(Sahara Reporters) — Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has described Africa’s most well-known novelist, Chinua Achebe, as a storyteller who earned global celebration, adding, however, that those describing Achebe as “the father of African literature” were ignorant.
In a wide-ranging interview with Sahara Reporters, Soyinka paid tribute to the late novelist, who died on March 21, 2013, at age 82. Soyinka, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature, also spoke about his personal relationship with Achebe and other Nigerian writers; his regrets about Achebe’s last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra; and his attempt to talk the late Biafran leader Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu out of fighting a war. Soyinka also answered questions about Heinemann’s African Writers Series and scolded “clannish” and “opportunistic hagiographers” fixated on the fact that Achebe never won the Nobel Prize.
Below is the full text of the interview.
Sahara Reporters: Do you recall where or how you first learned about the death of Professor Chinua Achebe? And what was your first reaction?
Wole Soyinka: Where I heard the news? I was on the road between Abeokuta and Lagos. Who called first — BBC or a Nigerian journalist? Can’t recall now, since other calls followed fast and furious, while I was still trying to digest the news. My first reaction? Well, you know the boa constrictor — when it has just swallowed an abnormal morsel, it goes comatose, takes time off to digest. Today’s global media appears indifferent to such a natural entitlement. You are expected to supply that instant response. So if — as was the case — my first response was to be stunned, that swiftly changed to anger.
Now, why was I stunned? I suspect, mostly because I was to have been present at his last Chinua Achebe symposium just a few months earlier — together with Governor Fashola of Lagos. Something intervened and I was marooned in New York. When your last contact with someone, quite recent, is an event that centrally involves that person, you don’t expect him to embark on a permanent absence. Also, Chinua and I had been collaborating lately on one or two home crises. So it was all supposed to be “business as usual.” Most-irrational expectations at one’s age, but that’s human presumptuousness for you. So, stunned I was, primarily; then media enraged!
SR: Achebe was both a writer as well as editor for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. How would you evaluate his role in the popularization of African literature?
Soyinka: I must tell you that, at the beginning, I was very skeptical of the Heinemann’s African Series. As a literary practitioner, my instinct tends towards a suspicion of “ghetto” classifications — which I did feel this was bound to be. When you run a regional venture, it becomes a junior relation to what exists. Sri Lankan literature should evolve and be recognized as literature of Sri Lanka, release after release, not entered as a series. You place the books on the market and let them take off from there. Otherwise there is the danger that you start hedging on standards. You feel compelled to bring out quantity, which might compromise on quality.
I refused to permit my works to appear in the series — to begin with. My debut took place while I was Gowon’s guest in Kaduna prisons and permission to publish The Interpreters was granted in my absence. Exposure itself is not a bad thing, mind you. Accessibility. Making works available — that’s not altogether negative. Today, several scholars write their Ph.D. theses on Onitsha Market Literature. Both Chinua and Cyprian Ekwensi — not forgetting Henshaw and others — published with those enterprising houses. It was outside interests that classified them Onitsha Market Literature, not the publishers. They simply published.
All in all, the odds come down in favor of the series — which, by the way, did go through the primary phase of sloppy inclusiveness, then became more discriminating. Aig Higo — who presided some time after Chinua — himself admitted it.
SR: For any major writer, there’s the inevitable question of influence. In your view, what’s the nature of Achebe’s enduring influence and impact in African literature? And what do you foresee as his place in the canon of world literature?
Soyinka: Chinua’s place in the canon of world literature? Wherever the art of the storyteller is celebrated, definitely assured.
SR: In interviews as well as in writing, Achebe brushed off the title of “father of African literature.” Yet on his death, numerous media accounts, in Nigeria as well as elsewhere, described him as the father — even grandfather — of African literature. What do you think of that tag?
Soyinka: As you yourself have observed, Chinua himself repudiated such a tag — he did study literature, after all, bagged a degree in the subject. So it is a tag of either literary ignorance or “momentary exuberance” — à la [Nadine] Gordimer — to which we are all sometimes prone. Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: Have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages?
What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe, et cetera, et cetera, literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It’s as ridiculous as calling W.S. father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate. As a shortcut to such corrective, I recommend Tunde Okanlawon’s scholarly tribute to Chinua in The Sun [Nigeria] of May 4. After that, I hope those of us in the serious business of literature will be spared further embarrassment.
Let me just add that a number of foreign “African experts” have seized on this silliness with glee. It legitimizes their ignorance, their parlous knowledge; enables them to circumscribe, then adopt a patronizing approach to African literatures and creativity. Backed by centuries of their own recorded literary history, they assume the condescending posture of midwiving an infant entity. It is all rather depressing.