"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Chinua Achebe’s Booker award, Nigeria’s glory

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chinua Achebe’s Booker award, Nigeria’s glory

This first appeared on June 16, 2007 in my column in the Weekly Trust newspaper.

By Farooq A. Kperogi


The recent international recognition of the literary excellence of our peerless literary icon, Chinua Achebe, and the equally richly deserved crowing of the prodigious literary prowess of U.S.-based up-and-coming novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been such comforting news especially for those of us living outside Nigeria who have had the unpleasant burden of explaining (actually, in most cases, explaining away) to our friends all the bad international press we’ve had in the last couple of months.

Since May this year, every well-informed American I have met has asked me about our outrageously fraudulent elections and, of course, about the kidnappings of foreigners in the Niger Delta. These two issues seem to be the only topics people here know about Nigeria when they strike up a conversation with you. I don’t blame them, though. Their news media has had a rather unhealthy fixation with these stories these past few months.

Then first came cheering news that one pulchritudinous and immensely talented 28-year-old Nigerian lady called Adichie has won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction for her book, Half of a Yellow Sun. (Incidentally, Chinua Achebe was also only 28 years old when he wrote his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart).

She trounced many better known and more established women writers to win the prize. Although news of her win didn’t do much to divert attention from the negative publicity of Nigeria in the Western media, it did provide a comforting alternative subject matter to discuss with people about Nigeria here.

But perhaps the greatest boost to Nigeria’s image this week is the news of the award of the over 15-million-naira-worth Booker Man International Prize to Chinua Achebe. He beat such well-known writers as the controversial Indian-born British writer Ahmed Salman Rushdie, the eminent Jewish-American writer Philip Roth and the equally outstanding Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, among many others.

It is a well-merited but long overdue acknowledgment of Achebe’s pioneering contribution to African fiction writing, a reason he has been rightly dubbed the father of modern African prose.

Professor Chinua Achebe
However, this award, significant and praiseworthy as it is, does more good to the hitherto little-known, two-year-old foundation that conferred it on Achebe than it does to Achebe himself. We are talking about a man who is easily one of the world’s most accomplished authors of all time, a man whose legendary, irreproducible Things Fall Apart has sold over 10 million copies and is translated into over 50 languages (except in his own native Igbo—unfortunately); a man whose book has been recognized as one the world’s 100 greatest classics in the pantheon of literature.

What more can anybody hope for? Achebe has reached the mountaintop of literary achievement— and still sits there with admirable grace and elegance.

So why should we celebrate Achebe’s little award, an award that actually needs him more than he needs it, an award that could use his awe-inspiring, larger-than-life image to inscribe itself in global literary consciousness? I think it is precisely because this award also bestows more honor on Nigeria as a corporate entity than it does on Achebe as a person.

Because of Achebe’s towering international stature, the award is generating fairly robust news coverage and editorial commentaries in the international media. Invariably, Nigeria gets mentioned in some positive light—even if this might end up being a mere flash in the pan.

Achebe is one writer whose literary charm has won him as much affection and popularity at home as it has won him abroad. Call him a prophet who is honored both at home and abroad, if you like. I got my first experiential taste of his popularity here in 2005.

One day I was having a conversation with my thesis director. In the course of our conversation, he made an allegorical reference to Okonkwo, the protagonist in Things Fall Apart. At first I didn’t get what he said both because I didn’t expect him to know Okonkwo and because his white American accent did some phonological violence to the name.

Sensing that I was a bit confused, he said “I am referring to Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” I was amazed. He knew the storyline, the plot, the setting, etc of Things Fall Apart with such effortless ease that you would think he was Nigerian, or at least that he had lived in Nigeria.

He told me that the book was a recommended text in his high school English literature class. I later discovered that many Americans that have at least a high school diploma have encountered Achebe’s works, especially his Things Fall Apart. His works, I have found out, are also widely studied in the English departments of many universities here.

This is not limited to America, however; it’s a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, most of the Chinese students I’ve had the pleasure to relate with here have told me that Things Fall Apart was compulsory reading for them.

I particularly recall a Chinese friend telling me that many Chinese students, especially at the height of the Cold War, often felt depressed after reading the book because “Achebe allowed those damn imperialists to triumph over the revolutionary Okonkwo.” Achebe’s classic response to that criticism is that he wasn’t writing political propaganda but an imaginative recapitulation of the pre-colonial and early colonial socio-historical experiences of his people.

However, in a sense, it might be argued—and with some justification, I think—that the popularity of Things Fall Apart in the West is not so much a consequence of the regard Westerners have for the book’s literary qualities (even though it undoubtedly has matchless literary qualities) as it is because it feeds their anthropological curiosity about Africans. Scenes of human sacrifice, wife beating and other supposedly atavistic practices that Westerners habitually ascribe to “less evolved” Africans—which are actually incidental to the core of the book—are usually the main points of attraction.

This was what motivated me to argue in a paper I once wrote for my undergraduate class in African literature that Things Fall Apart inadvertently reinforces some of the “Conradian” stereotypes it purports to subvert and destabilize. But this is no place for high-minded cerebration about the literary choices of Achebe.

Interestingly, while Achebe is literally a household name in both literary and popular circles worldwide, few people know Wole Soyinka outside Nigeria—at least in comparison with Achebe. Even in Nigeria, we know Soyinka more as a political activist (and a willfully turgid and impenetrable author whose books we grudgingly read only because of curricular tyranny) than as a literary icon in the class of Achebe. In other words, Soyinka is famous only because he is famous!

The same Americans and Chinese people I met who knew a lot about Achebe and his works told me they had never even heard of the name Wole Soyinka. Interestingly, Soyinka himself once famously remarked that while he may the best known writer to emerge from Nigeria on account of his Nobel Prize (this is, of course, not entirely true), Things Fall Apart is the best known literary work to emerge from Nigeria.

He also once pointed out in one rare moment of self-deprecating candor that any time he is introduced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria, he’s always had to contend with the embarrassment of explaining to people that he is not the author of Things Fall Apart.

This reality, for me, dramatizes the tendentiousness of the politics of the Nobel Prize committee, which Chinweizu once called a “gaggle of Swedes” who sit in a yearly conspiratorial conclave to endorse people that reinforce and naturalize Western hegemony.

Underlying the decision to deny Achebe the Nobel Prize in Literature is a subtle, unspoken but nonetheless veridical racial (some would say racist) politics. Achebe has been univocal—and, yes, unapologetic—in his denunciation of the racism implicit in the works of many Western literary and political icons.

For instance, he once called Joseph Conrad, who is worshiped in the English departments of many Western universities, as a “thoroughgoing racist” for his invidious caricature of Africans in Heart of Darkness, a novel that is still regarded as a classic in the West.

He is also on record as having criticized Albert Schweitzer, a 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a well-regarded apotheosis of Western liberalism. Schweitzer, a German-French theologian who spent a great deal of his life evangelizing the gospel of Christianity in Gabon, died in 1965 at the age of 90. He was well-known for saying that the Christianization of Africans was a historical burden that Europeans must shoulder to atone for the sins of slavery and colonialism.

He was also once quoted as saying, “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.” Achebe was piqued, and criticized his paternalism and condescension toward Africans. The Western power structure was silently outraged.

But perhaps Achebe’s more obvious “sin” was that in 1985, a year before Wole Soyinka was given the Nobel Prize in Literature, he characterized the Indian-Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul as "a brilliant writer who sold himself to the West.” Then he added: “And one day he'll be 'rewarded' with maybe a Nobel Prize or something."

Naipaul is the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Many people say Achebe would have been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985 but for this brutally frank barb at the West— and the Nobel Prize. There is no reason to suppose that this as an idle conspiracy theory.

Thankfully, the Nobel Prize is not the only touchstone of literary excellence in the world, as the recent recognition of Achebe has shown. And Achebe is in good company, too. Such world-renowned writers as Leo Tolstoy, Émile Zola, Henrik Ibsen and so on were also notably ignored by the Nobel Prize committee because of their political views.

So, for whatever it is worth, let us congratulate Professor Chinua Achebe— and Miss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Next week, all things being equal, I will start a long-running series on Nigerian English—its points of convergence and departure from British and American English and a case for its standardization. Have a good weekend.
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