Lit 165/168: Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe on the Role of the African Writer

In 1964, Achebe was confronted with the idea that African writers should deal with the here-and- now rather than the past. His answer:

It is inconceivable to me that a serious writer could stand aside from this debate, or be indifferent to this argument which calls his full humanity into question. For me, at any rate, there is a clear duty to make a statement. This is my answer to those who say that a writer should be writing about contemporary issues--about politics in 1964, about city life, about the last coup díetat. Of course, these are legitimate themes for the writer but as far as I am concerned the fundamental theme must first be disposed of. This theme--put quite simply--is that African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African peoples all but lost in the colonial period, and it is this dignity that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writerís duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. There is a saying in Ibo that a man who canít tell where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body. The writer can tell the people where the rain began to beat them. After all the novelistís duty is not to beat this morningís headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history. ("The Role of the Writer in a New Nation")

He writes of the relation of art, morality, and politics:

Here, then, is an adequate revolution for me to espouse--to help my society regain its belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of the 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 my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul . . . The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front . . . I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections--was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on Godís behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who care? Art is important but so is education of the kind I have in mind. And I donít see that the two need be mutually exclusive. ("The Novelist as Teacher," 1965)

And he returns repeatedly to the topic of colonization, its impact, and its legacy:

Without subscribing to the view that Africa gained nothing at all in her long encounter with Europe, once could still say, in all fairness, that she suffered many terrible and lasting misfortunes. In terms of human dignity and human relations the encounter was almost a complete disaster for the black races. It has warped the mental attitudes of both black and white. In giving expression to the plight of their people, black writers have shown again and again how strongly this traumatic experience can possess the sensibility. They have found themselves drawn irresistibly to writing about the fate of black people in a world progressively recreated by white men in their own image, to their glory and for their profit, in which the Negro became the poor motherless child of the spirituals and of so many Nigerian folk tales. ("The Black Writerís Burden," 1966)