CONJUNCTIONS:17 Fall 1991
Chinua Achebe, An Interview
Bradford Morrow

Best of the Web
Bradford Morrow’s Achebe interview was named a
Shmoop 2010 Best of the Web winner for Things Fall Apart


CHINUA ACHEBE AND I MET for the first time on Martin Luther King Day, this year. It was snowing hard and the trip from New York up the Saw Mill River and the Taconic was daunting. When I pulled into the little frozen-mud drive that led to his house near Annandale-on-Hudson, and was asked in, I felt an immediate sense of warmth -- warmth both physical and of spirit. I'd heard this about Chinua and his family. I had heard that he was not just a man of immense literary greatness, but that he embodied a profoundly decent humanity.

Since that snowy day I have had the good fortune of passing many hours with him up at Bard College, where we both teach. I've since read and reread all his books, and count him without hesitation as one of my favorite writers. I think it is a shame that he -- a hero in his native Nigeria, well-known throughout the rest of Africa, and in Europe -- remains less appreciated in America. Many readers, myself quite obviously included, are committed to Chinua Achebe's vision and work. But it is clear to me that many more people would be well advised to examine the implications of his novels, his essays, his stories and poems -- especially in this country, which is altogether too insulated from world-writers, as we might call them, writers who reach out beyond the imaginable and attempt to address life at its widest possible cast. From the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 (it's in its 46th printing, according to my Fawcett paperback), and on through the publication of No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People and many other titles, Achebe has established himself as a major writer of political, social and historical conscience.

This talk was originally commissioned by Ginger Shore, of Annandale magazine -- where it appears in different form -- and I'd like to thank her and Kate Norment for all their help. We met first to do this interview on Monday, August 19, when both Hurricane Bob was ravaging the East coast and the recent coup attempt was transpiring in the Soviet Union. Natural and political crises captured our attention. The hurricane knocked the power out, and our conversation had to be completed during a second session, on September 16.



BRADFORD MORROW: In your essay "The Truth of Fiction," you define a difference between fiction and what you term beneficent fiction. As I understand it, you equate fiction with superstition and reserve for literary fiction the term beneficent. In light of what extraordinary political events are happening today in the Soviet Union and given how central politics is to your novels, I wonder whether you think that there must always be a political element for beneficent fiction to be truly beneficent?

CHINUA ACHEBE: The notion of beneficent fiction is simply one of defining storytelling as a creative component of human experience, human life, as something we have always done which has positive purpose and a use. Whenever you say that, some people draw back. Why should art have a purpose and a use? But it seems to me that from the very beginning, stories have been meant to be enjoyed, to appeal to that part of us which enjoys good form and good shape and good sound. Still, I think that behind it all is a desire to make our experience in the world better, and once you talk about making things better you're talking about politics.

MORROW: How do you define politics?

ACHEBE: Anything to do with the organization of people in society. That is the definition. Whenever you have a handful of people trying to live harmoniously, you need some organization, some political arrangement that tells you what you can do and shouldn't do, tells you what enhances harmony and what brings about disruption.

MORROW: So there is a politics of family, politics of love relationships, politics of religion, politics of walking across the street.

ACHEBE: Exactly. What we're talking about is power, the way that power is used.

MORROW: I wonder, then, if my original question was diffused by how broad a definition of the word politics you apply. In your novels the interest in politics in its narrower meaning, i.e. state politics, is crucial. Do you think that a novel that does not in an overt way address state politics, the politics of organizing a country or culture, is less beneficent than a political novel--entertaining, perhaps, well-written even, but ultimately of lesser value?

ACHEBE: No, I wouldn't try to exclude any work. My purpose is not to exclude. If a book qualifies, I wouldn't exclude it because it doesn't deal with politics on the state or world level. I would simply say that's one way of telling a very complicated story. The story of the world is complex and one should not attempt to put everything into one neat definition, or into a box. But also I want to insist that nobody can come to me and say, your work is too political. My instinct is to talk about politics in my work and that is your instinct too. That is the sense in which Come Sunday, too, is a very powerful story. An effective, powerful and moving depiction of the modern world with its politics in all its various dimensions. One should not attempt to avoid that because of this superstition that politics somehow is inimical to art. There are some who cannot manage politics in their fiction, so let them not . But they must not insist that everybody else must avoid politics because of some superstition built up in recent times that defines art as only personal, introspective, away from the public arena. That's nonsense. Fiction in the West has suffered in recent times by that limitation. When I see a book like yours which is grappling with the big issues -- violence, injustice, victimization -- that also has the scope of the whole world, that goes from the center to the periphery and back, that's great. It's difficult to do, but difficulty is no reason not to do it.

MORROW: Given how thoroughly world politics in the last several years has charged and even changed the atmosphere of our personal lives, one wonders how it is possible that so many contemporary American novelists have, if not eschewed, at least marginalized, the political in their work.

ACHEBE: That's something I would like to understand myself. All I can say is that an apolitical stance was not there at the beginning of the novel. It is something that's happened during the last two hundred years. I don't think it has been a good thing for the world or for fiction. We can hope for the beginning of a reversal of that belief on the part of artists. I think they've been conned into apoliticism by those who have a vested interest in keeping us out. The emperor would prefer the poet to keep away from politics, the emperor's domain, so that he can manage things the way he likes. When the poet is pleased to do that, the emperor is happy and will pay him money to stay within his aesthetic domain. But you and I don't have to agree with the emperor. We have to say no. Our business involves the peace, happiness and harmony of not just people but the planet itself, the environment. How we live in the world is extremely important. How we see our relationship with the environment is important. If we see it in terms of conquest, if we go out and conquer Mount Everest, what are we doing? Even the language becomes significant. If somebody climbs a mountain, they conquer it.

MORROW: This subversion of nature has been one of the principal activities of mankind from the beginning, clearing forests, making roads, building cities. It should come as no shock that when one species has pushed out beyond what its natural population should be, the environment would suffer. It wasn't hard to do. Any animal could have done it. Ants could have done it. Plants could have done it. To stay on the subject of politics for one more moment, given the movements of former Communist bloc nations and Soviet republics toward independence, I wonder how you -- who were an active participant in Biafra's bid for secession from Nigeria --view what's happening now. I also wanted to ask you how you view the lost dream of Biafra, what your vision was for Biafra, and where you think Biafra might have been today.

ACHEBE: At the time, Biafra was a necessity because it stood for the right of people to say no to victimization, to genocide. On the other side of the argument, there are those who think that the unity of a nation is paramount, that the boundaries of a nation are sacrosanct, that sort of thinking. For me, when you put one against the other, there's only one position to take. The sanctity of human life, the happiness of people and the right to pull out of any arrangement that doesn't suit them stands above all. But at the same time one lives in the practical world in which power and force are real and therefore if your desire to be left alone will lead to your extinction, lead to bloodshed like what we had, the loss of perhaps millions, we don't even know how many --

MORROW: And mostly civilians, of course.

ACHEBE: Civilians, yes. Then one ought to say, okay, we'll make peace.

MORROW: And yet the war in Biafra lasted for three years.

ACHEBE: Yes, nearly three years. Because it was a very bitter experience that led to it in the first place. And the big powers got involved in prolonging it. You see, we, the little people of the world, are constantly expendable. The big powers can play their games, and this is what happened. So in the end, when Biafra collapsed, we simply had to turn around and find a way to keep people alive. Some people said let's go into the forest and continue the struggle. That would have been suicidal, and I don't think anybody should commit suicide.

MORROW: Had the British not subjugated Nigeria, had World War II not taken the wind out of England's sails so that it would then decide to liberate the country it had only decades before colonialized, would the indigenous peoples of pre-Nigeria have felt the need to break up into different political units anyway? Is secession part of he natural process of the history of any nation or group of people?

ACHEBE: The problem with history is that once a whole lot of things have happened, it's hard to speculate. Nigeria was really a British creation and lasted under the British for no more than fifty years. At the end of British rule, we accepted the idea of Nigeria but the country wasn't working very well, which is why the whole Biafran thing came about. The British had such a vested interest in keeping this unit together, not for our benefit, but for their own. They -- and not just the British, but the Soviet Union and the Americans as well -- were interested in holding it together because of the possibilities of commercial exploitation. What they didn't understand is that if people are unhappy, commerce is meaningless. What would Biafra have become? We wanted the kind of freedom, the kind of independence, which we were not experiencing in Nigeria. Nigeria was six years free from the British, but in all practical ways its mind, its behavior, the way its leaders looked up to the British, the way that British advisers continued to run the country, worried the more radical elements in our society. Most importantly, the fact that a government stood by while parts of the population were murdered at will in sections of the country went against our conception about what independence from the British should mean. So, Biafra was an attempt to establish a nation where there would be true freedom, true independence.

MORROW: But do you really believe that there is any nation on earth that enjoys true freedom and independence?

ACHEBE: Some do better than others. Let me give one more dimension of what we were hoping to do in Biafra, and what this freedom and independence was supposed to be like. We were told, for instance, that technologically we would have to rely for a long, long time on the British and the West for everything. European oil companies insisted that oil technology was so complex that we would never ever in the next five hundred years be able to figure it out. Now, we thought that wasn't true. In fact, we learned to refine our own oil during the two and a half years of the struggle because we were blockaded. We were able to show that it was possible for African people entirely on their own to refine oil. We were able to show that Africans could pilot their planes. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that a Biafran plane landed in another African country, and the pilot and all the crew came out, and there was not white man among them. This other country --which is a stooge of France -- couldn't comprehend a plane landing without any white people. They said, "Where is the pilot? Where are the white people?" arrested the crew, presuming a rebellion in the air. There was enough talent, enough education in Nigeria for us to be able to arrange our affairs more independently than we were doing. Your question as to whether any nation is truly independent: the answer is no. You can manage certain things, but you do rely on others and it's a good thing the whole world should be linked in interdependence. As human beings you can be independent but as members of society you are related to your fellows. In the same way, nations can manage certain affairs on their own, and yet be linked with others.

MORROW: You were born at a particularly interesting moment in that the culture of your forefathers was being infiltrated by an alien culture. It was a pivotal historical moment. Your father was a Christian convert while his parents and grandparents were still tribal. Members of your family had a direct memory of pre-colonial society. You then were able to experience the impact of the Anglican church on Nigeria, the imposition of English on Nigeria as a centralizing language. It occurs to me that it would be very difficult for anyone who wasn't born at precisely that moment to have written the novels you've written, to have so convincingly depicted the lives of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, of the priest Ezeulu and his friend Akuebue, as well as Captain Winterbottom, in Arrow of God , of Obi Okonkwo in No Longer at Ease . You're on record as having said that the choice of writing in English rather than in Igbo was strictly a practical one. I'm wondering, though, how it's possible for you not to feel any bitterness about this. There is a painful moment in No Longer at Ease when Obi, homesick for Umuofia, resentful about having to study English in London, thinks "It was humiliating to have to speak to one's countryman in a foreign language, especially in the presence of the proud owners of that language. They would naturally assume that one had no language of one's own." Do you feel that you could have written an even better book than Things Fall Apart if you'd written it in your native language? Do you think the book would have had more impact on your countrymen had it been composed in Igbo?

ACHEBE: The answer is no. I have no doubt at all about that. My countrymen now are Nigerians. Nigerians as a whole are not Igbo-speaking. The Igbos are just one of the major ethnic groups. I'd written Things Fall Apart in the Igbo language, only the Igbo would have had access; not the Yorubas, not the Hausas, not the Ibibio, not to mention all the other Africans, not the Kikuyus, the Luos, etc., all over the continent who read the book. Things Fall Apart has made a wide impact over the last thirty years. This I know for a fact because I've traveled through the continent. So it would not have been the same if I had written it in Igbo. But this is not the only argument one could raise for writing a book in one language or another. There are some people who would say even if only a few people would have had access to it, it still would have been preferable to write it in Igbo because you would have given the power of your talent to an African language, to help to create a new literature. The answer to that would depend upon what kind of person you are and what you think literature is there to do. I have no regrets, especially since I also write in the Igbo language. I have written several things in Igbo. If I thought that a novel in the Igbo language would serve a certain purpose, I would do it.

MORROW: Have your novels been translated into Igbo?

ACHEBE: No, not yet. Which shows, perhaps, that we are not ready for the novel in the Igbo language. I've written some poetry in Igbo and intend to do other things. But no matter what, I can assure you that the literature we have created during the last forty years in Africa had enormous influence which would have been much less if we had all retreated into our own little languages.

MORROW: We once talked about the work of Ben Okri, a young Nigerian writer who lives in London. What other African writers are writing books that you find valuable? If a student interested in learning about African literature were to approach you as a complete tabula rasa, where would you have them begin, who would you have them read?

ACHEBE: One way to answer that would be to look at what I teach in my African literature courses. I concentrate on fiction, if only because to do poetry and drama as well would be too unwieldy. First, what I want to do is demonstrate that Africa is a continent. I find, traveling around the world, that people talk about France, Italy and Africa -- and that's when they're being generous. I've met people who think of Africa as if it were Dutchess County. Africa is a huge continent with a tremendous variety and diversity of cultures, languages and so on. The way I show this is to give samples from different areas and histories of Africa. Now, in doing that, I'm limited by the question of language. I use books either originally written in English or translated into English. I begin with West Africa, an area in which one of the most dynamic literatures is being created and which happens also to be my home base. Then I sweep north to include an area of Africa which some people don't even know is in Africa -- Egypt. Many people think of Egypt as being part of the Middle East, but it's always been in Africa.

MORROW: But who are the writers you most admire?

ACHEBE: In the Arabic north, I use Mahfouz. He's an effective writer of the short novel, though he belongs to the old European trained and educated generation. Some of the best younger and more radical writers from this area are women -- Alifa Rifaat, El Saadawi -- who address the conflict, the dynamic between men and women in the Islamic society, which is very patriarchal and rigid. From West Africa, I would include Amos Tutuola, who represents closely the link between the oral tradition and the written. I would include from Senegal one of the finest colonial novels, written originally in French: Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure . There is also Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy, set in colonial Cameroun. Then I would go south. Nadine Gordimer is sometimes not thought of as African, but she is. She is writing out of an intensely African experience. You can see already what a diverse kind of group this is. I would go to eastern Africa and read Nuruddin Farah from Somalia. I would want the student to understand that Africans aren't funny people, that what's happening in Africa is happening to real people. One does this by showing them good stories written about human beings living their lives -- a different culture, but always human beings.

MORROW: One of the linguistic building blocks that you use to great effect in your early novels, both in the dialogue and the actual narrative, is aphorisms, proverbs, sayings. These proverbs -- one of favorites, for instance, is "When we hear a house has fallen, do we ask if the ceiling fell with it?" -- have both a charming colloquial feel to them and are rhetorically sophisticated. They are synergetic in their given contexts but they are more powerfully evocative than one at first notices on the surface. A little phrase like "The fly that sits on the mound of dung will still never be as big as that mound" is strangely supercharged because of its historical context and soial implications. In America, or in any country where the ritual of families telling stories to each other has been all but lost, where the people of a culture are becoming more nonverbal -- after all, why speak when the television can speak for you -- where do you think the novel's future lies?

ACHEBE: I think that words have a magic, that human situations create a magic, that you can capture that extra dimension by placing ideas side by side. One shouldn't bemoan the fact that television and the media have come into our lives. It's possible to see them as just another source of information. I think that for me it's definitely been an advantage to be able to invoke the culture of my past and the language that went with it while dealing with a contemporary situation. Now that advantage does not exist anymore really, even in my own society; its power is much reduced for those who are becoming writers today. But I think every generation, if it looks hard enough, will find the resource that it can use. What is not rich is provincialism. If one didn't realize the world was complex, vast and diverse, one would write as if the world were one little county and this would make us poor and we would have impoverished the novel. The reality of today, different as it is from the reality of my society one hundred years ago, is and can be important if we have the energy and the inclination to challenge it, to go out and look for it. The real danger is the tendency to retreat into the obvious, the tendency to be frightened by the richness of the world and to clutch what we always have understood. This way we very soon run out of energy and produce maybe elegant -- elegantly tired -- fiction.

MORROW: Then your take on minimalism is not a positive one.

ACHEBE: No.

MORROW: Minimalism is not often linked with the word elegant. Minimalists, so far as I understand their aesthetic, believe themselves to be championing the spare in the face of purple prose, think of themselves as lean and mean. I'm not against tight, clean writing. Indeed, that is what we strive for. But there is a difference between lean and anorectic. What you're suggesting is that minimalists are attenuated, over-polished, refined, over-refined.

ACHEBE: Refined into extinction.

MORROW: There is something very human and lovely about the novel's tradition as a self-defining form. More than any other art form, the novel at its best behaves much like life in its capacity for creative, energetic mistakes. There are no fixed rules, finally, the novelist must follow. And this has always been the tradition. I think of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and the Old Man of the Hill asides which have disturbed critics for centuries because even in the middle of all of Tom's picaresque experiences those crotchety rambling asides never made much formal sense. They look like a gaffe to a critic who thinks that there is a rule book for novelists. For me, the Old Man of the Hill voice only makes more great Fielding's novel, in part because it's so unexpected and so outrageous that it throws into relief the rest of the action of the book. Not to mention Tristram Shandy , which is nothing short of an eighteenth-century primer on how to break not just the rules but the idea that there are rules. So, in the earliest phase of the novel, you already have our ancestors setting out a course of formal resistance.

ACHEBE: And of formal possibilities.

MORROW: The novel is a germ, always growing. At its best, it will always remain an open form. I've heard recently the term maximalism offered as an antidote to minimalism. But what I wonder is, has there ever been a period in the history of the novel in which maximalism wasn't in effect?

ACHEBE: No, maximalism has always been with us.

MORROW: What are your favorite novels?

ACHEBE: As a matter of fact, you've mentioned a couple of them. I would just add the Russians -- writers who went out and grabbed the world.

MORROW: Henry James would not be your cup of tea?

ACHEBE: No, I don't think so. By that time in the novel, form had become important to fiction. And there's a purpose to that. I'm not discounting the contribution of the classical mode to the art of the novel. But once consideration of form goes beyond a certain point, it becomes a limitation on the imagination. It might help half a dozen works, but after that there's very little left. I think the point you were making a moment ago is important. The novel is not a summit. It came out of this need to break out, and it broke out at points when the world was exploding. And the best examples are those located at points of explosion, not when things are settled, or have simmered down.

MORROW: In your essay "Named for Victoria, Queen of England," you describe growing up Christian but also being drawn to particiating in your uncle's "heathen" festival meals where his family subscribed to the old religion which was idolatrous, pantheistic and anything but Anglican. It's interesting to note that far from being cast into a spiritual agony, you say your curiosity was appeased by this. So there were two religions that guided you as a boy. I'm curious what importance religion played in your growing up and becoming a novelist.

ACHEBE: That's a very big and important question. My beginnings were clearly influenced by religion. In fact, my whole artistic career was probably sparked off by this tension between the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating, older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside my home. This tension created sparks in my imagination. I wasn't questioning in an intellectual way because I was too young. But without questioning, things can still happen to you. My uncle being there and being available was an enriching experience. I wouldn't give up anything for that, including my own narrow, if you like, Christian background. It was extremely useful that we prayed and read from the Bible and sang hynms night and day. I wasn't uncomfortable with any of that. To be interested in my uncle's religion wasn't to be rebelling. It was simply part of a very rich childhood. I was part of a lucky generation, to be planted at a crossroads, a time when the meeting of two cultures produced something of worth. Now it's impossible to grow up having the same faith, belief and attitude toward religion that I had as a child. Of course, I did have long periods of doubt and uncertainty, and had a period where I objected strongly to the certitude of Christianity -- I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. When I was little, that didn't mean anything to me, but later on I was able to compare it with the rather careful and far more humble attitude of my indigenous religion in which because they recognized different gods they also recognized that you might be friendly with this god and fall out with the other one. You might worship Udo to perfection and still be killed by Ogwugwu. Such sayings and proverbs are far more valuable to me as a human being in understanding the complexity of the world than the narrow, doctrinaire, self-righteous attitude of the Christian faith. This other religion, which is am- bivalent, is far more artistically satisfying to me.

MORROW: Just as is the ambivalence in the form of the novel we were talking about. How do you feel about religion now, personally?

ACHEBE: Well, I'm still in a state of uncertainty, but I'm not worried anymore. I'm not looking for the answers, because I believe now that we will never know. I believe now that what we have to do is make our passage through life as meaningful and as useful as possible, I think our contribution to the creation of the world is important, and I take my bearing in this from a creation story of the Igbo people in which there is a conversation between God and humanity. They are discussing the state of the environment -- what to do to lift man from the state of wandering, the state of animals, to becoming human, i.e., agricultural. And this is embedded in a story, a parable. Man is sitting disconsolate on an anthill one morning. God asks him what the matter is and man replies that the soil is too swampy for the cultivation of the yams which God has directed him to grow. God tells him to bring in a blacksmith to dry the soil with his bellows. The contribution of humanity to this creation is so important. God could have made the world perfect if he had wanted. But he made it the way it is. So that there is a constant need for us to discuss and cooperate to make it more habitable, so the soil can yield, you see. That seems to me to be enough to occupy my time and thoughts, rather than wondering, Does this exist? or, Which came first, the egg or the chicken? One can be involved in those questions forever. They are things that we will never know. It is the things that we can do that seem to me to me far more important.

MORROW: Given mankind's penchant for making mischief with the little knowledge it does have, perhaps it's best we don't know.

ACHEBE: Yes. I wouldn't even want to know. It's just as well not to because I believe that ambivalence is a more truthful position than having an attitude that there isn't even anything to worry about.

MORROW: You sound like a Buddhist to me, Chinua.

ACHEBE: I probably am!

Bradford Morrow's interview with Chinua Achebe continues here.

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