Developing an African Voice: Chinua Achebe

In an excerpt from his memoir, the author tells how Nigeria's independence fight fueled his writing.

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (AFP); cover of his memoir, There Was a Country (
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (AFP); cover of his memoir, There Was a Country (

When people talk about African culture they often mean an assortment of ancient customs and traditions. The reasons for this view are quite clear. When the first Europeans came to Africa they knew very little of the history and complexity of the people and the continent. Some of that group persuaded themselves that Africa had no culture, no religion, and no history. It was a convenient conclusion, because it opened the door for all sorts of rationalizations for the exploitation that followed. Africa was bound, sooner or later, to respond to this denigration by resisting and displaying her own accomplishments. To do this effectively her spokesmen — the writers, intellectuals, and some politicians, including Azikiwe, Senghor, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Lumumba, and Mandela — engaged Africa’s past, stepping back into what can be referred to as the “era of purity,” before the coming of Europe. We put into the books and poems what was uncovered there, and this became known as African culture.

This was a very special kind of inspiration. Some of us decided to tackle the big subjects of the day — imperialism, slavery, independence, gender, racism, etc. And some did not. One could write about roses or the air or about love for all I cared; that was fine too. As for me, however, I chose the former.

Engaging such heavy subjects while at the same time trying to help create a unique and authentic African literary tradition would mean that some of us would decide to use the colonizer’s tools: his language, altered sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition. I borrowed proverbs from our culture and history, colloquialisms and African expressive language from the ancient griots, the worldviews, perspectives, and customs from my Igbo tradition and cosmology, and the sensibilities of everyday people.

It was important to us that a body of work be developed of the highest possible quality that would oppose the negative discourse in some of the novels we encountered. By “writing back” to the West we were attempting to reshape the dialogue between the colonized and the colonizer. Our efforts, we hoped, would broaden the world’s understanding, appreciation, and conceptualization of what literature meant when including the African voice and perspective. We were clearly engaged in what Ode Ogede aptly refers to as “the politics of representation.”

This is another way of stating the fact of what I consider to be my mission in life. My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, “Now we’ve heard it all.” I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, “The novel is dead, the story is dead.” I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.

From There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Chinua Achebe, 2012. 

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