does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Hero’s Journey - Chinua Achebe – Who Gets to Tell the Story?

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has frequently referred to the proverb that “…until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Correcting the European historical viewpoint about Africa motivated him 50 years ago to write his seminal novel Things Fall Apart. Set in the Igbo region of Nigeria before and after the arrival of English colonialists, that novel was one of the first to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective.

I am also giving Chinua Achebe my Hero’s Journey nod for his courage in taking on a literary classic and presenting a course-altering alternative point of view. Specifically, I refer to Achebe’s now famous essay in which he decried damaging stereotypes about Africans in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Many have since weighed in, pro and con, about Achebe's assertions. British scholar Cedric Watts has provided an often cited rebuttal whose full text I have not been able to find on the internet, except for this excerpt.

This post, though, is not about whether Achebe was right in describing Conrad's Heart of Darkness as racist. For that, I suggest reading the novel to arrive at a conclusion. My own take is that Conrad's novel exhibits both genius and deplorable flaws. Each of these writers, Nigerian Chinua Achebe and Polish/Anglo Joseph Conrad, is a brilliant writer who wrote novels today acknowledged as classics. Implicit in their work, though, is a polemic, which can inform any reader or writer, about who is authorized to write authentically about an experience and a people.

Whatever one feels about his take on Conrad, it took a great deal of courage 36 years ago for Achebe to take on the literary establishment over one of its icons. In the process, he changed forever largely unchallenged or unnoticed assumptions about how stories of Africa could be told. "The question," he said, "is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot." In making this point, Achebe spoke for all people dehumanized in literature.

There is a broader lesson here for any fiction writer. I believe writing about characters unlike oneself has to be part of a good writer’s DNA. Otherwise, all that would be written would be soliloquies. The overarching obligation is simply to write well by avoiding the easy superficial treatment in favor of a more thoughtful one. In taking on Joseph Conrad, that is exactly what Chinua Achebe encourages us to do. 


Sun Singer said...

In high school and college literature courses, we are told to examine novels within the context of the prevailing attitudes and beliefs at the time.

This is often hard to do long after the fact because prevailing attitudes insofar as our traditional literary canon is concerned, were always Western. I doubt many people living in Britain at the time "Heart of Darkness" was published had a clue what the prevailing attitudes in Africa were; if they did, they probably considered those attitudes irrelevant.

Today--as well as when Achebe wrote his 1975 essay--we are much more aware of the motives viewpoints and cultures of people living far away.

So, what can we fairly conclude? Can we reasonably expect Conrad to understand a frame of reference that was foreign to his? I'm not sure, yet I do think Achebe makes strong points that, while relevant to a discussion of Conrad's work, really ought to question the frame of reference from which Conrad wrote: colonization.

By what moral and ethical right does one country go to another country and claim the land they find for their own rulers? Such a practice can only be justified if one presumes the people already there are not relevant, that is to say, (a) ignorant and in need of help--in a backhanded way, (b) or subhuman, and no more to be considered in the political march of destiny that horses, elephants, dogs or cats.

Personally, I think Conrad--among others--wrote from a very flawed frame of reference even though, at the time, it was so pervasive, the majority didn't view it as flawed.

Achebe is heroic to point this out.


A Cuban In London said...

The author I've never read but I never tire of reading about. :-) And you have made me go to amazon, co,uk and put... oh, wait, I already had 'Things Fall Apart' there!

Yes, Chinua is a necessary voice, not just in African literature but in at world level. Many thanks for such sincere tribute. I must say that I agree with you and him, but more with him, on Conrad's masterpiece. Never liked it. Too flawed, too cliched. Funny thing is that I love 'Apocalypse Now', the movie based on the book.

I adore your "Hero's Journey" series. Keep up the good work! :-)

Greetings from London.

Mayowa said...

I've never been able to finish Things Fall Apart (a traitorous offense almost) but I have the utmost respect for Mr. Achebe's efforts to counter the single literary POV of Africa.

I couldn't finish Heart of Darkness either, I do remember groaning with mild disgust (oh not another one) while attempting to read it.

Great post, Judy.

Judith Mercado said...

Malcolm: I sometimes wonder what people will say 100 years from now about things we currently find acceptable. There will probably be another Achebe calling us to task. Interestingly, in his latest book, The Education of a British Protected Child, Achebe makes the point that there were Conrad contemporaries who were already decrying the prevailing attitudes about Africa.

Cuban, I have read Things Fall Apart three times, even led a class about it, but ironically have never managed to see Apocalypse Now. Not sure why, but there has been a strong resistance from the very beginning. Hmm. Maybe with your endorsement, I'll make a point of finally seeing it.

Mayowa, OMG you're right. A traitorous offense almost, emphasis on the almost. Yes, Achebe's contribution has been historic, vital, and hopefully lasting. What an amazing thing it is though to have the privilege to be not only a published writer but also to have such a substantive impact on human thinking.

Chica Latina said...

In college, they told us to "write what you know." Authors I've appeared on panels with have told us to "write what you like." I think you need a combination of both. Your life is a story, so write it down!

Judy Croome said...

Achebe is a great writer, and the story he told was vital for its time. It was liberating and showed another side of the story of Africa.

But Allport, in his classic non-fiction book "The Nature of Prejudice" (which I first encountered during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of the 90's trying to understand my experience as a white South African born into the world of apartheid) mentions the need for the previously oppressed to be aware that oppression either leads an individual who has experienced prejudice to become an oppressor or a fighter for the oppressed. One only has to look at the Israel/Palestinian issue to understand what he was saying.

For Achebe to call Conrad's book racist is the first step on the slippery road to becoming an oppressor: it indicates an inability to see that the proverb about lions can easily be reversed and stil remain pertinent ("until the hunter has his own story, the hunt will always glorify the lion")

It's important to learn to accept that Conrad's book was merely a reflection of a particular histroical era *without judging* it as right or wrong. It just *was*, in the same way as Achebe's book was just a reflection of *his* time. Both were simply part of an evolutionary cycle of the human species.

The cycles of history move slowly; who knows who will be judged the lion or the hunter 1000 years from now?

Judy Croome said...

PS re the oppressed becoming the oppressor, what many people don't know about the Afrikaaner is that in the Boer War of 1899-1902 nearly a million Afrikaaners died in concentration camps set up by the British as part of the British "scorched earth" policy.

It doesn't excuse the racist policies of apartheid which developed with the Afrikaaner National Party took political power, but in context of Allport's theories about prejudice it makes it more understandable.


PPS As always, Judith, your posts are thought provoking and interesting!

Judith Mercado said...

Chica Latina: thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yes, both what you know and what you like are important.

Judy: “the need for the previously oppressed to be aware that oppression either leads an individual who has experienced prejudice to become an oppressor or a fighter for the oppressed.”
Indeed, that reality is the third leg of the tripod. The other two legs are the oppressor and the oppressed. To be any of the three is a human condition whose potential we all have in any moment. Your country has a lot to teach the world about this. As I mentioned above in my response to Malcolm, “I sometimes wonder what people will say 100 years from now about things we currently find acceptable.” With respect to Achebe specifically, I also repeat what I told Mayowa above, what a a privilege it is to have the opportunity as a writer to have such a substantive impact on human thinking. Thank you for your comments, which are always intelligent and insightful.

Sheila Deeth said...

Fascinating article and discussion. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading and learning from this.

Nevine said...

Oh, how interesting this post, Judy! And especially interesting to me because I recall doing a paper when I was in college about this very topic of Achebe/Conrad. I also recall reading into Achebe's attack on Joseph Conrad as an attack on himself. I read "Things Fall Apart" and found some racism against Africans in Achebe's writing, though he accuses Conrad of the same. But then, that was my take and my opinion, and I did argue for it fervently.

On a similar but different topic, I read an article a few weeks ago about a writer who was being accused of insensitivity because she is white writing about blacks and... what right does she have? I couldn't believe my eyes!!! Must I be a man to write about men? Must a be European to write about Europeans? What about The Other Perspective??? I was baffled and saddened that a writer who had attempted to tackle another race from her vantage point was being skewered. I found myself doubting what I was doing... but stopped myself short.

To answer your question, Judy, a good writer MUST explore other worlds, otherwise, the writing is self-centered... and insipid. And there is certainly enough of that in the published world!


Judith Mercado said...

Sheila: I am so glad you enjoyed this post.

Nevine: yes, I agree with you. A good writer must explore other worlds. Actually, not doing so would take the fun out of writing for me.

Judy Croome said...

Nevine, I also agree with you. To have "the other" write from the perspective of "the self" is to gain a vastly new perspective; to dismiss it as racist/sexist etc is to lose a great opportunity to expand one's consciousness to new levels.

Interesting about Achebe's own racism (perhaps tribalism would be a more appropriate word); one thinks also of the rigid caste system in India. It all boils down to that human condition that Judith spoke of: we are all,white or black, male or female, capable of both positive and negative choices.

Judith, this as been a great discussion - so interesting!