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.