6.3 Achebe in His Own Words
HUM 211 Online Course Pack - Winter 2010 Fall 2007
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SHORT CUTS on this web page: Value & Functions of Literature & Story Telling |
African Literature & Oral Traditions | 1992 Interview with Chinua Achebe | Works Cited

THE VALUE & FUNCTIONS OF LITERATURE AND STORY TELLING
Note: Interpretative summaries & emphasis added in this section are Cora Agatucci's.

"...only the story...can continue beyond the war and the warrior.
It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters.
It is the story...that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars
into the spikes of the cactus fence.
The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.
Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story;
rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.
--Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

From "What Has Literature Got to Do with It," essay collected in Achebe's Hopes and Impediments (1988):
"Literature, whether handed down by word or mouth or in print, gives us a second handle on reality." Achebe believes that literature has social and political importance. It is much more than a creative ornament. It provides a necessary critical perspective on everyday experience, educates us on the meaning of our actions and offers us greater control over our social and personal lives. According to Achebe, literature works by "enabling us to encounter in the safe, manageable dimensions of make-believe the very same threats to integrity that may assail the psyche in real life; and at the same time providing through the self-discovery which it imparts a veritable weapon for coping with these threats whether they are found within our problematic and incoherent selves or in the world around us."

From "The Novelist as Teacher," essay collected in Achebe's Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) & Hopes and Impediments (1988):
Achebe represents a particular reality: a modern Africa whose rich variety of ethnic and cultural identities is complicated by the impact of European colonialism. Read by Western audiences, works like Things Fall Apart are intended to challenge stereotypes of Africans as primitive savages, and present the complexities of African societies, with their alternative sets of traditions, ideals, values, and behaviors. Achebe is even more dismayed, however, to see Africans themselves internalizing these stereotypes and turning away from their cultures to emulate supposedly superior white European civilizations. So Achebe describes a dual mission to educate his readers, both African and European, to reinstate a sense of pride in African cultures. Achebe states his mission "The Novelist as Teacher": 'Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse -- to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of society meet."

As Paul Brians explains, the "most striking feature" of Things Fall Apart is the creation of "a complex and sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa. Achebe is trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering." Chinua Achebe "also fiercely resents the stereotype of Africa as an undifferentiated 'primitive' land, the 'heart of darkness,' as Conrad calls it. Throughout the novel he shows how African cultures vary among themselves and how they change over time" (Brians). "As a young boy the ‘African literature’ he [Achebe] was taught consisted entirely of works by Europeans about Africa, such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, which portrays a comic African who slavishly adores his white colonist boss, to the point of gladly being shot to death by him. Achebe has said that it was his indignation at this latter novel that inspired the writing of Things Fall Apart. . . .  He also wrote a famous attack ["An Image of Africa" ] on the racism of Heart of Darkness which continues to the subject of heated debate" (Brians).

From "The African Writer and the English Language" (1964), essay collected in Achebe's Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975):
Achebe’s goals cannot be realized by a simple return to a pre-colonial African age. He believes African society has been irrevocably changed by the colonial era. Achebe chooses to write in English and use Western forms of literary expression, unlike other African writers who reject the colonizers’ languages (e.g., English, French) and other vestiges of colonial influence. For example, another famous African writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya) chooses now to write and create only in his native Gikuyu language to build up an indigenous literature and "orature" (oral and performance arts). Achebe says he chooses to write in "African English" to express "a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language. So my answer to the question, Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. . . . The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience."
    
Like many other "postcolonial" writers from India, Africa, and other formerly colonized nations of the world, Achebe attempts to construct an image of Africa in a language that respects the national traditions of his native land while recognizing the demands of a cosmopolitan, international audience to whom Things Fall Apart is, in part, addressed. Achebe aims to reclaim his heritage and at the same time indicate directions for constructive change. He writes at a time when countries are adapting to a global economy and responding to pressures for reform and international cooperation, yet Achebe is keenly aware of the dangers of reactionary forms of nationalism and the desire for absolute power that, in Nigeria and elsewhere, have blocked reform and given dictators unrestrained rule.
     For Achebe, the transition to a new kind of postcolonial world should not abandon the old; and the repository of the old, the vital means to bring the old to meet the new, is the story. "The story is our escort," a character in Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah says; "without it, we are blind . . . ." The story embodies a tradition that can adapt to the new; the problem Achebe confronts is that of preserving national and cultural identity in the face of the inevitable blending of different cultures, yet preserving that identity in a way that does not reject--and can benefit.

African Literature and Oral Traditions

One cannot fully understand African literatures without studying the particular cultures and oratures on which African writers draw...for their themes and values, for their narrative structures and plots, for their rhythms and styles, for their images and metaphors, for their artistic and ethical principles.  African proverbs and stories draw upon the collective wisdom of oral peoples, express their "structures of meaning, feeling, thought, and expression," and thus serve important social and ethical purposes: "The story itself is a primary form of the oral tradition, primary as a mode of conveying culture, experience, and values and as a means of transmitting knowledge, wisdom, feelings, and attitudes in oral societies"; a central position is thus "given to the story in the oral tradition…by African writers in the shaping of their literary world and works…" (Obiechina).  As Solomon Iyasere puts it in "Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature":

"...the modern African writer is to his indigenous oral tradition as a snail is to its shell.
Even in a foreign habitat, a snail never leaves its shell behind"
(Iyasere 107).

African novelists like Chinua Achebe often introduce oral stories— such as narrative proverbs, song-tales, myths, folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, anecdotes, and ballads—into literature.  Among the many examples to be found in Things Fall Apart are (1) Ikemefuna’s song (already discussed in HUM 211 Course Pack: 2.1  In Praise of the Word) and  (2) the story of the Tortoise and the Birds. As explained in Cora Agatucci's "African Storytelling," "[e]very human culture in the world seems to create stories (narratives) as a way of making sense of the world. Some familiar features of the folktale, a common kind of story around the world, for example, can be discerned in Tortoise and the Birds, an Igbo folktale recounted in Ch. 11 (pp. 68-70) of Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed 1958 novel Things Fall Apart:

bullet"’Once upon a time,’ she began, all the birds were invited to a feast in the sky,’"
as Achebe renders the traditional Igbo folktale opening into English.
bulletThe story explains a cause, origin, or reason for something--gives an "etiological
explanation...at the end" (
Obiechina)--i.e. for why the tortoise shell is "'not smooth.'"
bulletThe story dramatizes a moral: greedy Tortoise, '"full of cunning,'" manages to trick
the birds out of all the food at the feast,but for his selfishness he is punished.
Tortoise falls from the sky and "’His shell broke into pieces.’"
bulletIn folktale worlds, such "naughty," but not "irredeemably" wicked characters, as
Achebe describes Tortoise
(qtd. in Baker and Draper 22), are often restored and/or
reintegrated back into society: i.e. "'a great medicine-man in the neighbourhood'"
patches Tortoise’s shell together again.

See also "African Storytelling," by Cora Agatucci:
http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/afrstory.htm

1992 Achebe Interview Excerpt from: “'If One Thing Stands, Another Will Stand Beside It':
An Interview with Chinua Achebe,”conducted by Rob Baker and Ellen Draper

[Achebe:]  The oral tradition is “very big, because…everything that we as human beings have learned to talk about and discuss and reflect upon is part of this oral tradition:  you have flippant talk, you have very serious discussion, you have history, … religion, … stories, fiction, if you like—all that is part of it.  But one thing which is common to all of that, I think, is the seriousness with which language is treated, if it is the only vehicle you have for conveying your meaning, for reflecting.  I don’t mean that you can’t play with language, but you need to know what you are doing, at all times….What is appropriate in one situation may not be appropriate in another—you have to be conscious of that.  And you make have to make sure that this distinction is maintained between the serious and the unserious, between work and play, when language is the only thing you have to express yourself in a very complex and difficult world.”

[Parabola Interviewers Baker & Draper:]  “How does a child learn to make those distinctions?”

[Achebe:]  “I think this is taught instinctively in the handling of stories.  For instance, Tortoise is a trickster, and when he’s saying one thing, you soon learn that he means something else.  All the other creatures in the story [of Tortoise and the Birds in Things Fall Apart] know that Tortoise is not to be trusted.  So you being to draw this distinction between what is to be trusted or who is to be trusted, and what is not to be trusted.  I think it is a slow and painless way of introducing the child to this…. Let me give you [an example] from Things Fall Apart, my novel, because I have often adapted material from the oral tradition into my writing.

There’s a story about Tortoise and the birds.  The birds are planning to go to the sky….And somehow Tortoise—who is very greedy, apart from being a trickster, and always manages to get to wherever anything is happening—finds out that something is cooking, and he visits the birds and asks them to take him along to the feast in the sky.  But they all know Tortoise and they don’t want to have anything to do with him….But Tortoise says, ‘No, no, no, you don’t know me.  I’ve changed….’  So he persuades them because he’s very smooth, very well-spoken….Then, being Tortoise, he virtually takes over the expedition….

“That’s Tortoise—he’s there in virtually every story.  If you don’t see Tortoise, you know that things haven’t really got going.”

[Parabola:]  “So what does a story do in your tradition, or does it serve many purposes?

[Achebe:]  “It does many things.  It entertains, it informs, it instructs.  It is the most complete way of communicating.  Tortoise is a character children can relate to.  He is a rogue, but he’s a nice kind of rogue.  I think children don’t trust him, but they like to hear that he’s around, because they know that he’s going to do something unexpected and generally he will be punished too.  This is the moral side of it.  He’s not allowed to get away with murder.  He does something and he gets punished, but he still lives to appear again, so it’s not cheap Sunday school morality that we’re talking about; it is something that is even more interesting, I think.  There is crime and punishment.  It’s not mechanical.  Tortoise is wicked, but he is not irredeemably so.  Tortoise is not evil.  He’s just naughty.”

[Parabola:]  “Do these stories present the concepts of the religion of the Igbo tribe?…”

[Achebe:]  Everything is connected for the Igbo.  I think the notion of compartments such as religion, politics, economics—these divisions do not operate in the traditional Igbo world view.  If you ask an Igbo man what his religion is, he will be at a loss to answer you.  Or if you ask him if he is religious, it’s the same thing, because to him everybody—and everything—is religious.  It’s a holistic world view.  Things are linked.

If you look at these stories carefully, you will find they support and reinforce the basic tenets of the culture.  The storytellers worked out what is right and what is wrong, what is courageous and what is cowardly, and they translate this into stories.  The Igbo society, for example, does not believe in the single-mindedness of some religions.  The Igbo think that the world can be better explained in terms of not one thing, but always the other as well—they always look for the other.  And they say it in so many different ways, but the most concise one, the most frequent is Ife kwulu ife akwudebie (If one thing stands, another thing will stand beside it).’

“One of the most complete pictures of evil for the Igbo is Something That Doesn’t Even Wear a Necklace.  There is no second presence—not even a necklace—so this thing is so completely alone that it is metaphor for evil:  something that doesn’t even have a necklace to keep it company.

“This idea of the importance of the second occurs again and again and again.  Another way they put it is, ‘Two heads, four eyes.’  They don’t bother to tell you more than that: If you have two heads, you’ll have four eyes.  And four is an image of completeness to the Igbo.  The four points of the compass, the four days of the Igbo week.  You can see around the problem if you have four eyes.  If you just have two eyes, one head, you can’t see around the corner.  And so they repeat this notion of the importance of the many, rather than one….”

[Parabola:]  “In Things Fall Apart, there was one place where something is said about the women telling one kind of stories and the men telling another kind.  In our Western culture, with all the emphasis on equal rights, it’s almost out of style for men to have one role and women to have another.  Do you think these roles are important?”

[Achebe:]  I’m not the one to instruct you on what you should do in your own culture.  All I can say is, this is one way of looking at the world.  It has its merits and it no doubt has its defects.  Whichever way we are adopting, whatever culture, it is good to know that the world is very big, and that there will be other ways if you travel far enough, and that the person who stays at home and says, ‘Mine is the right one’ is often most impoverished.  Igbo people understand quite well that their way of looking at the world is not the only one, or should not be the only one.  They say that a young man who has never travelled imagines that his mother makes the best soup in the world.  So they encourage you to travel, with all respect to your mother.”

[Achebe goes on to explain the kind of stories men tell:]  …historical stories, more about how the town came into existence, the history, the various families, how they relate to one another.  That’s their domain.  This is something very complex and important for the life of the community.  My father, who was a Christian convert and a teacher, had pretty much abandoned the traditional life of the Igbo society, but he was still so imbued with this aspect of the life of the community that before he died he dictated to my brother the entire genealogy of our town, from the man who was the first ancestor down to every family, and my brother got this all down on paper.  I saw that happen. . . . That’s the kind of instruction that men were given, the kind of education they were given.  You knew exactly how every part of the town fit into the family tree.  Then if there was a land quarrel between families. . . you would ask the oldest people.  That was their job; they would know.  And they would not play any tricks about this—it was a sacred duty.”

And the fact that they would be called upon once in a while to make this kind of declaration kept them active in mind and memory.  They really do remember.  They remember much better than we do, those of us who write things down.  Because once you transfer everything to a notebook, you don’t have to remember it anymore—the notebook remembers for you.  For the Igbo, it’s not like that—they have to keep remembering.  I have seen some very, very old people, and it’s rare to find an old man who has lost his mind because he doesn’t use it.  I don’t remember senility among the Igbo.  It is something which is yet to come to us, with literacy and writing....”

[Parabola:]  “Are there griots, or singing storytellers, among the Igbo, as there are among other West African tribes?”

[Achebe:]  “There are.  In a way, there shouldn’t be, I suppose, because we tend to think of griots as professional storytellers in hierarchical societies, with kings and nobility.  The Igbo long ago abandoned the notion of kingship, in favor of an egalitarian system of government. . . . Therefore by rights, there should not be any griots among the Igbo, because the Igbo are very democratic.  Everybody is a priest of sorts, and everybody is a historian, everybody’s a storyteller." “But there are also epic traditions in some parts of Igboland, and epic storytellers and poets do this not as their only way of life, but as a good part of their occupation. . . .

[Parabola interviewers later asked whether oral tradition could survive modernization and the great movements of people from rural to urban life.]

[Achebe:]  It is very difficult to move it in the same form. . . . if we find that we can no longer maintain the environment for storytelling—with people leaving, going to school, moving out the villages into the towns—then the best we can do is try and translate some of the energy of the folk stories into the written stories.”   [Traditional stories and fiction] "will never be exactly the same.  They don't have to be exactly the same.  But it will be very valuable if we can develop a literary tradition that carries the intonations of this great past . . . . the world is changing so fast around us, and a lot of it we are not in control of, but what we do control I think we should think about seriously.  This is especially true with story, because that’s really the basis of our existence—who we are, what we think we are, what our people say we are, what other people think we are—all of this is very important. . . .

 Where one story stands, bring another one to stand beside it, and if that’s a better story, then it should displace the bad one.  I think that’s the way it should be.  If on the other hand, it is necessary to have the two of them side by side, then you don’t lose anything.

There are so many people today whose stories need to be told—Africans, Native Americans, women everywhere—no story should be banned.  It can be discussed and even interrogated, but that should not diminish whatever value the story has.  Rather it puts each story in a proper perspective, and it will also encourage diversity.  Those who have not spoken so far need to be heard, all around the world.  And we will not be poorer, we will be richer for that.”

Excerpts from another 2000 interview with Achebe, conducted by Katie Bacon,
are included in related HUM 211 Online Course Pack readings:
Images of Africa & African History
Cross-Cultural Study: Some Considerations

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua.  Anthills of the Savannah. 1987. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
[COCC Library: PR9387.9.A]

Achebe, Chinua.  Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. 1988.  New York : Anchor-Doubleday, 1990.
[COCC Library: PR9387.9.A3 H6 1990]

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness."  The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (Winter 1977): 782-94. 

This classic essay is widely reprinted - here are some sources where you can find it:
--R
pt. Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays.1988. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1990. 1-20.
--Rpt. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 251-262.
--Rpt.
Novels for Students, Vol. 2. Rpt. Gale Literature Resource Center. 2003. Central Oregon Community College, Bend, OR. 23 May 2003. 
--NOTE to Cora to add citation here: Achebe's essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" is also included in HUM 211 Winter 2010 required textbook:
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York: Norton, 2008.

Achebe, Chinua.  Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. London: Heinemann, 1975.

NOTE:  Morning Yet on Creation Day is currently out of print, but five of its important essays are reprinted in Hopes and Impediments, which is still in print:  “The Novelist as Teacher” (1965), “Language and the Destiny of Man” (1972) “Named for Victoria, Queen of England” (1973), “Thoughts on the African Novel” (1973), and “Colonialist Criticism” (1974).

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. [First published 1958.] Expanded edition with notes. 1996. London: Heinemann, 2000.

Bacon, Katie.  " An African Voice."  Interview with Chinua Achebe.  Atlantic Monthly 2 August 2000. Atlantic Online, Atlantic Group, 2000.  1 Jan. 2003 <http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba2000-08-02.htm>. [As of Aug. 2004, available only to paid Atlantic subscribers.]

Baker, Rob, and Ellen Draper. “'If One Thing Stands, Another Will Stand Beside It': An Interview with Chinua Achebe.” Parabola 17.3 (Fall 1992): 19-27.

Brians, Paul (Dept. of English, Washington State University, Pullman, WA: brians@wsu.edu).  "Things Fall Apart Study Guide." 2002. 11 August 2004 <http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/anglophone/achebe.html>.

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness. [First published: 1899, 3-part serial, Blackwood's Magazine; 1902, rev. Blackwood.] 

NOTE:  Conrad's Heart of Darkness, esteemed a classic of Western literature, is widely reprinted and frequently appears in anthologies of English and Western world literature.  Cora Agatucci's study guide for Conrad's Heart of Darkness, referencing one anthology in which the novel appears, may be accessed at: http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/eng109/HeartSG.htm

Iyasere, Solomon O. "Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature." The Journal of Modern African Studies 13.1 (1975): 107.

--NOTE to Cora to add citation here: Iyasere's essay "Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart"  included in HUM 211 Winter 2010 required textbook:
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York: Norton, 2008.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. "Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel. (Special Issue in Memory of Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda) Research in African Literatures 24.4(Winter 1993):123(18pgs). Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A14706083.

Abstract: "'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe exemplifies the use of narrative proverbs in the African novel, reflecting the synthesis of oral and written traditions. Narrative proverbs are stories or other forms derived from the oral tradition which are embedded within the novels and perform the function of proverbs. Achebe's novel incorporates nine embedded narratives, seven of which are folktales or myths. Narratives discussed in relation to the novel include the quarrel between Earth and Sky, the locust myth, Ikemefuna's song, the mosquito myth, the tale of the tortoise and the birds, the Abame story and the kite myth."

--NOTE to Cora to add citation here: Obiechina's essay "Following the Author in Things Fall Apart"  included in HUM 211 Winter 2010 required textbook:
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York: Norton, 2008.

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