In 2008, the literary world marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), among the most widely read novels ever to come from Africa. The story of the Igbo village leader Okonkwo and the ways his life is changed by the coming of British colonialists and missionaries, the novel is a common text studied in high schools and colleges throughout the world. When Newsweek published a “Meta-List” of the world’s top one hundred books of all time in June, 2009, it ranked Things Fall Apart fourteenth, behind such novels as the first-place Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and the eleventh-place The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), but ahead of such others as the eighteenth-place The Great Gatsby (1925) and the fortieth-place To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
Achebe’s most recent novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was published in 1987, although he has reported that he is working on another. In 1989, he published Hopes and Impediments, the first of what are now three collections of lectures and previously published essays dating back to his early career. In Hopes and Impediments, he reflected on the extent to which Africa and Africans have been perceived by Europeans as lesser, incapable of producing real art or thought. He introduced themes that would also inform his next two books: the central role Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899) played in shaping and reflecting Western attitudes toward Africa, the reasons for Nigeria’s inability to rise above poverty and corruption, the need for increased dialogue and understanding between Africa and the West, and the role that literature and art can play in enabling that kind of dialogue. In a slim volume called Home and Exile (2000), Achebe continued to develop these themes in three extended essays, originally a series of lectures delivered at Harvard University.
Twenty years after the publication of Hopes and Impediments, Achebe has released The Education of a British-Protected Child, another collection mostly of previously published essays. This volume revisits and refines many of the themes addressed in the earlier book, but its focus is more autobiographical. It happens that in 1990, shortly after Hopes and Impediments came out, Achebe was in a serious car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He moved shortly thereafter to the United States, where he has lived ever since. The essays in the new collection, which have been updated and revised, reflect an older man’s ponderings about his long life and career, as well as an expatriate’s analysis of the homeland he loves. Of the sixteen essays in the book, fourteen are adapted from earlier work. The earliest piece, “Spelling Our Proper Name,” is from a speech delivered on the death of James Baldwin in 1988; the most recent is “What Is Nigeria to Me?”an address delivered in Lagos at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in 2008.
The title of the volume signals the autobiographical elements that distinguish it from Achebe’s other collections. Achebe explains that he grew up and attended school under British colonial rule; he was already thirty years old and the author of two novels when Nigeria attained independence. As the child of Christian evangelical parents who valued education, Achebe attended schools that strictly followed the British model, and the books he studied “were the books English boys would have read in England.”
Throughout the volume, Achebe offers glimpses of his early life in an Igbo village that was home to both “the people of the church and the people of the world,” his education under...
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the guidance of what appear to have been excellent teachers, and his involvement with Nigerian media and politics. He also describes the period in the 1950’s when he studied at the British Broadcasting Corporation Staff School in London, noting that his passport identified him as a “British Protected Person.” The designation represented an official denial of his status as an Igbo, as an African, and as an autonomous adult.
Interestingly, Achebe says little about his wife and sons, his horrific car accident, or his life in the United States since 1990, although two of the essays are titled “My Dad and Me” and “My Daughters.” Instead, he looks back almost exclusively to his years in Nigeria, pausing to pay tribute to Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, in “The Sweet Aroma of Zik’s Kitchen”; the African American writer James Baldwin, in “Spelling Our Proper Name” and “Martin Luther King and America”; and the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, whose perceptions about Biafra in the failed Nigerian Civil War “are rooted in prodigious learning and a profoundly humane sensibility.” Achebe is clear in his condemnation of colonial power and postcolonial corruption, but he is generous with praise for those who use their gifts in the service of dialogue and understanding.
Achebe declares in the beginning of “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” the essay that serves as an introduction to the collection, “I hope my readers are not expecting to encounter the work of a scholar.” However, he does address some of the issues of scholarly debate that he has discussed throughout his career. The most prominent of these is Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness. Achebe reads the novella as an instrument of colonial oppression, rather than as an argument against imperialism. He acknowledges in “Africa’s Tarnished Name” that Heart of Darkness is but one example in a long tradition of presentations of Africa by Westerners, but again and again he has returned to that example as an emblem of that tradition that “has invented an Africa where nothing good happens or ever happened, an Africa that has not been discovered yet and is waiting for the first European visitor to explore it and explain it and straighten it up.”
In the essay, he traces Conrad’s boyhood fascination with explorers, especially those who visited Africa, and wonders why he was so attracted to the writings of men such as Mungo Park and David Livingstone. Achebe’s tone is mild, even conversational, as he notes that “it is not a crime to prefer the Africa of explorers to the Africa of colleges.” When he turns to discussing Heart of Darkness, however, and presents an extended passage in which the narrator compares one of the Africans he met (a “savage”) to a dog, Achebe’s mildness vanishes: “This is poisonous writing.”
Achebe describes Conrad’s “simple hierarchical order of souls,” with Africans at the bottom and Europeans at the top, and reminds readers of Conrad’s descriptions of “gyrating and babbling savages.” Achebe’s discussions of Conrad date back at least to 1975, when he presented a lecture on racism in Conrad’s novel at Amherst College. In the intervening years, other scholars have presented alternative readings of Conrad, many seeing the novel as a condemnation of imperialism written by a novelist who does not see the world as his narrator does. In “Africa’s Tarnished Name,” Achebe again refutes these readings. “People are wrong,” he writes, “when they tell you that Conrad was on the side of the Africans because his story showed great compassion towards them.”
Achebe’s thinking about Conrad is more nuanced than this summary suggests, and he returns to Conrad in other essays in the collection. In “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration,” he admires the language and imagery of Heart of Darkness and acknowledges Conrad’s “high-minded” intentions. He admits that, when he read the novel as a student, he was among the readers swept away by the adventure and that as a young reader he “took sides with the white men against the savages.” Not until he was older, he writes, did he understand that Conrad and other writers about Africa had “pulled a fast one” on him. It is this very realization, he explains, reached by many people, that created the African writer: “His story had been told for him, and he had found the telling quite unsatisfactory.” In his opening essay, Achebe’s resentment is directed only at Kurtz, the “dreadful character” from Heart of Darkness, not at Conrad or at the novel itself.
Thus, when Achebe says in the first essay that he is not appearing in the role of a scholar, he does not mean that he is not addressing scholarly concerns. The admirable accomplishment of the discussions of Conrad’s novel in this volume is that Achebe explains for general readers what the controversies are and why he reads as he does. The discussions are reasonable, thoughtful, and blessedly free of the complex jargon for which postcolonial criticism is notorious. By offering his thoughts about Heart of Darkness as one component in analyses of broader issues, rather than as a focused, linear argument about one novel, Achebe shows how criticism can be a dialogue, an activity for living, breathing readers.
With “Politics and Politicians of Language in Africa Literature,” Achebe takes up another scholarly debate in which he is an important voice: the choice made by African writers to write either in a colonial language (English, French, or Arabic) or in their “mother tongue.” Achebe, who writes in English, disagrees with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose 1986 essay “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature” famously called on African writers to create literature in their own languages, as he himself declared his intention to do. Achebe, whose essay title intentionally echoes Ngugi’s, continues the dialogue, again with a jargon-free, conversational diction that welcomes readers to think about an issue they may not have considered before.
Nigeria, Achebe patiently points out to his ignorant American audience, is home to “more than two hundred component nationalities,” each with its own mother tongue. For him, the choice to write in English is a practical one: “I can only speak across two hundred linguistic frontiers to fellow Nigerians in English.” He traces the history of missionary schools and language education in Africa, coming to different conclusions than Ngugi does, and concludes, “the only reason these alien languages are still knocking about is that they serve an actual need.”
Throughout the collection, Achebe comes across as a wise, thoughtful elder. He has read widely as well as deeply, from Homer to William Shakespeare to Okigbo; he has lived through colonialism, independence, and civil war; he is the author of one of the most important books Africa has produced. While he is opinionated, he is never cross or petty; while he is more knowledgeable than his intended readers, he is never pedantic. The Education of a British-Protected Child is an insightful and thought-provoking collection of essays for readers who are curious about African literature and culture, whether or not they are scholars. Many readers will come to this collection to learn more about Achebe, and that goal will be met. Because of Achebe’s probing mind and generosity of spirit, many will also discover new books, new writers, and new historical and cultural events to explore.
America 201, no. 12 (November 2, 2009): 37-39.
Booklist 106, no. 3 (October 1, 2009): 15-16.
Columbia Journalism Review 48, no. 3 (September/October, 2009): 60-61.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2009.
Library Journal, 134, no. 16 (October 1, 2009): 76-77.