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Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works

 

By Rose Ure Mezu

 Mezu Table

 

 

  Other Books by Rose Ure Mezu

Women in Chains: Abandonment in Love Relationships in the Fiction of Selected West African Writers (1994) / Songs of the Hearth (1993) /

Homage to My People (2004) / A History of Africana Women's Literature (2004)

 Black Nationalists: Reconsidering Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. & Nkrumah (1999) Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (2006)

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Books by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart  /  Arrow of God  /  No Longer at Ease  /  A Man of the People,  /  Anthills of the Savannah  / Morning Yet on Creation Day

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Introduction

to Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (2006)

Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is not a biography (even though it contains some biographical materials), but a critical analysis of Chinua Achebe’s novels and other writings, evaluating them for themes, and their relevance to the problems besieging Africa and African peoples in the global community. Achebe confesses that he did not set out to validate African civilization in any conscious way, but the circumstances of his birth, family upbringing, and training at the University College of Ibadan impelled him towards the eventual defense and reconstructive validation of Africa’s pristine civilization. Born on November 16, 1930 at Ogidi to parents who were evangelical Protestants, he received his religious formation from his father, a teacher in a missionary school, while his mother, sister and maternal great-grandparents inculcated in him a love of the traditional culture.

His essay, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England” published in his 1975 Morning Yet on Creation Day (MYOCD), contains autobiographical information necessary to understand the novelist’s familial and cultural background. Receiving education of the best kind that colonial society had to offer, Achebe was well-equipped to do a critical reevaluation of the role of colonialism in Africa and this with Europe’s own critical tools. Most of the essays in Morning Yet on Creation Day : “Colonialist Criticism,” “Africa and Her Writers,” “The Novelist as a Teacher,” “The African Writer and the English Language“ expound on the writer’s multiple functions, while also explaining the urgent necessity for the new kind of language employed in Things Fall Apart which inaugurated a new tradition of Cultural Nationalism, Black aesthetics and Colonialist criticism. His later novels, short stories, poetry, and essays speak for themselves and explain his present enormous stature as one of the world’s greatest writers, with a towering, but reasoned intellect and versatility.

His pace-setting first book, Things Fall Apart is a great and important resource book used to teach across disciplines. For its multi-faceted utility, teachers of Political Science, African Economic System, African and Diasporan History, Agricultural Science, Religion, Literary Studies, Linguistics, and Fine Arts, to name but a few, find the book an indispensable quarry. It is required reading not just in Africa but also in the United States, especially in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and some Ivy League Colleges, with Cornell University recently adopting it as required text. The book is read all over the world and translated into many different languages of the world.

Teaching Achebe’s novels in class is always a rewarding venture and involves challenging strategies. Students largely empathize with Okonkwo as a cultural nationalist who fiercely defends and dies for the authentic values of his community. Because some students appear shocked at Okonkwo’s misogyny, this becomes a fertile ground for a discussion of gender politics, at the end of which some come to see that Okonkwo, removed from his specific cultural context and transported to their era and environment, looks like many of their fathers, uncles and other people they have known.

I have had groups of students dramatize modern adaptations of selected incidents in Things Fall Apart in which the rebellious Ojiugo, for instance, ends up profiting from current principles of gender equality to tame her macho husband into a more accommodationist Okonkwo – which is quite a feat. A particularly imaginative adaptation had provided a Joanna [Johnny] Cochran who debates with the District Commissioner in a court of law as to the merits / evils of both the native Umuofia culture and the supplanting alien colonial administration, even though historical accuracy dictates that Okonkwo dies, anyway. A comparison with Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Beloved has one of my classes imagining Ezinma, intrepid and freedom-loving just like her father Okonkwo, being transplanted to the shores of America as Sethe’s grandmother. Faithful to her culture, she totally rejects all children born of her white captors to preserve and nurture only the child she conceived freely with a black man. The book Things Fall Apart is thus easily the most-taught novel in schools, for between it and Arrow of God, Achebe’s hope that his tradition-based novels could also serve peoples of African descent finds fruition as he earnestly wanted:

to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement [...] [f]or no thinking African [Black] can escape the wound on his soul. [...] I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I 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 European acting on God's behalf delivered us (“The Novelist as a Teacher” in MYOCD 45).

In my Elementary and Secondary School in Port Harcourt in Nigeria, a semi-cloistered convent environment where books on European literature and history were the norm as it was when the young Achebe received his education, we were taught by Irish Catholic missionary sisters of the Holy Rosary Congregation and it was inconceivable that books like Things Fall Apart could be used as a teaching text:

And it never once occurred to me to question my complete socialization into a Euro-cultural universe not my own, nor to wonder why my missionary teachers never introduced me to such great African novels as Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, by Chinua Achebe, or Cry the Beloved Country by the white Alan Paton, or Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams, or the prison Letters to Martha of Dennis Brutus and the writings of Esk’ia Mphalele - all of which would have exposed to me South Africa’s Apartheid policies. I had no way of questioning the texts we did in literature. [...] Because I did not know, I never asked why no representative works by Africana men and women were ever considered worthy texts for Nigerian schools (Rose Mezu, “Africana Women: Their Historic Past and Future Activism.”

As later happened to me, Achebe discovered that he and members of his generation (Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, John Pepper Clark, Kole Omotoso and others) at the University College of Ibadan were actually those denigrated, stereotypical “primitives” being devalued in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). This and Joyce Carey’s African Witch (1936) and Mr. Johnson (1939) impelled Achebe to use his personal story to attempt a revalorization of Africa’s history and culture. Thus, the fictional Umuofia provides the cosmological prism through which Achebe tells his own story as counterfoil to the prevalent image of peoples of African origin and as an indigenous African, he was better qualified to tell his and Africa’s story.

Whoever encounters this man knows that part of Achebe’s great gifts as a story-teller is his ability to accommodate other viewpoints because for him, “[w]herever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute” (MYOCD 94). Speaking with Chinua Achebe in 1996, and finally meeting him in July 1999 increased my appreciation of the writer’s great intellectual gifts. Achebe as a man is gentle and soft-spoken, with a keen listening ear, rollicking humor, great wit suffused with sensibility and, yes, humility. And yet, one is left in no doubt that Achebe is tough-minded, principled, very resilient and a survivor which reminds his readers of what he thinks of intemperate, single-minded characters like Okonkwo, Ezeulu, or even the hot-headed Obika, the latter’s son.

Cynical critics have wondered why many people who have encountered Achebe seem not to think that Achebe has faults like everyone else. I am sure he has, but it is difficult to have a bad word for the man, precisely because you know from reading his works that even though he is a great artist, indeed an awesome one, he also has great dignity and a self-assurance that is tinged with humility. These are the attributes of a great genius. On meeting him, one feels as if one had known him all along, at least all of one’s adult reading life. This is because through his fictional characters, you heard in his voice the wisdom of traditional African Antiquity, the wit of the storyteller, the pragmatism of the politician, and the idealism of his fictional intellectual heroes.

I have often thought as aptly suited to Chinua Achebe what Weinberg said about W.E.B. Du Bois, quoting the Cuban poet / patriot José Martí (1853-1895): “Mountains culminate in peaks, and nations in men” (cited in Africa and the Diaspora: the Black Scholar and Society 10).

Achebe’s desire to help his “people” regain their pride of Self and Nation to enable them enjoy God’s gift of freedom again reminds one of Martí’s challenge to those who would live free:

“Let those who desire a secure homeland conquer it. Let those who do not conquer it live under the whip and in exile, watched over like wild animals, cast from one country to another, concealing the death of their souls with a beggar’s smile from the scorn of free men” <http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/top/nationality/cuban/>.

Achebe’s literary thoughts have given to all Africans, descendants of enslaved Africans, and all marginalized peoples, the weapon of freedom to defend the historico-cultural values of their homeland. Achebe has embodied in his writings every theme – race and racism, democracy, socialism and capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, neo - and post-colonialism, revolution, war and peace, cultural nationalism, and even more. As I remark in Chapter Ten: “The Mezus Visit with the Achebes,” this writer “has given back to all Blacks in the Diaspora that something which slavery had taken away.”

Chinua Achebe: the Man and his Works has ten chapters. His novels receive full critical discussion and comparative treatment with the works of other writers. Chapters Nine and Ten, being interviews with the writer are self-explanatory. In them, Achebe reiterates and expatiates on many of the themes which inform his writings. I make use of these ideas in the chapter discussions of his novels and essays. At the core of all of his novels, whether tradition-based or urban fiction, is to be found as central preoccupation, the problem and dynamics of proper governance and the place of the human beings within this centrality. Equally, I believe, his stories have yielded good results when dealt comparatively with seminal, groundbreaking texts such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1939) and Olaudah Equiano’s masterpiece, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself (1789).

Achebe himself encourages writers not to sit on the sidelines of urgent national issues, but to be very committed as a guide of the people should. As they say in Igbo, “Ana ekwu ekwu, ana eme eme” or in United States of America political lingo –”You talk the talk and walk the walk.” This Achebe did himself in 1983, during Nigeria’s Second Republic when he joined the People's Redemption Party (PRP) founded by the late crusader, Mallam Aminu Kano. Chinua Achebe was elected deputy national president of the party. Thus, he tried also to put into practice his commitment to change. As Director of Heinemann Educational Books in Nigeria, he helped encourage the publication of the works of dozens of African writers. In 1971, he became founding editor of Okike, a journal of Nigerian writings and in 1984, he founded the bilingual magazine, Uwa ndi Igbo, a valuable source for Igbo studies Presently, Chinua Achebe is the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Literature at Bard College in Upstate New York

Dr. Rose Ure Mezu

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart.  New York: Doubleday, 1994.

--- Arrow of God. New York: Random House, 1969.

--- Morning Yet On Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975.

Marti, José. http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/top/nationality/cuban/ >

Mezu, Rose Ure. "Africana Women: Their Historic Past and Future Activism.”

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin, 1987.

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Other essays by Dr. Rose Ure Mezu:

An Africana Blueprint for Living in the 3rd Millennium Global Community: An Essay

Pope John Paul II: A Life with a Mission: A Mission of Grace and Moral Strength

A History of Africana Women's Literature   (Introduction)

Africana Women: Their Historic Past and Future Activism

Black Nationalists: Reconsidering: Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T., & Nkrumah (Introduction)

Chinua Achebe The Man and His Works (Introduction)

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Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad

Missing words have been restored and the entire novel has been repunctuated in accordance with Conrad’s style. The result is the first published version of Heart of Darkness that allows readers to hear Marlow’s voice as Conrad heard it when he wrote the story. "Backgrounds and Contexts" provides readers with a generous collection of maps and photographs that bring the Belgian Congo to life. Textual materials, topically arranged, address nineteenth-century views of imperialism and racism and include autobiographical writings by Conrad on his life in the Congo.

New to the Fourth Edition is an excerpt from Adam Hochschild’s recent book, King Leopold’s Ghost, as well as writings on race by Hegel, Darwin, and Galton. "Criticism" includes a wealth of new materials, including nine contemporary reviews and assessments of Conrad and Heart of Darkness [Contents] and twelve recent essays by Chinua Achebe, Peter Brooks, Daphne Erdinast-Vulcan, Edward Said, and Paul B. Armstrong, among others. Also new to this edition is a section of writings on the connections between Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now by Louis K. Greiff, Margot Norris, and Lynda J. Dryden. A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are also included.

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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

By Adam Hochschild

King Leopold of Belgium, writes historian Adam Hochschild in this grim history, did not much care for his native land or his subjects, all of which he dismissed as "small country, small people." Even so, he searched the globe to find a colony for Belgium, frantic that the scramble of other European powers for overseas dominions in Africa and Asia would leave nothing for himself or his people. When he eventually found a suitable location in what would become the Belgian Congo, later known as Zaire and now simply as Congo, Leopold set about establishing a rule of terror that would culminate in the deaths of 4 to 8 million indigenous people, "a death toll," Hochschild writes, "of Holocaust dimensions."

Those who survived went to work mining ore or harvesting rubber, yielding a fortune for the Belgian king, who salted away billions of dollars in hidden bank accounts throughout the world. Hochschild's fine book of historical inquiry, which draws heavily on eyewitness accounts of the colonialists' savagery, brings this little-studied episode in European and African history into new light.—Gregory McNamee

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Chinua Achebe wins $300,000 Gish prizeBy Philip Nwosu—Monday, September 27, 2010—The author of the epic novel, Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, has emerged winner of the United States Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. The Gish prize, which was established in 1994 by the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust and administered by JPMorgan Chase Bank as trustee, is given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” The prize is worth $300,000. . . . Achebe’s writings examine African politics and chronicle the ways in which African culture and civilization have survived in the post-colonial world. Some of his acclaimed works include A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1988). [The 80-year-old author has founded a number of magazines for African art, fiction and poetry.] Achebe, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a 1990 car accident, is currently Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.SunNewsOnline

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Again, Chinua Achebe Rejects Nigerian Award—“The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed let alone solved. It is inappropriate to offer it again to me. I must therefore regretfully decline the offer again,” Achebe said in the letter which he reportedly sent to Nigeria Ambassador to the United States. Achebe had in 2004 rejected offer of national award from the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo in protest of the political situation in Nigeria and his native Anambra State then.

The US based writer had in the rejection letter he wrote to the then President noted that: “I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom.  I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.

“Forty three years ago, at the first anniversary of Nigeria’s independence I was given the first Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. In 1979, I received two further honours—the Nigerian National Order of Merit and the Order of the Federal Republic—and in 1999 the first National Creativity Award.

“I accepted all these honours fully aware that Nigeria was not perfect; but I had a strong belief that we would outgrow our shortcomings under leaders committed to uniting our diverse peoples.  Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honour awarded me in the 2004 Honours List.”PMNewsNigeria

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues


1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        

Enjoy!

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 21 March 2006

 

 

 

Home  Rose Ure Mezu Table   

Related Files: Reading Rose Ure  Mezu   Achebe Preface  Achebe Introduction   Mezu and Achebe: An Inside Knowledge     Achebe Another Birthday in Exile  Banning Chinua Achebe in Kenya  Women in Achebe's World 

 Okonkwo's Curse  Achebe's Female Characterisation