Sunday March 31 2013

Achebe, the unfinished business of African literature, and racism

By Bernard Tabaire

Okonkwo, Achebe, Chinua. Who was author? Who was fictional character? I had no idea growing up and hearing my uncles and cousins drop these names. School would soon clear things up, taking me beyond intriguing characters such as Amalinze the Cat. And yet Things Fall Apart came close to being trashed, the handwritten manuscript having been sat on by some bazungu typists in London for months as hope and anxiety killed the young writer back in Nigeria.

Since Chinua Achebe’s death over a week ago, his fiction and poetry have received more focus. It is a couple of his old essays though that have fascinated me the most. Each touched on a topic that endures, and each was a response to what someone else had written.

In the then Kampala-based Transition magazine, Nigerian literary critic Obiajunwa Wali wrote in the September 1963 issue an essay that opened thus: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the last Conference of African Writers of English Expression held in Makerere College, Kampala, in June 1962, is that African literature as now defined and understood, leads nowhere.”

Obi Wali denounced the Makerere and Ibadan elites who dominated the conference.
“The purpose of this article,” he wrote, “is … to point out that the whole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing, is misdirected, and has no chance of advancing African literature and culture. In other words, until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity, and frustration.”

The resulting conflagration, fierce and erudite, lit up Transition’s pages for years. Achebe studied at Ibadan and attended the Makerere conference. He returned fire in 1965. He wrote that one “cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition” and that “those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecs”.

Besides, they were not producing sterile work. “What I do see,” he wrote, “is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language. So my answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer … should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” Near the end he declared, “I have been given this language and I intend to use it.”

So, what is African literature? Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who was a recent Makerere graduate when he attended the famous conference, is in the Obi Wali camp. The question, though, is far from answered. I witnessed bedlam during a panel discussion of the same issue by African artists, who included musician Femi Kuti, in Cape Town last year.

Someone described Achebe’s essay as a “masterful defence”. I am not sure. But I am sure of a masterful offence: the speech, later published as an essay, he delivered 10 years on at the University of Massachusetts titled, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”.

The speech begins quietly enough: “In the fall of 1974 I was walking one day from the English Department at the University of Massachusetts to a parking lot. It was a fine autumn morning such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers.”

He uses the encounter with one of the strangers as a prop to deliver a fiery but reasoned denunciation of a novel long considered part of the English literary canon. Heart of Darkness is as “offensive and deplorable” because it “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality”. He declared author Joseph Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist” for calling in question “the very humanity of black people”.

One English professor reportedly confronted Achebe at the end of his talk: “How dare you!”
Since then, criticism of Conrad has been divided into “before and after Achebe.” Racism, though, will not go away just yet. So we have to keep speaking up as Achebe advised in an interview nearly 20 years after his talk: “If you don’t like what somebody says, you say what it is you don’t like.”

Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence.