RIP, Chinua Achebe (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I just learned — much belatedly — that Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, died two years ago today at 82. Here is a snippet from his 2013 obituary in the New York Times:

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him “a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”

Mr. Achebe’s political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence. Indeed, it was Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s and then its military dictatorship in the 1980s and ‘90s that forced Mr. Achebe abroad.

In his writing and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel byJoseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”

“I grew up among very eloquent elders,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2008. “In the village, or even in the church, which my father made sure we attended, there were eloquent speakers.” That eloquence was not reflected in Western books about Africa, he said, but he understood the challenge in trying to rectify the portrayal.

“You know that it’s going to be a battle to turn it around, to say to people, ‘That’s not the way my people respond in this situation, by unintelligible grunts, and so on; they would speak,’ ” Mr. Achebe said. “And it is that speech that I knew I wanted to be written down.”

Chinua’s passing fills me with great sadness, because I had the honour of getting to know him quite well in the late 1980s — just before the car accident that left him paralyzed — when I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. He was a dear friend of the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, for whom I did research and whose journal, Dialectical Anthropology, I edited. I will long treasure the memories of Chinua’s kindness and warmth. He would always go out of his way to include me in conversations, and to ask me — a lowly graduate student, barely 21 — what I thought about things. And his terrible accident did not dim his spirit in the slightest; he was just as kind and warm the first time I saw him after the accident, when he was still recovering.

Chinua was also, needless to say, a remarkable novelist. I just wish he had written more — his two-decade-long writers block, which he attributed to the trauma of the Nigerian civil war (as the obituary notes), cheated us all out of so many great novels that will now never be written. I plan to re-read “Things Fall Apart” in his honour as soon as I can. It remains one of the great novels written by any writer — not just by an African one. Chinua’s fiction, though so inextricably tied to his country and to his continent, always transcended the limits of geography. I still get angry when I think about Saul Bellow’s profoundly racist comment concerning the supposed non-existence of great African literature: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, we will read him.” I don’t know about the Zulus, but the Ibo certainly produced one. His name was Chinua Achebe.

Requiescat in pace, Chinua. You will be missed — and remembered.

UPDATE: I have updated the post to reflect that I only found out today about Chinua’s death. I hope these thoughts are better late than never.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/22/rip-chinua-achebe/

3 Responses

  1. I find it disrespectful that on the 2nd anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s death that your “reflection” is a discussion of encounters with Achebe, rather than a description of the impact of his literary legacy. For many international law scholars based in or focused on Nigeria and surrounding states, his work was and is central to a deeper understanding of the operation of coloniality, masculinity and minority identity. I encourage the readers of Opinio Juris to read Achebe’s full obituary (excerpts quoted above) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/world/africa/chinua-achebe-nigerian-writer-dies-at-82.html

  2. F.A.,

    I don’t there is anything disrespectful about posting personal thoughts about someone whom you once knew quite well. And I’d note that the final paragraph — half of the post — is specifically dedicated to his literary legacy. Readers should indeed read the NYT obituary, which provides more information about his legacy. And, of course, they should read all of his books, not just his most famous, “Things Fall Apart.”

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