We remember Chinua Achebe: On the Importance of Storytelling

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Nigerian Novelist Chinua Achebe: 13 November 1930 – 21 March 2013. “The storyteller who hears the music of history, weaves the fabric of memory, and sometimes offends the Emperor”. 

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Chinua Achebe In His Own Words

On the Value & Functions of Literature and Storytelling,
Works by Chinua Achebe, Interviews with Chinua Achebe
http://URL of this page: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/achebe2.htm

ON THE VALUE & FUNCTIONS
OF LITERATURE AND STORY TELLING
Note: Interpretative summaries is this section are Cora Agatucci’s

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“…only the story…can continue beyond the war and the warrior.
It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters.
It is the story…that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars
into the spikes of the cactus fence.
The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.
Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story;
rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.
–Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

From Conversation with James Baldwin: 1980

“Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look carefully they are the same people are quite happy with the situation as it is…What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

From “What Has Literature Got to Do with It,” collected in Hopes and Impediments (1988):

“Literature, whether handed down by word or mouth or in print, gives us a second handle on reality.” Achebe believes that literature has social and political importance. It is much more than a creative ornament. It provides a necessary critical perspective on everyday experience, educates us on the meaning of our actions and offers us greater control over our social and personal lives. According to Achebe, literature works by “enabling us to encounter in the safe, manageable dimensions of make-believe the very same threats to integrity that may assail the psyche in real life; and at the same time providing through the self-discovery which it imparts a veritable weapon for coping with these threats whether they are found within our problematic and incoherent selves or in the world around us.”

From “The Novelist as Teacher,” collected in Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) & Hopes and Impediments (1988):

Achebe represents a particular reality: a modern Africa whose rich variety of ethnic and cultural identities is complicated by the impact of European colonialism. Read by Western audiences, works like Things Fall Apart are intended to challenge stereotypes of Africans as primitive savages, and present the complexities of African societies, with their alternative sets of traditions, ideals, values, and behaviors. Achebe is even more dismayed, however, to see Africans themselves internalizing these stereotypes and turn away from their cultures to emulate supposedly superior white European civilizations. So Achebe describes a dual mission to educate both African and European readers, to reinstate a sense of pride in African cultures and “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of years of denigration and self-abasement.”

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(As Paul Brians explains, the “most striking feature [of Things Fall Apart] is to create a complex and sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa. Achebe is trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering.

“He also fiercely resents the stereotype of Africa as an undifferentiated ‘primitive’ land, the “heart of darkness,” as Conrad calls it. Throughout the novel he shows how African cultures vary among themselves and how they change over time. Look for instances of these variations as you read.

“As a young boy the ‘African literature’ he was taught consisted entirely of works by Europeans about Africa, such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, which portrays a comic African who slavishly adores his white colonist boss, to the point of gladly being shot to death by him. Achebe has said that it was his indignation at this latter novel that inspired the writing of Things Fall Apart. Try to see in what ways his novel answers Cary’s. He also wrote a famous attack [“An Image of Africa” ] on the racism of Heart of Darkness which continues to the subject of heated debate.”

See also “Achebe’s Fiction and Contemporary Nigerian Politics” by George P. Landow (Prof. of English and Art History, Brown Univ), based on Contemporary Authors] – Achebe “states his mission in his essay ‘The Novelist as Teacher’: ‘Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse — to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of society meet.'”

From “The African Writer and the English Language” (1964), collected in Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975):

Achebe’s goals cannot be realized by a simple return to a pre-colonial African age. He believes African society has been irrevocably changed by the colonial era. Achebe chooses to write in English and use Western forms of literary expression, unlike other African writers who reject the colonizers’ languages (e.g., English, French) and other vestiges of colonial influence. For example, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya) chooses now to write and create only in his native Gikuyu language to build up an indigenous literature and “orature” (oral and performance arts). Achebe says he chooses to write in “African English” to express “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. . . . The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.”

Like many other “postcolonial” writers from India, Africa, and other formerly colonized nations of the world, Achebe attempts to construct an image of Africa in a language that respects the national traditions of his native land while recognizing the demands of a cosmopolitan, international audience to whom Things Fall Apart is, in part, addressed. Achebe aims to reclaim his heritage and at the same time indicate directions for constructive change. He writes at a time when countries are adapting to a global economy and responding to pressures for reform and international cooperation, yet Achebe is keenly aware of the dangers of reactionary forms of nationalism and the desire for absolute power that, in Nigeria and elsewhere, have blocked reform and given dictators unrestrained rule.

For Achebe, the transition to a new kind of postcolonial world should not abandon the old; and the repository of the old, the vital means to bring the old to meet the new, is the story. “The story is our escort,” a character is Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah says; “without it, we are blind . . . .” The story embodies a tradition that can adapt to the new; the problem Achebe confronts is that of preserving national and cultural identity in the face of the inevitable blending of different cultures, yet preserving that identity in a way that does not reject–and can benefit.

References to the novel are from the edition used in Hum 211: Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. [1958.] Expanded edition with notes. London: Heinemann, 1996. See the “Suggestions for Further Reading,” pp. lvi-lviii, in this edition.

Some of the above questions have been adapted or quoted from the Study Guide and Notes on Things Fall Apart (1996; http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/anglophone/achebe.html) of Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020 [brians@wsu.edu].

“The world is big. Some people are unable to comprehend that simple fact.
They want the world on their own terms, its peoples just like them and their friends,
its places like the manicured little patch on which they live.
But this is a foolish and blind wish.
Diversity is not an abnormality but the very reality of our planet.
The human world manifests the same reality and will not seek our permission
to celebrate itself in the magnificence of its endless varieties.
Civility is a sensible attribute in this kind of world we have;
narrowness of heart and mind is not.”

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