Developing an African Voice: Chinua Achebe

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 (

The Role of the Writer in Africa

What then were we to do as writers? What was our role in our new country? How were we to think about the use of our talents? I can say that when a number of us decided that we would be writers, we had not thought through these questions very clearly. In fact, we did not have a clue what we were up against. What I can say is that it was clear to many of us that an indigenous African literary renaissance was overdue. A major objective was to challenge stereotypes, myths, and the image of ourselves and our continent, and to recast them through stories — prose, poetry, essays, and books for our children. That was my overall goal.


When a number of us decided to pick up the pen and make writing a career there was no African literature as we know it today. There were of course our great oral tradition — the epics of the Malinke, the Bamana, and the Fulani — the narratives of Olaudah Equiano, works by D.O. Fagunwa and Muhammadu Bello, and novels by Pita Nwana, Amos Tutuola, and Cyprian Ekwensi.

Across the African continent, literary aficionados could savor the works of Egyptian, Nubian, and Carthaginian antiquity; Amharic and Tigrigna writings from Ethiopia and Eritrea; and the magnificent poetry and creation myths of Somalia. There was more — the breathtakingly beautiful Swahili poetry of East and Central Africa, and the chronicles, legends, and fables of the Ashanti, Dogon, Hutu, Kalanga, Mandingo, Ndebele, Ovambo, Shona, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Tutsi, Venda, Wolof, Xhosa, and Zulu.


Olive Schreiner's nineteenth-century classic Story of an African Farm and works by Samuel Mqhayi and Thomas Mofolo, Alan Paton, Camara Laye, Mongo Beti, Peter Abrahams, and Ferdinand Oyono, all preceded our time. Still, the numbers were not sufficient.

And so I had no idea when I was writing Things Fall Apart whether it would even be accepted or published. All of this was new — there was nothing by which I could gauge how it was going to be received.

Writing has always been a serious business for me. I felt it was a moral obligation. A major concern of the time was the absence of the African voice. Being part of that dialogue meant not only sitting at the table but effectively telling the African story from an African perspective — in full earshot of the world.

The preparation for this life of writing, I have mentioned, came from English-system-style schools and university. I read Shakespeare, Dickens, and all the books that were read in the English public schools. They were novels and poems about English culture, and some things I didn't know anything about. When I saw a good sentence, saw a good phrase from the Western canon, of course I was influenced by it. But the story itself — there weren't any models. Those that were set in Africa were not particularly inspiring. If they were not saying something that was antagonistic toward us, they weren't concerned about us.


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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