries and other writers after him on what African imaginative writing at the time should be about”.

Achebe wrote in The role of the Writer in a New Nation the following highly illuminating passage: “This is my answer to those who say that a writer should be writing about contemporary issues – about politics in 1964, about city life, about the last coup d’état. Of course, these are all legitimate themes for the writer but as far as I am concerned the fundamental theme must first be disposed of.

“This theme, put quite simply, is that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans, that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all that they had dignity.

“It is this dignity that many African people all but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must regain. The worst thing that can happen to a people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost.”

It can be argued that Achebe triumphed in this regard. Take the influence he exerted over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing, surely one of the foremost of a new breed of Nigerian authors. In her chapter, titled provocatively ‘We Remember Differently’, she recalls how she grew up writing imitative stories.

“[I wrote, she recalls] of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction.

“Here were familiar characters who felt true,” she explains, “here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but wanted to write.

“His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my own voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.”

Nana Ayebia Clarke, who co-edited this book with James Murray, commented at Africa Writes, a London literature and book festival (coincidently, on Wole Soyinka’s 80th birthday), that Adichie’s very obvious admiration for Achebe did not preclude criticism.

Like many others, Adichie takes issue with Achebe’s recollection of the Biafra war, saying that she wishes that his last book, There Was A Country, had been “better edited and more rigorously detailed in its account of the war”.

Indeed, the publication of There Was A Country aroused a storm of controversy regarding Nigeria’s civil war, which was, and is, such an intensely traumatic period in Nigeria’s collective psyche. 

But Adichie is generous in stating, in Achebe’s defence, “to expect a dispassionate account from him [of the Biafran war] is a remarkable failure of empathy. I wish more of the responses had acknowledged, a real acknowledgement and not merely a dismissive preface, the deep scars that experiences like Achebe’s must have left behind”.


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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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