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Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is an authoritative critical evaluation

and inside knowledge of Chinua Achebe, his novels, and his place in the African

Diaspora and world literature and culture. Although grounded in various

literary and critical theories, albeit it is not full of obtrusive critical jargon

 

 

Rose Ure Mezu. Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works. London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd, 2006. 274 pp.

Achebe Novels: Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah

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Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works

By Rose Ure Mezu

Mezu and Achebe: An Inside Knowledge of Igbo Society & Culture

A review by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure

 

Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works shows Rose Ure Mezu at the acme of literary interpretation and criticism. Mezu’s new book is set to spur change in the scholarship and discourse on Chinua Achebe, a writer who was cited among the 100 most important writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.  As the title suggests, Mezu’s new book studies Achebe as a person, a writer, and as someone who initiated what Rose calls “the literary tradition of cultural nationalism.”  A true Pan-Africanist scholar, Mezu compares Achebe and his works with “African literary and cultural groundbreakers” in the African Diaspora, especially trail-blazing works of Olaudah Equiano (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself) and Zora Neale Hurston (Our Eyes Were Watching God ).

This is one of the features that distinguish Mezu’s Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works from a large existent body of critical work on Africa’s most studied novelist. There is another reason: belonging to the same ethnic group as Achebe, Igbo, Mezu writes with a thorough and an inside knowledge of Igbo society and culture. This is clearly seen in her cogent reading of Achebe’s novels and sharp interrogation of Achebe’s portrayal of women in such novels as Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Anthills of the Savannah. The 1996 interview with Achebe and the 1999 Mezus’ visit to the Achebes in upstate New York are additional distinguishing qualities to Achebe: The Man and His Works. The ideas from the interview and the visit inform Mezu’s critical assessment of Achebe and his novels.

Besides a preface and an introduction, Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is divided into ten chapters, including their own endnotes and works cited. In the introduction, Mezu recounts her story of attending elementary and secondary schools in Nigeria, where missionaries would not introduce her to “such great African novels,” including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, or Dennis Brutus’s Letters to Martha. The colonialist attitude of the missionaries and writers such as Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and Joyce Cary (African Witch and Mr. Johnson) led Achebe to tell his Igbo people’s story in order to revalorize Igbo/Africa’s history and culture.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1, “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: Implications for Black Cultural Nationalism and Revisionism,” studies Things Fall Apart as a novel that rectifies the misconceptions and disputes colonialist representations of African peoples and their history and cultures. Topics covered  in the chapter include correction of misconceptions, the writer and his art, the black writer and the English language, the gender question—women in the structure of the nation-state, female bonding, and the writer as a teacher/visionary. Excerpts from the conversations with Achebe intersperse the critical analysis of the novel. In this chapter, wee see an Achebe that has mellowed his stance regarding the use of African languages in creative writing. He is no longer the Achebe that confronted Ngugi wa Thiong’o decades ago, as he reveals that he has been writing in Igbo language since 1975.

Chapter 2

Drawing on Achebe’s essays, Deleuze and Guatarri’s reading of Oedipus and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, [Mezu's] Chapter 2, “Achebe’s Arrow of God: Ezeulu and the Limits of Power,” gives full critical attention to Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, and how he fails his people and himself as “a governing authority.” Mezu cogently argues that Ezeulu’s harmatia is not only his hubris but also his ambivalent attitude: he wants his people to love/respect and fear him simultaneously. From this perspective, Mezu considers Arrow of God, to be a “Classic Aristotelian Tragedy.” The conflict between Umuaro and Okperi villages becomes a microcosm for the battle between African traditions and Western modernity. Thus, Arrow of God becomes a cautionary tale about the unwise use of power and its hindrance to proper governance.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3, “Conflicts and Notions of Culture and Civilization in No Longer at Ease,” analyzes Achebe’s second novel as both a “transition from colonialism to postcolonial identity” and a quest for “a discourse of national identity which an educated generation—personified in Obi Okonkwo—requires in order to express the pressures of a pre-Independence Nigeria” (66). With No Longer at Ease, the setting moves from village to an urban setting, Lagos, and explores the challenges to democracy—corruption, gender relations, and post-colonial political and economic uneasiness in Nigeria.

The chapter explores the following themes in Achebe’s second novel: Western democratic ideals versus “Sons of the Soil,” corruption in civil service as metaphor for alienation, No Longer at Ease as a paradigm of differing interpretations of life, Obi Okonkwo—idealism and the language of social unease, Isaac Okonkwo: the problematics of being of a Christian within a traditional space, gender relations—romance versus realism, and which way Nigeria? In this chapter, Mezu is tough on the 1950s Achebe who, through Clara—an Osu—still sees the role of women as peripheral in a budding nation.

Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, “A Man of the People: A Moral Approach,” Mezu uses the moral critical approach to evaluate the structure and content of Achebe’s fourth novel.  More specifically, the chapter analyzes moral, socio-economic, and political modes of corruption as found in the individual, the government, and society. In this novel, Chief Nanga becomes the quintessential corrupt and corrupting official in the government. On an individual level, Odili becomes a victim of the machinations and amorality Chief Nanga. When the latter steals Elsie, Odili’s girlfriend, Odili vows to woo Edna, Chief Nanga’s fiancée. Yet, Mezu argues that the fact that Odili tenderly and romantically woos Edna shows that he idealizes women. Further, a society that accepts the corrupting language and behaviour the Nangas is responsible for its own demise.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5, “Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah,” examines political structure, governance and nation state, the woman’s role in nation building, and the creative writer in society. Through the character of Ikem, an aspiring writer, Achebe guides his audience to examine the failures of the past in order to devise the best “ideal political ideology.” Unlike A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah glitters by the writer’s sympathy towards the people.

The seminal section in the chapter is “The Role of Women in the Structure of the Nation-State,” in which the character of Beatrice is accorded full critical attention. In this section, Mezu confronts Achebe regarding the role of women in his fiction and society. Always astute, Achebe counters that people have failed to read fiction as representing reality, not as how things out to be. More important, he reveals that Beatrice has been appearing in his previous novels and that just as society has been evolving, so has his vision of a woman’s role—“it has been developing, growing in intensity as the role of the Igbo woman has been growing in Igbo society” (141).

Chapter 6

The merit of Chapter 6, “Achebe’s Okonkwo and Hurston’s Jody Starks: Twin Souls in Different Climes and Their Women,” is to link the African Diaspora and demonstrate the similarities of two characters separated by the Middle Passage and its effects. The gist of the chapter is that Okonkwo and Starks share similar character traits—hubris, hard work, inflexibility, violent temper, mask of fear, misogyny/sexism.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7, “Achebe’s Writings: An Authentication of the Igbo Culture of Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 Narrative,” is the longest chapter in the book and could constitute a monograph itself. Endowed with an intimate knowledge of Igbo culture, Mezu meticulously studies the fictional Igbo people of Umuofia and Umuaro in relation to Equiano’s Essaka and posits that Achebe’s novels such as Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God authenticate the elements of Igbo culture as displayed in Equiano’s Narrative

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe authenticates Equiano’s portrayal of Igbo socio-cultural, economic, political, and judicial world. Umuofia’s ceremonies of toasting wine and kola nut and remembering the ancestors validate the religious beliefs and the ritual ceremonies in Essaka as presented in Equiano’s Narrative. In Arrow of God, Achebe corroborates “the patriarchal obsession with female chastity that was an ethos of Igbo traditional life” (178). After reading this chapter, the detractors of Equiano and his remarkable Narrative can no longer doubt his description of Essaka “Eboe” nation.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8, “Women in Achebe's World: A Womanist Critique,” repeats with emphasis the role of women in Achebe’s novels as illustrated in the preceding chapters. Drawing on feminist ideology and womanism, the chapter assesses the absence of a moderating female principle in Things Fall Apart and the issue of chastity/virginity in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Although it is clear that Mezu feels very strongly about Achebe’s vision of women in his novels, she ably takes a critical distance, which allows her to view Achebe’s vision of women as diachronically progressive.

Chapter 9

While in Chapter 9, “Conversations with Chinua Achebe, 1996,” Mezu interviews Achebe on the telephone, in Chapter 10, “The Mezus Visit the Achebes: (A Second Interview, June 15, 1999,” Mezu finally meets her long-time idol writer. In the 1996 interview, Achebe successfully defends his portrayal of women in Things Fall Apart and wins Mezu over to his argument that Okonkwo violently mistreats both women and men. He also reveals that he translates his knowledge into fiction via such characters as Ikem, Chris, and Beatrice. With the Mezus visiting the Achebes, we see Achebe and his wife welcoming the Mezus à la Igbo tradition with Igbo/Nigerian/African dishes. We also get a chance to see Achebe revisit the 1990 car accident that left him in a wheelchair. It is clear that Mezu has great admiration for Professor Christie Achebe, the woman who put her career on hold to take care of her disabled husband. Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is dedicated to her.

Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works is an authoritative critical evaluation and inside knowledge of Chinua Achebe, his novels, and his place in the African Diaspora and world literature and culture. Although grounded in various literary and critical theories, albeit it is not full of obtrusive critical jargon, Mezu’s book is accessible to students (college as well as high school), teachers, and scholars alike. It deserves to be read and taught.

Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure, Ph.D. Professor, University of Northern Iowa, 2005 Philip G. Hubbard Outstanding Educator. As a scholar, he brings multicultural, post-colonial, and global perspectives to African American and American literatures.

His research interests cover a whole range of topics such as African American Literature, African and African Diaspora Literatures, African American Literary Criticism, African American Women Writers, Blues and Jazz in African American Literature and Film, Multicultural Literatures of the United States, and Post-Colonial Literatures and Theory.  His research in African American literature and culture is Pan-African, as it traces the origins of African American literature in African oral traditions. It also aims at linking all the African Diasporas to Africa via intertextual relations and multicultural aesthetic in literary and cultural texts.

Publications (5 most recent) 

Lamentations on the Rwandan Genocide (Final Thursday Press, 2006).

"Paul Rusesabagina’s Oasis of Ubu-Muntu in Hotel Rwanda: A Review Essay in Konch (Spring 2005).

"American Neo-HooDooism: The Novels of Ishmael Reed” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Ed. Maryemma   Graham (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

World Eras Volume 10: West African Kingdoms, 500-1590 (Gale, 2004).

A Casebook Study of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003)

Pierre MvuyekurePh.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1993 (English) / M.A., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1992 (English) / Licence in Letters (M.A.), National University of Rwanda, 1986 (English) / B.A., National University of Rwanda, 1984 (English)Pierre.Mvuyekure@uni.edu // phone (319) 266-0752

posted 13 October 2006

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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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African-American Odyssey, The Combined Volume

By Darlene Clark Hine

The African-American Odyssey is a compelling story of agency, survival, struggle and triumph over adversity. The authors highlight what it has meant to be black in America and how African-American history is inseparably woven into the greater context of American history. The text provides accounts of the lives of ordinary men and women alongside those of key African-Americans and the impact they have had on the struggle for equality to illuminate the central place of African-Americans in U.S. history more than any other text. This compendium of resources includes up to 100 most commonly assigned history works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Students can monitor their progress and instructors can monitor the progress of their entire class. Automated grading of quizzes and assignments helps both instructors and students save time and monitor their results throughout the course.

 

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Allah, Liberty, and Love

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In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? 

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Ancient African Nations

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

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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