Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, short-story writer, poet, and critic, is one of the most influential writers to come out of Africa. His first novel,Things Fall Apart (1958), sold more copies worldwide than any other African novel. He is also the author of several other novels, includingArrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). He lives in New York and teaches at Bard College.
Home and Exile came out of a series of three lectures Achebe delivered at Harvard University in December, 1998. The three lectures, now essays, continue a line of thought Achebe explored in essays and lectures over three decades and collected in Hopes and Impediments(1988). In the earlier volume, Achebe described the cultural oppression and “dispossession” that allowed works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, 1902) to depict Africa as a backward continent incapable of producing serious thought or remarkable art. As he does in the new book, Achebe called for a renewed dialogue between Africans and Europeans—a dialogue that writers and readers are particularly equipped to engaged in.
In the book’s first essay, “My Home Under Imperial Fire,” Achebe looks back at his own experiences as a student in a British school in Nigeria. As many readers know, Achebe is a member of the Igbo people, or “nation,” as he prefers to say. Achebe shares fond memories of how he came to love his father’s home village and how he did not fully understand the richness of his own people until he saw that richness called into question by non-African critics. After a lifetime of reading and thinking, Achebe unhesitatingly confesses that he quite enjoyed, as a student, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and others. Even stories that were set in the most remote and “savage” parts of Africa seemed to the young Achebe as mere entertainment with no political or cultural implications.
A telling moment came in the early 1950’s when Achebe was a student at University College in Ibadan. He was taught by English professors who “were all Europeans from various British and European universities. With one or two exceptions the authors they taught us would have been the same ones they would teach at home.” No literature by Africans was included in the curriculum (in fact, there was almost no African literature in print), but one instructor did assign Mister Johnson (1939), a highly regarded novel about race relations in Nigeria by the Irish writer Joyce Cary. To the professor’s surprise, Achebe and his classmates protested that Cary’s representation of Nigeria, with its “jealous savages” living “like mice or rats in a palace floor,” did not resemble the homeland they knew.
In Home and Exile, Achebe uses Mister Johnson as a starting point to describe a large body of British literature that, over a period of more than four hundred years, created a mythology of Africa as a godless dark continent. For this history, he draws on the work of Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, who analyzed over five hundred books of this type for their 1970 book The Africa That Never Was. Achebe states that the purpose of derogatory depictions of Africans was to help Europeans justify to themselves the slave trade and their colonial occupation of Africa. While he cannot go so far as to excuse Cary for his racist presentation of Nigeria, Achebe does understand that Cary was the product of an education and a culture that gave him a particular view of Africa. Achebe writes, “In theory, a good writer might outgrow these influences, but Cary did not.”
Achebe’s early encounter with Cary was most important for his own work in that it helped him see literature in a new way: “What his book Mister Johnson did for me though was to call into question my childhood assumption of the innocence of stories. It began to dawn on me that although fiction was undoubtedly fictitious it could also be true or false.”
In the second essay, “The Empire Fights Back,” Achebe traces the beginnings of what became in the 1950’s the first flowering of published literature from Africa, read both at home and in the West, beginning with Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard. This work was shortly followed by other West African books, including Achebe’s own Things Fall Apart, and then by books from other regions of the continent. At first, many critics were unable to judge these new works as anything but failed...
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