Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587
The title Home and Exile summarizes the essence of this work: Achebe’s discovery of Igbo values and ways as his true home, despite years abroad, an exile paralleling the Igbo experiences with oppressive European literature undermining their sense of worth, defining them as primitive savages, and justifying European ways as superior. The book consists of three lectures delivered over a three-day period, December 9-11, 1998, at Harvard University: “My Home Under Imperial Fire,” “The Empire Fights Back,” and “Today, the Balance of Stories.”
The first essay records Achebe’s youthful discovery of Nigeria as his spiritual and intellectual home when his missionary family retired and returned to their ancestral home. Achebe developed a love of Igbo ways and a deep-seated desire to attack denigrators. He rejects the word “tribe” as a racist misnomer, asserting that the Igbo are neither “primitive” nor bound by blood ties, with their language complex, including major and minor dialects, and their sociopolitical identity purposefully defined by disdain for the concept of a single ruler. He finds the term “nation” more appropriate for a loose federation of people with strong individual identities, loyalty to independent towns or ministates, a love of competition and controversy, and a marketing network for disseminating goods and news. He emphasizes the Igbo love of song, dance, proverbs, and storytelling and so deep-seated a tolerance of difference that they refuse to impose their religious beliefs even on outsiders seeking to join them. He depicts his formal education as Eurocentric but describes a landmark rebellion when, in 1952, a class of Nigerian university students rejected as absurd author Joyce Cary’s derogatory racial stereotyping in Mister Johnson (1939). This rebellion led the young Achebe to scrutinize the connection between the slave trade and literature written to justify it and to recognize the appropriation of his homeland by imperialistic propaganda.
Achebe’s second essay, “The Empire Fights Back,” explores his outrage at racist depictions of his people and home, his decision to fight back in novels providing Nigerian perspectives, and his willingness to face considerable trouble to tell worthy stories. He contrasts the works of Joseph Conrad and Elspeth Huxley with F. J. Pedler’s call for authentic African literary voices in West Africa (1951), and he deplores the mind-set that led British-educated Africans to mock Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town (1952) for presenting an African perspective. For Achebe, the launching of Heinemann’s African Writers Series marked the turning point in African literature, rejecting imperialist voices in favor of true Africans. He ends with Jomo Kenyatta’s parable of British imperial practices, “The Gentlemen of the Jungle,” to demonstrate African writers fighting back.
The final essay praises Salman Rushdie’s description of postcolonial literature as “The Empire Writes Back,” W. E. B. Du Bois’s hopes for racial parity, and Ama Ata Aidoo’s sympathetic tales of the afflicted poor, but it criticizes V. S. Naipaul’s imperialist rejection of impoverished peoples and Rushdie’s assertion that literature can exist apart from a writer’s national roots. Achebe concludes that African literature has found its voice since the 1950’s and that such literature finds its worth, not in a universal civilization, but in a writer’s home. African writers long exiled from their heritage by literature justifying imperial conquest have found their literary home in Africa, whether they live there or in exile from it.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (May 15, 2000): 1721.
Kirkus Reviews 68 (May, 2000): 605.
Library Journal 125 (April 15, 2000): 87.
The Nation 271 (July 10, 2000): 39.
Publishers Weekly 247 (May 8, 2000): 211.
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