Achebe – Even to the last he shook us

Like many people of my generation, I discovered Chinua Achebe without even knowing of him. His first novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ had been made into an epic television serial – already, after twenty years, a classic, and mandatory text for Nigerian students, and indeed students of African literature the world over. It’s not that there was no writing and literature in Africa before Achebe – it’s just that after him, none of that writing was the same. Achebe was the great river that led to the sea of authors as diverse as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei-Armah, Helon Habila, Yambo Ouloguem, Mariama Ba and of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The world of Okonkwo, and the linked novels, A Man of the People and No Longer at Ease chronicled the tumult of Igbo, Nigerian and Africa’s confrontation with modernity; Things Fall Apart was as much for Achebe’s contemporaries as much as it was for ancestors who did not have the chance to speak for themselves. Achebe himself made history as much as he wrote about it. When the contradictions of the Nigerian first republic led to the Biafra War in (1965), Achebe was one of the central figures in the movement and battle to secure an independent state for Igbos in the east of Nigeria. A period he revisited in his short stories ‘Girls at War’ and in more poignant and contested detail in his last book ‘There Was A Country’.
The founding editor of the legendary African Writers Series, which was a direct consequence of the success of his novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe was at the heart of a re-imagining of what it meant to be African in the modern world. His characters, perhaps most hauntingly, Nwoye in Things Fall Apart, and Beatrice in Anthills of the Savannah, although never mere ciphers for a politics of identity, they nevertheless embodied the crisis many Africans faced in the 19th century, and in the 20th century.
For my part, I was drawn to the virtuous but ultimately doomed character of Ikemefuna; a poignant reminder in Achebe’s writing that even pre-colonial societies were not short of their own inequities and cruelties. But they were misunderstood and misrepresented by those who colonised them, and   this was something which enraged a young Achebe enough to produce his book; surveying the field of African literature now, it seems flabbergasting to believe that not more than fifty years ago, the international publishing industry’s books on Africa were typified by Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson. This was the reality Achebe wrote against, and transformed; for any writer coming after him and his generation, we had a reference point – growing up you were not spoken of us as the next Shakespeare but as the next Soyinka or Achebe.

For all Nigerian writers born after him, he made a whole new way of thinking about ourselves possible – we take it for granted that we can write, speak and explore our own worldview as Africans – and for many, do so in a language originally oppressive but bent to our use by his and other writers’ skills. Chimamanda Adichie, responding to a question about her own writing in English, responded emphatically “English is mine”. It’s a sentiment one cannot imagine being expressed without the path traced by a writer like Achebe.
It’s often easy after the death of great and revolutionary people that their lives are romanticised or their message and existence muted into mere cultural expression – it’s a trap we should avoid in the coming years of remembering Achebe’s work, including his last book. There Was a Country, which provoked outrage and praise in equal measure for raising the spectre of the Biafra war, returned with beautiful circularity to reminding us about our past. It was a last warning to the country he celebrated and lamented in equal measure; his pointed reflection that our leader’s ethnic fixations have only led us to the path of mediocrity, more valid from someone who delivered to Nigeria global fame and glory when very few others could do the same, and spurned glory when it was tainted by too much compromise or accommodation with that same mediocrity.
For better or for worse, Achebe and other writers of his generation made the choice to write in English; he and his generation set African writes on the path of linguistic creolization which defines the linguistic and literary landscape of the continent today.  They also bequeathed us the internationalised orientation of most African writing – undoubtedly a necessity in a time when they were correcting 200 or more years of mis-history – but he and others also made a virtue out of it, becoming ambassadors for Africa and the dignity of it’s common people in an era when many African political leaders fell short; for all this intellectual and psychological scaffolding most young Africans learning to be writers would be mostly unaware today  – or at the least, take them for granted, but it’s hard to overestimate  and we shouldn’t forget- what a gift it is, that we are able now to take our own histories as the obvious starting point for our future stories as Achebe did.

Rest in Peace, Chinua.

Dele Meiji Fatunla
Dele Meiji Fatunla is a writer and Website Editor for the Royal African Society