Chinua Achebe and the Gauntlets of the Age by Emmanuel Dairo
On March 21, the world rose in unison to salute the memory of the late great Chinua Achebe who passed away exactly three years prior. The tipped hats and raised glasses and reminiscences were just an acknowledgment of the impact of the literary sage whose creative and critical contributions helped to shape the course of African and Nigerian literature.
There are lessons from the life and works of Mr Achebe the writers of this generation can draw upon in plotting a path for the present and the future. The most important of these in my view is the lesson that writers need to be committed to the causes thrown their way by politics, history, culture and the other myriad forces that together define the contemporary space.
Mr Achebe was a man with a mission to combat and overthrow the established order and narratives of his time. Much of his output embodies this singular yearning. It is not surprising that Things Fall Apart, TFA became an instant classic upon publication: it only went viral in the way newly-discovered and important things – like gravitational waves and the first iPhone – go viral. What is important is that TFA, together with Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease, represented a fresh perspective, not just towards continental storytelling but towards characterization and focalization. It inaugurated the metamorphosis of the African in fiction from colonized object suffering the condition of colonialism to native subject navigating the complexities of colonization.
Mr Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People was the writer’s warning to the pilots of his country to change course before it was too late. They did not listen, of course, and ended up plunging Nigeria into a bloody civil war.
Throughout his career, Mr Achebe demonstrated total commitment to the key issues he deemed worth tackling with his creative ingenuity and his critic’s whip. He had little patience for those producing literature of a purely personal nature, contending that art ought to be pressed — even if partly — into community service; and had less regard for African writers who produced works whose themes imitate those of European modernism, but which are then dressed up as African fiction. Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born is considered “sick, not with the sickness of Ghana but with the sickness of the human condition.” That seemed like a crime to Mr Achebe; certainly, he held the view that charity should begin at home. “The African writer,” he writes, “cannot … be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer.”
Not content with arguing that the African voice, African culture and experiences, and local modes of narration should be placed firmly at the centre of African fiction, Mr Achebe also challenged the place of certain books in world literature because of the racist attitudes they perpetuate. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness owes its current location in the recycle bin of the literary canon to Mr Achebe’s influential lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” where he claims that the book actively encourages a picture of Africa as a place of “triumphant bestiality” peopled by ignoble savages who communicated by howling and leaping and spinning and making horrible faces.
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An overview of Mr Achebe’s life and career invites the conclusion that here was a man who picked his battles – and picked them well. Sometimes he won, sometimes – as in the case of his emissarial duties for Biafra – he did not win. The outcome does not matter greatly. What is worth emphasizing is that he fought with all his heart and all his talent.
Nearly six decades after his first flourish, there are still battles to be fought and gauntlets to be picked. From Nigeria and across the Sahara to Mediterranean Africa, from South Africa to Tanzania, issues keep springing up. Some of these issues are as old as independence; others are products of the millennium and the internet age. All of them require the writer’s attention.
Every other week, my Facebook newsfeed turns up at least one item about a boat full of frustrated but hopeful Africans in search of the Golden Fleece in Europe. From west, east, south and north they come, determined to dare and resigned to danger. While ISIS holds sway in Libya, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab continue to terrorize state and citizenry in west and east Africa respectively. Homophobia-inspired lynching threatens to become a norm while everywhere you turn, vision 20:2020 is looking more like mirage 20:2020.
Those of a more provincial disposition have no lack of issues to tackle in their respective countries. In Nigeria for instance, topical issues like the relentless southward rampage of Fulani herdsmen, secessionist sentiments in the south, east and west, and dwindling economic fortunes provide ample material for writers to weave their stories, satires and prophecies. There are discourses to interrogate, cultural practices to extol or expose and steps and missteps of nationhood to chronicle.
It is worthwhile to wonder whether a young Mr Achebe would have obeyed summons to a boat trip or two from Libya to Italy or a few weeks of living with Internally Displaced Persons in camps in Maiduguri, observing, listening, recording and translating. As he is no longer around to be served, however, the challenge of doing a Svetlana Alexievich is the contemporary writer’s. There are issues aplenty to write about. Mr Achebe’s example shows that, aside talent, the only qualifications needed to take up the gauntlet are conviction and courage.
About The Author:
Emmanuel Dairo lives in Lagos. He is playing at becoming a writer, editor and useful public nuisance