Interviews

Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139

Interviewed by Jerome Brooks

Chinua Achebe was born in Eastern Nigeria in 1930. He went to the local public schools and was among the first students to graduate from the University of Ibadan. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer and Director of External Broadcasting, and it was during this period that he began his writing career. 

He is the author, coauthor, or editor of some seventeen books, among them five novels: Things Fall Apart, 1958; No Longer at Ease, 1960; Arrow of God, 1964; A Man of the People, 1966; and Anthills of the Savannah, 1987. He is the editor of several anthologies, including the essay collections Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments, and the collection of poetry Beware Soul Brother. He is the editor of the magazine Okike and founding editor of the Heinemann series on African literature, a list that now has more than three hundred titles. He is often called the father of modern African literature. He is the recipient, at last count, of some twenty-five honorary doctorates from universities throughout the world and is currently the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of English at Bard College.  

This interview took place on two very different occasions. The first meeting was before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the Ninety-second Street Y on a bitterly cold and rainy January evening; the weather made the sidewalks and roads treacherous. We were all the more surprised at the very large and enthusiastic audience. The theater was almost packed. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; Achebe paid gracious tribute to him and then answered questions from the interviewer and audience. The interviewer and Achebe sat on a stage with a table and a bouquet of flowers between them. Achebe was at ease and captured the audience with stories of his childhood and youth.

The second session took place on an early fall day at Achebe’s house on the beautiful grounds where he lives in upstate New York. He answered the door in his wheelchair and graciously ushered his guest through his large, neat living room to his study—a long, narrow room lined with many books on history, religion, and literature. There is a small slightly cluttered desk where he writes.

Achebe favors traditional Nigerian clothes and reminds one more of the priest in Arrow of God than Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. His appearance is peaceful and his eyes wise. His demeanor is modest, but when he begins to talk about literature and Nigeria, he is transformed. His eyes light up; he is an assured, elegant, and witty storyteller.

The year 1990 marked Achebe’s sixtieth birthday. His colleagues at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, where he is a professor of English and chairman emeritus of the department, sponsored an international conference entitled Eagle on Iroko in his honor. Participants came from around the world to appraise the significance of his work for African and world literature. The conference opened on the day Nelson Mandela was liberated from prison, and the day was declared a national holiday. There was a festive mood during the weeklong activities of scholarly papers, traditional drama, dancing, and banquets. The iroko is the tallest tree in that part of Africa and the eagle soars to its height.

Scarcely a month later, while on his way to the airport in Lagos to resume a teaching post at Dartmouth, Achebe was severely injured in a car accident. He was flown to a London hospital where he underwent surgery and spent many months in painful recuperation. Although confined to a wheelchair, he has made a remarkable recovery in the past three years and, to the surprise of his family and many friends throughout the world, is beginning to look and sound like his old self.

 

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell us something about the Achebe family and growing up in an Igbo village, your early education, and whether there was anything there that pointed you that early in the direction of writing?

CHINUA ACHEBE

I think the thing that clearly pointed me there was my interest in stories. Not necessarily writing stories, because at that point, writing stories was not really viable. So you didn’t think of it. But I knew I loved stories, stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder sister—such as the story of the tortoise—whatever scraps of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different, but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with his family to his ancestral village.

When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp . . . Fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal.

Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

INTERVIEWER

You were among the first graduates of the great University of Ibadan. What was it like in the early years of that university, and what did you study there? Has it stuck with you in your writing?

ACHEBE

Ibadan was, in retrospect, a great institution. In a way, it revealed the paradox of the colonial situation, because this university college was founded towards the end of British colonial rule in Nigeria. If they did any good things, Ibadan was one of them. It began as a college of London University, because under the British, you don’t rush into doing any of those things like universities just like that. You start off as an appendage of somebody else. You go through a period of tutelage. We were the University College of Ibadan of London. So I took a degree from London University. That was the way it was organized in those days. One of the signs of independence, when it came, was for Ibadan to become a full-fledged university.

I began with science, then English, history, and religion. I found these subjects exciting and very useful. Studying religion was new to me and interesting because it wasn’t only Christian theology; we also studied West African religions. My teacher there, Dr. Parrinder, now an emeritus professor of London University, was a pioneer in the area. He had done extensive research in West Africa, in Dahomey. For the first time, I was able to see the systems—including my own—compared and placed side by side, which was really exciting. I also encountered a professor, James Welch, in that department, an extraordinary man, who had been chaplain to King George VI, chaplain to the BBC, and all kinds of high powered things before he came to us. He was a very eloquent preacher. On one occasion, he said to me, We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know. I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

INTERVIEWER

When you finished university, one of the first careers you embarked upon was broadcasting with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

ACHEBE

I got into it through the intervention of Professor Welch. He had tried to get me a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and it didn’t work out. So the next thing was the broadcasting department, which was newly started in Nigeria, with a lot of BBC people. So that’s how I got into it. It wasn’t because I was thinking of broadcasting. I really had no idea what I was going to do when I left college. I’m amazed when I think about students today. They know from day one what they are going to be. We didn’t. We just coasted. We just knew that things would work out. Fortunately, things did work out. There were not too many of us. You couldn’t do that today and survive. So I got into broadcasting and then discovered that the section of it where I worked, the spoken word department, the Talks Department, as it’s called, was really congenial. It was just the thing I wanted. You edited scripts. People’s speeches. Then short stories. I really got into editing and commissioning short stories. Things were happening very fast in our newly independent country, and I was soon promoted out of this excitement into management.

INTERVIEWER

The titles of your first two books—Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease—are from modern Irish and American poets. Other black writers—I’m thinking particularly of Paule Marshall—borrow from Yeats. I wonder if Yeats and Eliot are among your favorite poets.

ACHEBE

They are. Actually, I wouldn’t make too much of that. I was showing off more than anything else. As I told you, I took a general degree, with English as part of it, and you had to show some evidence of that. But I liked Yeats! That wild Irishman. I really loved his love of language, his flow. His chaotic ideas seemed to me just the right thing for a poet. Passion! He was always on the right side. He may be wrongheaded, but his heart was always on the right side. He wrote beautiful poetry. It had the same kind of magic about it that I mentioned the wizard had for me. I used to make up lines with anything that came into my head, anything that sounded interesting. So Yeats was that kind of person for me. It was only later I discovered his theory of circles or cycles of civilization. I wasn’t thinking of that at all when it came time to find a title. That phrase “things fall apart” seemed to me just right and appropriate.

T. S. Eliot was quite different. I had to study him at Ibadan. He had a kind of priestly erudition—eloquence, but of a different kind. Scholarly to a fault. But I think the poem from which I took the title of No Longer at Ease, the one about the three magi, is one of the great poems in the English language. These people who went and then came back to their countries were “no longer at ease” . . . I think that that is great—the use of simple language, even when things talked about are profound, very moving, very poignant. So that’s really all there is to it. But you’ll notice that after those first two titles I didn’t do it anymore.

INTERVIEWER

I once heard your English publisher, Alan Hill, talk about how you sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to him.

ACHEBE

That was a long story. The first part of it was how the manuscript was nearly lost. In 1957 I was given a scholarship to go to London and study for some months at the BBC. I had a draft of Things Fall Apart with me, so I took it along to finish it. When I got to the BBC, one of my friends—there were two of us from Nigeria—said, Why don’t you show this to Mr. Phelps? Gilbert Phelps, one of the instructors of the BBC school, was a novelist. I said, What? No! This went on for some time. Eventually I was pushed to do it and I took the manuscript and handed it to Mr. Phelps. He said, Well . . . all right, the way I would today if anyone brought me a manuscript. He was not really enthusiastic. Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely. He was the first person, outside of myself, to say, I think this is interesting. In fact, he felt so strongly that one Saturday he was compelled to look for me and tell me. I had traveled out of London; he found out where I was, phoned the hotel, and asked me to call him back. When I was given this message, I was completely floored. I said, Maybe he doesn’t like it. But then why would he call me if he doesn’t like it. So it must be he likes it. Anyway, I was very excited. When I got back to London, he said, This is wonderful. Do you want me to show it to my publishers? I said, Yes, but not yet, because I had decided that the form wasn’t right. Attempting to do a saga of three families, I was covering too much ground in this first draft. So I realized that I needed to do something drastic, really give it more body. So I said to Mr. Phelps, OK, I am very grateful but I’d like to take this back to Nigeria and look at it again. Which is what I did.

When I was in England, I had seen advertisements about typing agencies; I had learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed. So, foolishly, from Nigeria I parceled my manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world—wrapped it up and posted it to this typing agency that advertised in the Spectator. They wrote back and said, Thank you for your manuscript. We’ll charge thirty-two pounds. That was what they wanted for two copies and which they had to receive before they started. So I sent thirty-two pounds in British postal order to these people and then I heard no more. Weeks passed, and months. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. Finally, I was very lucky. My boss at the broadcasting house was going home to London on leave. A very stubborn Englishwoman. I told her about this. She said, Give me their name and address. When she got to London she went there! She said, What’s this nonsense? They must have been shocked, because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa—well, there’s really nobody to follow it up. The British don’t normally behave like that. It’s not done, you see. But something from Africa was treated differently. So when this woman, Mrs. Beattie, turned up in their office and said, What’s going on? they were confused. They said, The manuscript was sent but customs returned it. Mrs. Beattie said, Can I see your dispatch book? They had no dispatch book. So she said, Well, send this thing, typed up, back to him in the next week, or otherwise you’ll hear about it. So soon after that, I received the typed manuscript of Things Fall Apart. One copy, not two. No letter at all to say what happened. My publisher, Alan Hill, rather believed that the thing was simply neglected, left in a corner gathering dust. That’s not what happened. These people did not want to return it to me and had no intention of doing so. Anyway, when I got it I sent it back up to Heinemann. They had never seen an African novel. They didn’t know what to do with it. Someone told them, Oh, there’s a professor of economics at London School of Economics and Political Science who just came back from those places. He might be able to advise you. Fortunately, Don Macrae was a very literate professor, a wonderful man. I got to know him later. He wrote what they said was the shortest report they ever had on any novel—seven words: “The best first novel since the war.” So that’s how I got launched.

INTERVIEWER

Heinemann was also perplexed as to how many copies should be printed . . .

ACHEBE

Oh yes. They printed very, very few. It was a risk. Not something they’d ever done before. They had no idea if anybody would want to read it. It went out of print very quickly. It would have stayed that way if Alan Hill hadn’t decided that he was going to gamble even more and launch a paperback edition of this book. Other publishers thought it was mad, that this was crazy. But that was how the African Writers Series came in to existence. In the end, Alan Hill was made a Commander of the British Empire for bringing into existence a body of literature they said was among the biggest developments in British literature of this century. So it was a very small beginning, but it caught fire.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that you wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to Joyce Cary’s Mr. Johnson.

ACHEBE

I wish I hadn’t said that.

INTERVIEWER

You made Mr. Johnson famous! But your most trenchant essay on the colonial novel is your subsequent essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I wonder what you think is the image of Africa today in the Western mind.

ACHEBE

I think it’s changed a bit. But not very much in its essentials. When I think of the standing, the importance and the erudition of all these people who see nothing about racism in Heart of Darkness, I’m convinced that we must really be living in different worlds. Anyway, if you don’t like someone’s story, you write your own. If you don’t like what somebody says, you say what it is you don’t like. Some people imagine that what I mean is, Don’t read Conrad. Good heavens, no! I teach Conrad. I teach Heart of Darkness. I have a course on Heart of Darkness in which what I’m saying is, Look at the way this man handles Africans. Do you recognize humanity there? People will tell you he was opposed to imperialism. But it’s not enough to say, I’m opposed to imperialism. Or, I’m opposed to these people—these poor people—being treated like this. Especially since he goes on straight away to call them “dogs standing on their hind legs.” That kind of thing. Animal imagery throughout. He didn’t see anything wrong with it. So we must live in different worlds. Until these two worlds come together we will have a lot of trouble.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever taught creative writing?

ACHEBE

No.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

ACHEBE

Well, I don’t know how it’s done. I mean it. I really don’t know. The only thing I can say for it is that it provides work for writers. Don’t laugh! It’s very important. I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.

INTERVIEWER

Has your work been translated into Igbo? Is it important for it to be translated into Igbo?

ACHEBE

No, my work has not been translated. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance, which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary by the name of Dennis. Archdeacon Dennis. He was a scholar. He had this notion that the Igbo language—which had very many different dialects—should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing to avoid all these different dialects. Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. An earlier translation of the Bible into one of the dialects—an excellent translation, by the way—was pushed aside and a new dialect was invented by Dennis. The way he did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created . . . or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way, around the table, they created what is called Standard Igbo, with which the Bible was translated. The result is incredible. I can speak about it because in my family we read the Bible day and night. I know the Bible very well. But the standard version cannot sing. There’s nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It’s heavy. It’s wooden. It doesn’t go anywhere. We’ve had it now for almost a hundred years so it has established a kind of presence; it has created its own momentum among our own scholars. There are grammarians who now sit over the Igbo language in the way that Dennis did in 1906 and dictate it into Standard Igbo. I think this is a terrible tragedy. I think dialects should be left alone. People should write in whatever dialect they feel they want to write. In the fullness of time, these dialects will sort themselves out. They actually were beginning to do so, because Igbo people have always traveled and met among themselves; they have a way of communicating. But this has not been allowed to happen. Instead the scholars are all over the place. I don’t really have any interest in these translations. If someone said, I want to translate your novel into Igbo, I would say, Go ahead. But when I write in the Igbo language, I write my own dialect. I write some poetry in that dialect. Maybe someday I will, myself, translate Things Fall Apart into the Igbo language. Just to show what I mean, though for me, being bilingual, the novel form seems to go with the English language. Poetry and drama seem to go with the Igbo language.

INTERVIEWER

How much do you think writers should engage themselves in public issues?

ACHEBE

I don’t lay down the law for anybody else. But I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. They are generally adults. My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict. I don’t see how art can be called art if its purpose is to frustrate humanity. To make humanity uncomfortable, yes. But intrinsically to be against humanity, that I don’t take. This is why I find racism impossible, because this is against humanity. Some people think, Well, what he’s saying is we must praise his people. For God’s sake! Go and read my books. I don’t praise my people. I am their greatest critic. Some people think my little pamphlet, The Trouble with Nigeria, went too far. I’ve got into all kinds of trouble for my writing. Art should be on the side of humanity. I think it was Yevtushenko talking about Rimbaud, the Frenchman who went to Ethiopia and came back with all kinds of diseases. Yevtushenko said of him that a poet cannot become a slave trader. When Rimbaud became a slave trader, he stopped writing poetry. Poetry and slave trading cannot be bedfellows. That’s where I stand.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say something about the germination of a work. What comes first? A general idea, a specific situation, a plot, a character?

ACHEBE

It’s not the same with every book. Generally, I think I can say that the general idea is the first, followed almost immediately by the major characters. We live in a sea of general ideas, so that’s not a novel, since there are so many general ideas. But the moment a particular idea is linked to a character, it’s like an engine moves it. Then you have a novel underway. This is particularly so with novels that have distinct and overbearing characters like Ezeulu in Arrow of God. In novels like A Man of the People, or better still, No Longer at Ease, with characters who are not commanding personalities, there I think the general idea plays a stronger part at the initial stage. But once you pass that initial state, there’s really no difference between the general idea and the character; each has to work.

INTERVIEWER

What is the place of plot? Do you think of a plot as you go along? Does the plot grow out of the character, or out of the idea?

ACHEBE

Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story. At some point it seems as if you are not as much in command, in control, of events as you thought you were. There are things the story must have or else look incomplete. And these will almost automatically present themselves. When they don’t, you are in trouble and then the novel stops.

INTERVIEWER

Then is writing easy for you? Or do you find it difficult?

ACHEBE

The honest answer is, it’s difficult. But the word difficult doesn’t really express what I mean. It is like wrestling; you are wrestling with ideas and with the story. There is a lot of energy required. At the same time, it is exciting. So it is both difficult and easy. What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment--—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes. So it is both pleasurable and difficult.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find a particular time or place that you like to write—a time of day or a place in your house or your office?

ACHEBE

I have found that I work best when I am at home in Nigeria. But one learns to work in other places. I am most comfortable in the surroundings, the kind of environment about which I am writing. The time of day doesn’t matter, really. I am not an early-morning person; I don’t like to get out of bed, and so I don’t begin writing at five A.M., though some people, I hear, do. I write once my day has started. And I can work late into the night, also. Generally, I don’t attempt to produce a certain number of words a day. The discipline is to work whether you are producing a lot or not, because the day you produce a lot is not necessarily the day you do your best work. So it’s trying to do it as regularly as you can without making it—without imposing too rigid a timetable on your self. That would be my ideal.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write with a pen, a typewriter, or have you been seduced by computers?

ACHEBE

No! No, no—I’m very primitive; I write with a pen. A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this . . . I am a preindustrial man.

INTERVIEWER

As the author of one of the most famous books in the world, Things Fall Apart, does it bother you that your other books are not discussed to the same extent as your first one?

ACHEBE

Well, sometimes, but I don’t let it become a problem. You know, they’re all in the family; Things Fall Apart was the first to arrive and that fact gives it a certain position of prominence, whether in fact other books excel in other particular virtues. Things Fall Apart is a kind of fundamental story of my condition that demanded to be heard, to retell the story of my encounter with Europe in a way acceptable to me. The other books do not occupy that same position in my frame of thinking. So I don’t resent Things Fall Apart getting all the attention it does get. If you ask me, Now, is it your best book? I would say, I don’t really know. I wouldn’t even want to say. And I’d even go on and say, I don’t even think so. But that’s all right. I think every book I’ve done has tried to be different; this is what I set out to do, because I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you would comment on any tension you see between aesthetics and being politically engaged as an African writer.

ACHEBE

I don’t see any tension for myself. It has always been quite apparent to me that no important story can fail to tell us something of value to us. But at the same time I know that an important message is not a novel. To say that we should all be kind to our neighbors is an important statement; it’s not a novel. There is something about important stories that is not just the message, but also the way that message is conveyed, the arrangement of the words, the felicity of the language. So it’s really a balance between your commitment, whether it’s political or economic or whatever, and your craft as an artist.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a difference between telling a story and writing a story?

ACHEBE

Well, there must be. I remember that when our children were young, we used to read them stories at bedtime. Occasionally I would say to them, I want to tell you a story, and the way their eyes would light up was different from the way they would respond to hearing a story read. There’s no doubt at all that they preferred the story that was told to the one that was read. We live in a society that is in transition from oral to written. There are oral stories that are still there, not exactly in their full magnificence, but still strong in their differentness from written stories. Each mode has its ways and methods and rules. They can reinforce each other; this is the advantage my generation has—we can bring to the written story something of that energy of the story told by word of mouth. This is really one of the contributions our literature has made to contemporary literature.

INTERVIEWER

Nigerian literature.

ACHEBE

Yes, yes. Bringing into the written literature some of that energy that was always there—the archaic energy of the creation stories.

INTERVIEWER

When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Is it Nigerian? Is it Igbo? Is it America?

ACHEBE

All of those. I have tried to describe my position in terms of circles, standing there in the middle. These circles contain the audiences that get to hear my story. The closest circle is the one closest to my home in Igboland, because the material I am using is their material. But unless I’m writing in the Igbo language, I use a language developed elsewhere, which is English. That affects the way I write. It even affects to some extent the stories I write. So there is, if you like, a kind of paradox there already. But then, if you can, visualize a large number of ever-widening circles, including all, like Yeats’s widening gyre. As more and more people are incorporated in this network, they will get different levels of meaning out of the story, depending on what they already know, or what they suspect. These circles go on indefinitely to include, ultimately, the whole world. I have become more aware of this as my books become more widely known. At this particular time, mostly the news I hear is of translations of my books, especially Things Fall Apart . . . in Indonesia, in Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, and so on. Fortunately you don’t think of all those people when you are writing. At least, I don’t. When I’m writing, I really want to satisfy myself. I’ve got a story that I am working on and struggling with, and I want to tell it the most effective way I can. That’s really what I struggle with. And the thought of who may be reading it may be there somewhere in the back of my mind—I’ll never say it’s not there because I don’t know—but it’s not really what I’m thinking about. After all, some people will say, Why does he put in all these Nigerian-English words? Some critics say that in frustration. And I feel like saying to them, “Go to hell! That’s the way the story was given to me. And if you don’t want to make this amount of effort, the kind of effort that my people have always made to understand Europe and the rest of the world, if you won’t make this little leap, then leave it alone!”

INTERVIEWER

Are you ever surprised, when you travel around the world, by what readers make of your writings, or how they bond to them?

ACHEBE

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I am. People make surprising comments to me. I think particularly of a shy-looking, white American boy who came into my office once—in the seventies, I think—at the University of Massachusetts and said to me, That man, Okonkwo, is my father!

INTERVIEWER

You were surprised!

ACHEBE

Yes! I was surprised. I looked at him and I said, All right! As I’ve said elsewhere, another person said the same thing: in a public discussion—a debate the two of us had in Florida—James Baldwin said, That man is my father.

INTERVIEWER

Okonkwo?

ACHEBE

Okonkwo.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever know anybody named Okonkwo? When I was in Nigeria visiting you some years ago, I met a small young man who was a student at the university, who introduced himself to me as Okonkwo. I thought he was an impostor! Is it a real name?

ACHEBE

A very common name. Oh, yes. It’s one of the commonest names in Igboland because there are four days in the Igbo week, and each of them is somebody’s name. In other words, you are born on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday, if you like, and you will be given the name—“The Son of Monday,” or “The Son of Tuesday,” or “The Son of Wednesday,” or “The Son of Thursday”—if you are Igbo. That’s what Okonkwo means: it means a man born on nkwo day. The first day of the week. If you are not born on that day, you will be Okeke, Okoye, or Okafo. Not everybody answers to these. Your parents might give you another name, like Achebe; then you prefer to answer that. But you always have a name of the day of the week on which you were born. So Okonkwo is very common.

INTERVIEWER

One of the great women characters you have created, I think, is Beatrice in Anthills of the Savannah. Do you identify with her? Do you see any part of yourself in that character? She’s sort of a savior, I think.

ACHEBE

Yes, yes, I identify with her. Actually, I identify with all my characters, good and bad. I have to do that in order to make them genuine. I have to understand them even if I don’t approve of them. Not completely—it’s impossible; complete identification is, in fact, not desirable. There must be areas in which a particular character does not represent you. At times, though, the characters—like Beatrice—do contain, I think, elements of my own self and my systems of beliefs and hopes and aspirations. Beatrice is the first major woman character in my fiction. Those who do not read me as carefully as they ought have suggested that this is the only woman character I have ever written about and that I probably created her out of pressure from the feminists. Actually, the character of Beatrice has been there in virtually all my fiction, certainly from No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, right down to Anthills of the Savannah. There is a certain increase in the importance I assign to women in getting us out of the mess that we are in, which is a reflection of the role of women in my traditional culture—that they do not interfere in politics until men really make such a mess that the society is unable to go backward or forward. Then women will move in . . . this is the way the stories have been constructed, and this is what I have tried to say. In one of Sembene Ousmane’s films he portrays that same kind of situation where the men struggle, are beaten and cannot defend their rights against French colonial rule. They surrender their rice harvest, which is an abomination. They dance one last time in the village arena and leave their spears where they danced and go away—this is the final humiliation. The women then emerge, pick up the spears, and begin their own dance. So it’s not just in the Igbo culture. It seems to be something that other African peoples also taught us.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a very passionate piece a year or so ago for The New York Times op-ed page about the present status of life in Nigeria. Are you pessimistic or hopeful about Nigeria’s return to democracy?

ACHEBE

What is going on is extremely sad. It’s appalling. And extremely disappointing to all lovers or friends or citizens of Nigeria. I try as hard as possible not to be pessimistic because I have never thought or believed that creating a Nigerian nation would be easy; I have always known that it was going to be a very tough job. But I never really thought that it would be this tough. And what’s going on now, which is a subjection of this potentially great country to a clique of military adventurers and a political class that they have completely corrupted—this is really quite appalling. The suffering that they have unleashed on millions of people is quite intolerable. What makes me so angry is that this was quite avoidable. If a political class—including intellectuals, university professors, and people like that, who have read all the books and know how the world works—if they had based their actions on principle rather than on opportunity, the military would not have dared to go as far as they are going. But they looked around and saw that they could buy people. Anybody who called himself president would immediately find everyone lining up outside his home or his office to be made minister of this or that. And this is what they have exploited—they have exploited the divisions, the ethnic and religious divisions in the country. These have always been serious, but they were never insurmountable with good leadership. But over the last ten years these military types have been so cynical that they didn’t really care what they did as long as they stayed in power. And they watched Nigeria going through the most intolerable situation of suffering and pain. And I just hope, as nothing goes on forever, that we will find a way to stumble out of this anarchy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you miss Nigeria?

ACHEBE

Yes, very much. One reason why I am quite angry with what is happening in Nigeria today is that everything has collapsed. If I decide to go back now, there will be so many problems—where will I find the physical therapy and other things that I now require? Will the doctors, who are leaving in droves, coming to America, going to everywhere in the world—Saudi Arabia—how many of them will be there? The universities have almost completely lost their faculties and are hardly ever in session, shut down for one reason or another. So these are some of the reasons why I have not yet been able to get back. So I miss it. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask, how are you coming along? Have you been able to resume writing since your accident?

ACHEBE

I am feeling my way back into writing. The problem is that in this condition you spend a lot of time just getting used to your body again. It does take a lot of energy and time, so that your day does not begin where it used to begin. And the result is that there are very few hours in the day. That’s a real problem, and what I have been trying to do is reorganize my day so that I can get in as much writing as possible before the discomfort makes it necessary for me to get up or go out. So, I am beginning . . .

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to someone with literary promise? I would assume that you are constantly being asked by budding novelists to give them advice, to read their manuscripts, and so on.

ACHEBE

I don’t get the deluge of manuscripts that I would be getting in Nigeria. But some do manage to find me. This is something I understand, because a budding writer wants to be encouraged. But I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people. They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice. So I just maneuver myself out of this. I say, Keep at it. I grew up recognizing that there was nobody to give me any advice and that you do your best and if it’s not good enough, someday you will come to terms with that. I don’t want to be the one to tell somebody, You will not make it, even though I know that the majority of those who come to me with their manuscripts are not really good enough. But you don’t ever want to say to a young person, You can’t, or, You are no good. Some people might be able to do it, but I don’t think I am a policeman for literature. So I tell them, Sweat it out, do your best. Don’t publish it yourself—this is one tendency that is becoming more and more common in Nigeria. You go and find someone—a friend—to print your book.

INTERVIEWER

We call that a vanity press here.

ACHEBE

Yes, vanity printing, yes. That really has very severe limitations. I think once you have done all you can to a manuscript, let it find its way in the world.

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.