When Chinua Achebe unveiled “Things Fall Apart” (1958), at the age of 28, he had no idea that his story would ultimately be recognized as a turning point in African literature. Prior to Achebe’s first novel, the so-called “dark continent” had been primarily defined by Western writers, who depicted Africa and its people using uncharitable stereotypes. But in the 1960s, African authors began to tell their own story—presenting the continent from a uniquely African perspective.
In his latest book, “Home and Exile” (2000)—which evolved from a series of lectures given at Harvard in 1998—Achebe applauds this development, while reminding us that Westerners, for the most part, continue to paint Africa in a harsh light. To Achebe, the reason for this dehumanization is clear—it makes inaction much easier to justify. In other words, why bother with Africa? It’s a place where nothing works and nothing will ever work.
Despite the fact that Achebe urges Third World writers to live among and write about their own people, his health makes it impractical to live in his native Nigeria. In 1990, Achebe was involved in a serious automobile accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. While recuperating in a London hospital it became evident that acceptable medical treatment would be unavailable in Nigeria, as the country was well into a long period of decline brought on by military dictators.
So for the past ten years, Achebe has been living in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a small town 90 miles north of New York City, dividing his time between writing and teaching African literature at Bard College. Meanwhile, the long reign of Nigerian dictators has come to an end, and Achebe holds out hope that his beloved country will recover enough under democratically-elected president, Olusegan Obasanjo, to permit a return to his homeland.
Failure met with Achebe one snowy afternoon in late March at his on-campus home, to discuss “Home and Exile” and how Africa has been portrayed in the world’s media and literature.
How do you like being a professor?
Well, it’s got it’s drawbacks. You have to teach a class [laughs]. The teaching thing is not the best job for a writer. But it’s not a bad position in itself—it’s just a full-time job and writing is also a full-time job, so it’s difficult. [Pauses] You know, we have these student opinions of courses, all done anonymously. Occasionally I get these great things and occasionally I get something like, “Hiring this man to teach African literature is like hiring the Pope to teach Catholic catechisms” [laughs].
Would you mind talking a little about your accident and how you ended up at Bard?
I don’t remember anything about the accident. Apparently the car fell on me. But the good news is that my son, with whom I was traveling, did not have a scratch. The driver was not seriously hurt either. My son was then able to organize the rescue operation. Eventually I was driven back to the regional capital and to the university teaching hospital. The doctors did the initial things that saved my life but then some days later I was flown to England and was in the hospital for six months. By the end they realized that I would not be able to walk, and they recommended that I go to America for therapy.
It just happened that the president of this college had seen me some years before at an international writer’s conference in Budapest. He wrote to me in the hospital offering me a job. I had never heard of Bard College, but I put that aside and said, “Yes, let’s go there.” There was no point in going to Nigeria at that point.
How did “Home and Exile” come to fruition?
It was building up since I was born, if you like [laughs]. It’s really a distillation of what I have been doing in my fiction—a general idea of what it means to be an African in the 20th century. To be aware of what had happened in the past, where we are and where we should be going.
In “Home and Exile” you discuss how British authors like Joseph Conrad have negatively portrayed Africans for hundreds of years. Why do you think that is?
The argument that I make is that there was a reason for it. Nothing goes on that long if it’s not meeting some desire, and I cite these two American anthropologists who researched and read something like 500 books [written] over a period of 400 years to see the depiction of Africans and Africa in literature. If you follow the text of their argument [made in the book “The Africa That Never Was”], there was a time when you had just plain travelers tales. Then at some point it became sinister. It changed into an almost deliberate effort to portray these people as other than human. And this was at the peak of the slave trade. The evidence is very, very clear. The people who were writing said what they were doing. That’s the reason it coincided with and served the Atlantic slave trade.
Why do you think Westerners continue to present Africans to the world the way they do?
Well, that’s what I should be asking you [laughs]. I can only guess. One of the most charitable possibilities is that people get used to something. In physics they call it “the inertia of rest” [laughs]. But you can, I’m sure, suggest more sinister reasons. Whatever the reasons, the important thing is to recognize this and deal with it, because we really cannot afford the problem it has created.
Recently The New Yorker [in its March 26, 2001 issue] published the journal of a European traveling in Africa, and the events and places the writer described weren’t particularly positive.
My quarrel with this fiction is not that it’s not positive. Africa is full of problems. I don’t deny that. But if you are African or if you go to Africa and go with an open mind you’ll still see that these are people. They are not less than human as suggested by much of this literature. You are not surprised to find, as Marlow is surprised to find in “Heart of Darkness,” that these are people like himself. But I’m not saying, “Don’t criticize us,” or “Don’t find fault with us or what we do.” David Livingston was asked, “What do you think about Africa?”—I think I mentioned this in “Home and Exile”—and he said, “Oh, they are capable of terrible deeds, but they are also capable of extraordinary and good actions.” In other words, like people anywhere else [laughs].
What is the effect of this media coverage?
That’s really the issue. It makes it impossible for us to understand one another. People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them. This is what people have come to expect. It’s not viewed as a serious continent. It’s a place of strange, bizarre and illogical things, where people don’t do what common sense demands.
And it has just gone on so long that you can almost call it a vested interest in propagating this. After I delivered my lecture at Harvard, a professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts said, “How dare you? How dare you upset everything we have taught, everything we teach? ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the most widely taught text in the university in this country. So how dare you say it’s different?”
You have said that people should be able to contribute to the definition of themselves and not be the victim of other people’s judgments. Is the situation changing for the better?
One must say that it is getting better for the simple reason that the people who didn’t used to say anything are now saying something about themselves. So you have to add that to whatever the equation is. And that’s very important. It’s not just black people or Africans that I am talking about. It applies to all segments of human society—segments that did not speak very much at all, including women, for instance.
Do you feel pressure to write, because there aren’t many other African writers who are heard in America?
Yes, I suppose so, but the reason one writes is probably more complex than that. There is something in our nature which demands that we tell our own story.
One of the best examples of this was noted by Léopold Senghor, who was the president of Senegal and one of the finest poets of the 20th century. When he was a student in Paris in the 1930s, he and his black colleagues—other students from the Caribbean and from Africa—created a movement called Negritude. The idea was to put forth the notion that black civilization was real—that it was not true that the French were bringing civilization to these people for the first time. When I was growing up we used to debate this. Some people were not quite happy with this line of thinking.
Anyway, one of our bright young men made fun of Negritude. He said, “A tiger does not declare it’s tigritude” [laughs]. Later on, in the 1960s, during the Biafra civil war in Nigeria I was sent by the Biafra people, to carry a letter to Senghor, to intervene in this civil war. The reason I was sent is that I was a writer. So I went and had a very long interview with Senghor and he asked me about this young man who made fun of Negritude. He asked me how old he was. I told him he was a young man. He said, “I understand.” He said the reason a tiger doesn’t pronounce tigritude is because the tiger doesn’t talk. The Negro talks—that’s very different.
Which authors have done a good job of telling the African story?
Oh, hundreds, including many we don’t normally talk about and regard as literature—the oral tradition. Humanity will always attempt to create a story. There are literally hundreds of writers that have begun writing since the middle of the 20th century.
Are they heard in the United States and in Europe?
Yes, they are, although more in Europe than here. But what is even more important is that they are heard in Africa. That’s really for whom the stories are made.
What is the situation in Nigeria at the present time?
It’s not very good, which is the reason I am still here. It’s better now than it was, say, five years ago. We’ve had a very unfortunate history of military dictatorship in Nigeria, going back to 1966. We sort of got ourselves trapped there, and it just got worse and worse. The last dictator [General Sani Abacha], from whom we were saved just by providence—it wasn’t because of anything we did, he just died—was really the most brutal in this line of soldiers. So the country is reeling from the five or six years where he was in power. We now have a democratic government, but it’s not something you switch on and off. The damage done in one year can sometimes take ten or twenty years to repair. So things are not very good, but they are better.
How do you feel about Nigeria’s current leadership?
Let’s put it this way. It’s as good as one can expect, and that says a lot. Nigeria is a very complicated place. It’s a big place. One-fifth of the whole population of Africa is in Nigeria. It’s very difficult to understand how this can be so because if you look at the map, it’s quite a small rectangle [laughs]. It has resources, like petroleum, and some of the world’s most talented people. And yet, it has not used these effectively. So that’s a real pain to Nigerians. The brain drain that has happened as a result of our recent history is unimaginable—the professionals that are in this country and especially in England. If you find two Nigerians anywhere, they are talking about this. It’s a continuing pain.
What would it take for you to go back?
My needs are simply those of somebody in a wheelchair. It’s not simply that I’m not happy with the politics, because I have never been happy with the politics of Nigeria. I was never a popular person with those in power, but we managed to live side-by-side [laughs]. If it became possible for me to go back and not run stupid risks—in other words, if I suddenly needed medical attention, I would know where to go—I would be back.
Why has it been so difficult for the country’s leaders to turn things around?
I said some time ago in a piece for the Financial Times that when this government came to power the president underestimated the problem that he was going to have, and made promises—he promised to deal with the power situation, like California [laughs]. In Nigeria it’s much worse and has been going on. He discovered that it’s more complicated than he first thought. And I discovered I shouldn’t have said that because that is what the government is now saying [laughs], and I really didn’t want to give any government that kind of easy escape route. But things are tough and it will take time.
How do you keep up on events back home?
By watching television and listening to the radio. Unfortunately, American television doesn’t tell you very much about anywhere else [laughs]. And there are people who are constantly going back and forth. My friends in New Jersey just came back last week from five weeks in Nigeria, so they bring back the news.
Since the media coverage tends to be negative, what are some of the positive things that are going on in Nigeria?
I think just the very fact that we are back to a situation where people are talking and shouting—there is a lot of confusion it seems. But if you compare that to the period when the military prevented any discussion or criticism, you would much prefer the present chaos—what looks like chaos. People are talking and the newspapers are back. They never went away but they were rushing around in hiding, coming up today and going down tomorrow. So that is beginning to change. Some of the roads are being done, the economy is still up and down.
But there is the hope which is based on people’s freedom to say what they feel, and elect their leaders. They have not always elected the best leaders, particularly after a long period in which they have not used this facility of free election. You tend to lose the habit. Democracy is not something you put away for ten years, and then in the 11th year you wake up and start practicing again. We have to begin to learn to rule ourselves again. The confusion that seems to reign is a result of lack of practice at self-government.
What was your impression of the U.S. presidential election last year. In light of the controversy, were you surprised at how smooth the transfer of political power was?
That was quite impressive. That’s the impressive thing about stable governments. No matter how bad things seem to go, some solution is found and accepted. That is something that places like Nigeria have to accept. You don’t necessarily have to have a perfect election before you say, “Okay, let’s move on. Let’s give this man four years.” Rather than, “This must be my way, now!” That tends to be our attitude. But seeing the American election, that was clearly flawed—what’s at stake is bigger, which is the stability of the nation, under whoever. That kind of concession is made in the interest of stability.
You encourage Third World writers to remain in and write about their homelands. Is it difficult to take that position when you live and work in the United States?
It’s a sad case of, Do as I say, not as I do [laughs]. Having said that, I will insist that the truth of my thinking on this stays valid—that people should stay where they are. What’s important is that we recognize the falsehood of the notion that the Third World should be abandoned because it’s a waste of time. There is somewhere where things are working—that’s where we belong, that’s where we should go. People actually say that, perhaps not as crudely as I just suggested, that it’s a universal civilization that Europe and America invented and the rest of us should simply join. I don’t accept that. But I also think that the world belongs to all of us together and that people should not be limited by anybody else as to where they should live or where they should go. At the end of the day, it stands to reason that most people will stay where they were born. It doesn’t mean that everybody should pack their baggage and come to America [laughs]. That would not be good for America, not to talk of the rest.
Why do you think “Things Fall Apart” continues to resonate with people?
I think there is something there which resonates with people around the world who have been put down for one reason or another—colonized, dispossessed in some way. This is their story. I was not aware of this when I was writing it. I was very young and was simply writing my story. The fact that it turned out to apply to other people is one more proof of our universal humanity. This thing is not restricted to any one people or one place, but if you look around the world you will find others with similar experience, similar problems. You might even find solutions that can be shared.
One of the most extraordinary experiences I had many years ago was getting a bunch of letters—an envelope full of 35 letters from a women’s college in Korea. They all wrote me about “Things Fall Apart”—how they read it and what it meant to them. Many of them chastised me for letting this man die at the end of the story, and suggested how I should have written it [laughs]. At first, I was surprised, but then there was the enlightenment. I didn’t know anything about Korea. I had never been there, and I still have not been there, but they explained to me that they also knew what colonization meant. They were colonized by the Japanese, and so they were reading into my story their own experience. This is what literature does. It’s not just what’s happening in your backyard. The same thing may be happening to somebody else far away. And then see the value of insisting that all people should be able to tell their own stories. They should be encouraged and we should welcome it. Because in the end it’s for our own good—everybody gains.
In “Home and Exile” you talk about the reaction you and your university classmates had to the novel “Mister Johnson,” which obviously didn’t portray Nigerians as you would have liked.
Yes, it was presented to us with great expectation that we would embrace it because it was set in Nigeria. But it didn’t work out that way [laughs].
Did that impact your writing?
I think it did. Its effect has been mentioned frequently, sometimes exaggerated, I think. And I’m not sure I’m completely innocent of taking part in that exaggeration. Because I think I have sometimes spoken as if that were the reason I began to write. That is an exaggeration that prophets are entitled to make [laughs]. But it was certainly one of the turning points in my development as a writer.
How would you describe Africa to someone who has never been there before?
[Pauses] I would simply go back to the cliché that it's simply a continent full of people. Don’t go to Africa to find an exotica. It’s a continent that is very experienced, maybe the oldest continent in the world in terms of human habitation. So you may be going there for the first time, but Africa has been there a long time. It has experienced all sorts of events and it’s still knocking around. If you find problems like AIDS, you say, “This continent is finished.” No, it’s not finished. It’s going to suffer but it will put AIDS where the other things have been.
So it’s a very experienced continent. This experience can also be seen in its arts, music and stories, and the stories it makes are extraordinarily profound. That’s one of the pitfalls, to think of Africa as if it were New York, instead of a place where you can put the whole of Europe, of the USA, China, India, Argentina and still have room for New Zealand [laughs]. So when Joyce Cary, the author of “Mister Johnson” says something like “…in Africa people don’t…” this is absurd.
The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity—that it’s this or maybe that—you have just one large statement; It is this. It is particularly dangerous for a creative writer. You are not supposed to use stereotype—you are supposed to see things, individual special qualities or failings.
What do you think it will be like to be an African in the 21st century?
I think it’s going to be exciting. I also think it’s going to be tough. There is so much unfinished business from the 20th century—so much wasted. Once we get over the worst prospects of these unfinished businesses, most African countries are going to begin almost from scratch to organize their polity to this kind of working concern. You had the period of the independence and the feeling that we had arrived—that things were now going to work. We even had people saying that the 20th century was the century of Africa. This was in the ’60s when things looked so hopeful. That was quashed completely by the cold war. So what we are doing now is going back to capture that period of independence and make it work. It’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be exciting.
What do you think of when you think of Nigeria? What do you miss about your homeland?
The fact that it’s home—that home-ness [laughs]. It’s really very romantic. We know it’s not working but that’s no reason not to love it. I believe that the engine of development is diversity. People work out a kind of relationship with their habitat. Therefore, to suggest that those who live in the desert should move and go live somewhere else is foolish. The world requires all these different places.
Some people have proposed that the geography of Africa—the way its borders are drawn—contributes to its instability. How do you feel about that?
I’m not likely to accept that. The geography has a role to play in the nature of the continent but I don’t accept that it’s a negative role, that it’s something that will deter the continent from developing. We simply have a lot of old baggage to discard.
Are you working on another book?
Always [laughs]. But the best thing is not to talk too much about anything before it’s real. Otherwise it walks away [laughs].
Update: Chinua Achebe passed away on March 21, 2013.