Achebe and the African Renaissance


Chinua Achebe commands the presidium of African literature. From varied edges, as a writer, public intellectual and elder statesman, his work provoked a cultural revolt that became the framing point for later African voices.

The legendary Nigerian’s death on March 21 this year occasioned a flare of indignation over his failure to land the Nobel Prize, won by his compatriot, Wole Soyinka, in 1986, despite the trailblazing outlook and universal renown of his work.

“My position is that the Nobel Prize is important. But it is a European prize. It's not an African prize,” Achebe told Quality Weekly in 1988. Two months after Achebe’s death, Soyinka told Sahara Reporters that he had received a series of letters asking him to put Achebe forward for the prize.

Soyinka slammed calls for the posthumous conferment of the prize, which is impossible in terms of Nobel Prize procedure, as a disservice to Achebe which negates his lifetime accomplishments to thwarted expectations. 

“Chinua is entitled to better than being escorted to his grave with that monotonous, hypocritical aria of deprivation's lament, orchestrated by those who, as we say in my part of the world, ‘dye their mourning weeds a deeper indigo than those of the bereaved,’” Soyinka said.

However, although Achebe was an Igbo cockerel, to borrow his own proverbial propensities, his crowing awakened the whole of Africa, hence the regional indignation. 

As Ben Jonson said William Shakespeare was not of age but of all time, it can safely be said of Achebe, he was not of Biafra but of Africa, if this too does not circumscribe the universal significance of his work.

Posthumous accolades for Africa’s foremost literary notable keep pouring and from November 5-8 Africa celebrates its own with a conference taglined “Chinua Achebe: The Coming of Age of African Literature,” to be hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association in Accra, Ghana.

Some authorities suggest that Achebe was evaded by the Nobel Prize because his work was critical of racism in the West and because of his famous rebuttal of Joseph Conrad over his racist portray of Africa in “The Heart of Darkness”. 

The grand patriarch of black writing, at least in terms of global reach, and founding editor of the African Writers Series scaled up the dizzy arena when Africa was just a construct of offshore lenses in world literature.

Mean stereotypes, then, ran the tapestry of Europhile narratives which reduced Africa to the backyard of civilisation.

Authors and intellectuals occasionally toured Africa from the comfort of their imaginations, conjuring up overstretched images to justify the Dark Continent mantra.

Racism was staplefare and the evolutionary theory placed Africans centuries behind the rest of the world, ostensibly because they were yet to evolve to the level of man.

Conrad earned the chief apostleship of this creed with his novel “The Heart of Darkness”.

Conrad’s novel became a seminal masterpiece, feted with acclaim far and wide, despite scathing antipathy and revulsion against blacks.

“The Heart of Darkness” portrayed African natives as savages, compared their language to satanic litany and shrouded their humanity under explicitly bestial imagery. Conrad was not only absolved but inducted in the establishment’s hall of fame.

The institutionalised insult on Africa landed on the raw nerve of a 36-year old Achebe, then a lecturer in the University of Massachusetts’ English Department and prompted a counter-missive that became the framing point of African literature for generations to come.

“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin,” Achebe declared in his seminal paper,  “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” published in the department’s literary journal three years later, in 1977.

“Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.

“But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad,” wrote Achebe.

Ngugi WaThiongo was prompted by a similar realisation that colonialism was not a political edict but a mental condition to pen “Decolonising the Mind” in 1986, 23 years after Kenya had gained its Uhuru in 1963.

Achebe exempted Conrad from originating the image of a dark continent: “It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. 

In turn, he resolved to use his own peculiar gifts to upstage Conrad and came up with the counter-masterpiece, “Things Fall Apart”. Achebe stayed the course with unsparing audits of post-colonial society as “Anthills of the Savannah,” “A Man of the People” and “No Longer at Ease.”

In the course of his accomplished career, received more than 30 honorary degrees from universities across the world and several prizes between 1982 and 2010. The upcoming conference in Accra is expected to introspect into African literature from its infancy dispensation as championed by Achebe and others to the contemporary era where there is an apparent lack of direction after the exhaustion of themes bordering on colonial hindsight.

Leading writers and literary authorities, including Nobel laureates, from Africa and beyond are billed to participate at the conference. “It is also expected that a large number of younger writers, language artists, and people interested in the literary arts and culture generally will attend the Conference,” PAWA said in its statement.

“Altogether, 10 participants from the Diaspora, 40 participants outside Ghana from Africa and 50 writers and language arts experts from Ghana are being specially invited by PAWA to the Conference.

A further 200 writers and guests from within and outside Africa will also attend and participate at the Conference at their own expense.  Discussion points will include “Confronting racism and hegemony in world literature: Extending Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” “Beyond and Within the Writer’s Imagination: Politics and Political Commitment” and “Achebe and the elusive Nobel Prize for Literature: Fathoming the Nobel in    the works of African Nobel laureates in Literature.” 

Beyond these rambling post-mortems, the conferences will also discuss “New Directions in African Literature,” African Literature and Pan-Africanism,” “Governance and Responsibility in African literature,” and the “The African Writer and the struggle for African Renaissance”.

Achebe and contemporaries belonged to the golden age of African literature and his death signalled the close of that age. Budding African writers may glean worthwhile nuggets from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech.

 “I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing,” Faulkner said.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. 

There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?  “Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

“He must learn them again.  He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

“Until he does so, he labours under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands,” Faulkner said.

The Accra conference is a welcome first step towards introspection, and hopefully, the beginning of birth pangs that will usher new voice into a greater golden age of African literature.

My own bold submission is that African literature has stretched to the end of its tether and devoid of credible solutions beyond recycling pessimism that is neither new nor gainful or conjuring up optimism that is neither gainful nor substantiated. Christ for Africa is the urgent need of the moment.

October 2013
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