Quote of the Day : Chinua Achebe on Ire of the Race

Chinua Achebe was born in 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria. He grew up in a large community, one of the first to be centres of Anglican missionaries. So, his formal education was ‘Christian’; however, he was well acquainted with the oral tradition, imparted to him by his mother and his sister.

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Ch. 2

Origins of the Quote

Achebe’s writing is powerfully en point. He is one of the authors who doesn’t embellish but is succinct and focused. Personally, I have been partial to this style of writing, no frills and direct, rich in context. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, was published in 1985 by William Heinemann Ltd. His characters resonate with life. They approximate reality. He uses the omniscient narrator to speak about the central protagonist.

Here is a brief contemplation on the intrinsic motive behind Okonkwo’s violent tendencies. Chief Okonkwo, although acting from a place of fear, betrays that his fears don’t resemble the prevalent terrors of his clan. Their fears are supernatural in nature. Unfortunately, Okonkwo suffers from an existential fear that he will fail in life and end up like his father. This existential fear plays a major thematic role in Things Fall Apart. It is what drives Okonkwo to perform several unspeakable acts of tremendous violence. Though shocking, it was close to the reality of the situation.

Achebe attended the prestigious colonial Government college at Umuahia when he was 14. Although the English curriculum closely followed Britain’s, teachers introduced works they considered relevant to their Nigerian students. These included Joyce Cary’s African novels and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ironically, these works were antithetical to the mentality brought about by recent anti-colonial movements in west Africa, post-World War II.

So, there was a conflict of interest, culturally speaking but these two great writers had touched upon each other’s minds. They had, in their own ways brought out the wrestle of inner demons and morality significantly. Strangely on different sides, facing dilemmas that no man should have. The hallmark in both their depictions was the absence of sentimentality. 

The Person Behind the Words : Chinua Achebe

As mentioned, Achebe studied at the Government college at Umuahia where he read alongside poet Christopher Okigbo, his close friend. Subsequently, he won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Ibadan in 1948. Achebe realised that writing was his true calling. Following his heart, he switched to a degree in English literature, religious studies and history.

After graduating in 1952, Achebe was motivated to tell the story of the colonial encounter from an African point of view. Cary’s Nigeria-set novel Mister Johnson, which, was much praised by English critics. However, to the discerning reader Achebe, it seemed “a most superficial picture of Nigeria and the Nigerian character. If this was famous, then someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.”

Unsentimental depictions of the socio-psychological disorientation accompanying the imposition of Western and values upon traditional African society. His particular concern was with emergent Africa. His writing covered a vast range. From the first contact with the white man, to the educated African’s attempt to create a firm moral order from changing urban values.

An early career in radio ended in 1966, when he left his post as Director of External Broadcasting in Nigeria during the national upheaval. Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and represented Biafra on various diplomatic and fund-raising missions.

Political ambitions aside he taught at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Bard College, and Brown University, Proividence, US. His academic career was illustrated with honorary doctorates from more than 30 colleges and universities. Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize in 1987. Chinua Achebe was also the recipient of Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award, 2007. He died on 22nd March 2013.

Denouncing Heart of Darkness

Achebe’s reaction to Conrad’s book will be remembered by the academics the world over. It was a reaction that would circle like a satellite amongst literary scholars for many years. Here is what happened.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst was celebrating the 40th anniversary. It was also the site of Chinua Achebe’s famous 1975 Chancellor’s Lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Many walked out in protest and it is still a site for debate. Achebe had read Heart of Darkness himself and was not unaffected by Conrad’s literary brilliance.  “Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction,” Achebe said in his lecture.

The reading of the text, altered his view just as it did for many others who read Conrad’s book. Achebe observed, ‘once he reached a certain age, he realized – that he was “not on Marlow’s ship” but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing’. At one point, Conrad describes an African working on the ship as a “dog wearing trousers.” These were deeply problematic points for the author who would not resolve or accept this line of thought. It was so intrinsically ‘white’ in thought. Even for a Polish immigrant writing in an unknown language, it was essentially white.

“The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate,” says Achebe. “I realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude.”

Some Final Thought

Things Fall Apart remains one of the renowned African novels of the 20th century. It explores the contortions of Okonkwo, whose tragic and fatal flaw was his overweening ambition, that wound him. The frenzied desire to be anything like his father causes him to develop a warped view of his society. Eventually, that view becomes a reality to him. Returning from exile, seeing his people in the throes of adapting to the intruding whites, destroy him. And things fall apart for him. Unable to accept the society he envisioned, and he takes his own life.

A small part of me had gauged when Okonkwo was introduced that behind all the bluster there lurked fear. But Achebe didn’t let on. He steers his characters to a point that they do what they set out to, by themselves. In a way I was expecting the end of Okonkwo. But Whether it is Achebe or Conrad, I wanted to see how these protagonists would be resolved. I have always admired in both writers, the lack of drama but such rich creativity. It was a completely new style of writing to be enjoyed.

Achebe created a hybrid method that combined oral and literary modes. He refashioned the English language to convey traditional Igbo voices and concepts. He established a model and an inspiration for future novelists.

Things Fall Apart demonstrates, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilisation for the first time from Europeans”. Parallel to that thought, he sought to avoid depicting precolonial Africa as a pastoral idyll, rejecting the nostalgic evocations of Léopold Senghor and the French-négritude school of writing.

Chinua Achebe : Legacy

Achebe’s peak and the culmination of his thoughts and expressions culminated in Arrow of God (1964). Many litterateurs regard this as Achebe’s greatest achievement, replete with a complex structure and characterisation; coupled with its interrogation of the interstices between subjective desire and external forces in the making of history.

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