By Vincent Alicho
The controversies that trailed Prof. Achebe’s last book—There Was a Country: A Personal History Of Biafra—came from different perspectives. While some people saw the book as one that came to shed more light on the events of the Nigerian/Biafran war, others saw it as a book that should not have been published in the first place. The proponents of the second group came up with so many reasons—from the book being an attack on some personalities and a particular ethnic group, to Achebe being anti-Nigeria, one whose book, they claim, fanned the embers of disunity. But one of the reasons given by this group that caught my attention was the one that said that Achebe was bitter with a particular ethnic group because he failed to win the Nobel Prize in Literature which a kinsman of this ethnic group won in 1986. Even now that he has died, some articles have been written on this issue of Nobel Prize; while some are regretting that Achebe did not win the prize, others are pointing out from their personal views what Achebe should have written or should not have written in order to win the prize. Some are even praying and hoping that he wins the prize posthumously. At the end of the day, one almost gets the impression that Achebe set out to win the Nobel Prize in Literature but failed.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel rightly said his prize in literature should be given to an author from any country who has produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in ideal direction. But we must not also forget that there are some controversial angles to this said prize: there is the controversy over what should be the correct interpretation of the phrase ideal direction as used by Nobel himself; there are also alleged political interests regarding the nomination and selection of those to receive the prize. The point remains that the Swedish Academy is continuously criticized over the award; while some people in their criticisms maintain that there are many well-known writers who have not even been nominated let alone be awarded the prize, others maintain that some recipients of the award did not deserve it. When all these are considered, one continues to wonder why Achebe’s destiny in the world of literature should be tied to a prize given in the name of Alfred Nobel. Those who still think that the personality of Achebe got diminished for not winning a Nobel Prize have totally refused to acknowledge the task Achebe set out to accomplish for Africa.
On page 34 of There Was A Country, Achebe wrote: ‘I have written elsewhere of how I fared when I entered a short story competition in the Department of English, and how my teacher, who supervised this competition, announced the result, which was that nobody who entered the competition was good enough. I was more or less singled out as someone with some promise, but the story I submitted lacked “form.” Understandably, I wanted to find out more about what the professor meant by form. It seemed to me that here was some secret competence that I needed to be taught. But when I then applied some pressure on this professor to explain to me what form was, it was clear that she was not prepared—that she could not explain it to me. And it dawned on me that despite her excellent mind and background, she was not capable of teaching across cultures, from her English culture to mine.’ That was it. It was all about THE QUEST FOR FORM. As far as the English professor was concerned, whatever “form” Achebe’s story lacked was meant to be form from the white man’s worldview. Achebe and his fellow students’ short stories were “formless” to her because maybe the students failed to shape or structure their stories from the white man’s perspective. Remember that at that time, nearly all the literature books made available to the young African students bore names of foreign authors—from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, etc. It seems those were the authors whose books had the much needed form. But that was when Achebe got challenged—to move on and tell his own story, the African story, whether it lacked form or not. He never knew how that audacious step he took would change the scenario of the literary world. Yes, he captured the “form” that was embedded in African literature in his first and most famous novel—Things Fall Apart. This is a book that championed the knocking into oblivion foreign literature in Africa, all the “form” they possessed notwithstanding.
I would subtly disagree with those who have posited that the wide spread and acceptance of Things Fall Apart, especially in foreign climes, was as a result of the tragic end of Okonkwo. These people believe that Okonkwo took the option of suicide when it dawned on him that he had gone against the wishes of the white man. They argue that by taking his own life under such a situation, Okonkwo oiled the ego of the white man who nobody could ‘challenge’ and go unpunished. These people therefore conclude that such a book has advanced the personality of the white man who, on recognizing that, has in turn championed its (the book’s) spread since such a move could mean the spread of their own superiority over Africans. But then, in Things Fall Apart, was that really the case? Did Okonkwo take his own life because he was afraid of anyone? Between the African and his white visitor, who really went against the wishes of the other? What Achebe succeeded in achieving in Things Fall Apart was that he situated the African in his own culture with all his dignity intact. This was a culture that, to a very high extent, was well organized: everyone laboured towards upholding the norms and values of the society; the titled men were the custodians of the community; the Egwugwu masquerade cult settled difficult disputes; the new yam festivals, marriage rites and other ceremonies were well celebrated; titles were given to those who merited them; members of each age grade carried out some specific responsibilities on behalf of the whole community; the values and norms of the society were inculcated into the younger generations through proverbs, folktales, folksongs, etc.; wars were never fought without the community first sending emissaries for a peaceful negotiation, etc.Things Fall Apart captured an organized African society.
Okonkwo was only annoyed with visitors who arrogantly failed to recognize the way of life of their hosts. He eloquently put this message across to them through his death. By taking his own life, Okonkwo told and continues to tell those who would care to listen that he abhors a situation whereby a people are refused to be listened to especially when the message they want to pass across has much to do with their life; that he abhors a situation whereby the way of life of a people is roundly condemned; that he abhors a situation whereby some people are looked down upon as if they were nonentities. Yes, Okonkwo was totally annoyed with a man who had no respect for his fellow man in his own compound. His death, therefore, could not be said to be as a result of the recognition of any white supremacy or superiority but rather as a result of what he saw as an injustice meted out to his people.
Things Fall Apart has received much recognition and acceptance because different peoples of the world have also passed through some period of injustice, suppression, oppression and condemnation just like the people of Umuofia. These are people who understand more what Okonkwo fought against that led to his frustration and death. Achebe corroborated this line of thought in his last book. After he released Things Fall Apart, he took some time to wonder whether the book would make any meaning or have any relevance to other peoples of the world. He did not wait for long before he received some reactions from a whole class of college girls in South Korea who wrote to him expressing their different opinions about the book. What did he learn from that? He learnt that ‘they had a history that was similar to the story of Things Fall Apart—the history of colonization…Their colonizer was Japan. So these people across the waters were able to relate to the story of dispossession in Africa. People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience’ (There Was a Country, 39).
As I read, Things Fall Apart has been translated into more than 50 languages and has sold more than 10,000,000 copies. With the way people are identifying with it by relating their cultural, political, religious and even economic situations to it, it would continue to be translated into more languages and some more million copies sold. There is no fear about that; the signs are everywhere. In his article, The Man Behind The Writer, in which he eulogized Prof. Achebe, Emmanuel Dongala, a Congolese writer, called up a story narrated by our lovely Wole Soyinka at the venue of Achebe’s 70th birthday. Soyinka narrated that after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, an admirer came up to him and congratulated him with effusion, telling him how much he loved what he writes. “And what have you read by me?” asked Soyinka. “Things Fall Apart” replied the admirer. Imagine! That is how Achebe has succeeded in turning African literature into world literature. And yet some people maintain that such a man must receive a prize in the name of Nobel before we recognize his worth in the literary world.
Instead of seeing Achebe from the perspective of a writer who did not win a prize from Sweden, Africa should rather see in him a man whose pen brought to limelight a people whose world was hitherto obscured by the stories told about it by others. Africa should see in Achebe a man who has made the rest of the world begin to see themselves in the stories told by Africans. We should see in Achebe a man who has made non-Africans not only to begin to appreciate the rich meanings embedded in African folktales, folksongs and proverbs but to also apply them in their expressions. An example of this is found in a part of the tribute to the late Prof. from Brown University, USA, where the Prof. taught his last class. This part read: ‘At a time like this we could draw many words of wisdom and comfort from the deep wells of various African cultures and traditions to honor him. The most fitting is the simple and elegant phrase, “A great tree has fallen.”’ This elegant phrase is among the numerous ones found in the works of Achebe. Yes, instead of an unnecessary reference to Nobel Prize, we should all look at the literary icon through the eyes of the great African, Nelson Mandela, who saw Achebe as the writer ‘in whose company the prison walls fell down.’
Perhaps an aspect of Achebe that no one can wish away no matter how hard one tries is what Amanze Obi captured in his article Achebe and Emergency Pontifices (The Sun, April 11,2013). In the words of Amanze, ‘beyond literature, Achebe was a man of conviction. He mastered his environment clearly and breathed at it from the vantage position of one who knows. He did not engage in self-censorship. He broke loose from all structures, holding truth as an article of trade.’ Surely, Achebe held truth as an article of trade. His conviction in what he believed in graced all his works. It has become obvious that where he mostly remained vehement in presenting issues that have continued to rattle many a people is in his last book, There Was A Country, his parting gift to Africans and to humanity. It is only when we discard our sentimental garments and put on the cloak of reason that we would appreciate what that Man of Letters presented in that book. It is only when we make an unbiased journey into his works that we would appreciate the height the power of his pen has placed Africa in the literary world. Only then would we realize that that great son of Ogidi had and will continue to have a towering figure that needs no prize in the name of any Nobel to maintain.
Vincent Alicho is a student of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Kenya.