Chinua Achebe: 1930-2013

The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, Africa's best-known contemporary novelist  passed away today at the age of 82. Though he is still best known for his classic 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe had been back in the news last year for his memoir, There Was a Country, in which he recounted, for the first time in print, the story of his involvement with the Biafran government during the bloody 1967-1970 civil war. He was one of FP's Top 100 Global Thinkers last year. 

In addition to his novels, Achebe was a gifted essayist and critic, with a pugilistic style that often earned him the ire of critics. The collection Hopes and Impediments is a good introduction. Most of the essays concern what he saw as the eurocentric tendencies of western scholars and literary critics -- "the desire -- one might say the need -- in Western society to set up Africa as a foil for Europe."

The book contains his famous essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," as full-throated a takedown of an established classic as you're ever likely to read. Achebe writes that Conrad was a "thoroughgoing racist" with an "inordinate love" of the word "nigger" that "should be of interest to psychoanalysts." He argues that Conrad is forgiven for this because "white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked."

Achebe returns to Heart of Darkness several times in the other essays (and continued to return to it in statements throughout his career). Defenders of the book often argue that it has more to do with the darkness of  European colonialism and the hypocrisy of its civilizing mission. (The young Barack Obama read it in order to "understand what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons.") But in Achebe's view, this was precisely the problem: the use of Africa as a setting for European pathologies to play out: "Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril."

Above all, Achebe argued that African artists should tell stories on their own terms, and that outside critics should accept them as such. The irony that he worked in a form of European origin, the novel, and primarily through Western academic institutions -- he lived in the United States for most of his later life -- was not lost on him.

He explained his thoughts on the topic in a passage from the 1974 essay, "Colonialist Criticism," which could also serve as a kind of mission statement for his views on global literature:

The colonialist critic, unwilling to accept the validity of sensibilities other than his own, has made particular point of dismissing the African novel. He has written lengthy articles to prove its non-existence largely on the grounds that the novel is a peculiarly Wester genre, a fact that would interest us if our ambition was to write "Western" novels. But, in any case, did not the black people of America, deprived of their own musical instruments, take the trumpet and the trombone and blow them as they had never been blown before, as indeed they were not designed to be blown? And the result, was it not jazz? Is any one going to say that this was a loss to the world or that those first Negro slaves who began to play around with the discarded instruments of their masters should have played waltzes and foxtrots? No! Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world's cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings.