Two Saturdays ago, I had the privilege of giving a keynote at an international conference organized at the Senate House of the University of London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God.
The two-day celebration was an impressive gathering of scholars who have devoted time to the study and explication of Achebe’s work as a novelist, cultural activist and intellectual. Among the luminaries who offered stimulating papers were John Gikandi of Princeton University, Harry Garuba (who traveled from his South African location), and T. Vijay Kumar. The first day of the conference, Femi Osofisan, a polyglot who is at once an incisive scholar, extraordinary dramatist, and novelist directed a dramatization of Arrow that brought home in a powerful way the millenarian tension in Achebe’s most important—even if not most well known—fictive work. Akachi Ezeigbo, a novelist and professor at the University of Lagos, capped off the second and final day of the event by performing an Igbo dirge for Achebe.
The two-day conference was altogether moving. The brilliance of many of the presentations was matched by the conference’s festive air. It all showed the potential power of rich, deep cultural production. In their wide-ranging, multidisciplinary engagement with Achebe’s grandest novel, several presenters sought to underscore how literary creativity can illuminate a people’s social experience and embody a broad range of their dreams.
To pay attention to the presentations was to come away with a deep conviction that the best artists and writers possess the power to offer timeless insights, contained in works that are of their time without being contained by it.
Numerous speakers, including Garuba and the passionate Obi Nwakanma, illustrated the ways in which Achebe’s third novel, though set in a past in which the outlines and effects of colonial subjugation were undeniable, nevertheless anticipates Africa’s contemporary predicament. Ezeulu, the protagonist in Arrow of God, in his fascination with the exercise of power and his refusal to “eat death” that his people may be spared from collective demise, buttresses the behavior of many African “leaders.” These leaders, a bunch Fanon would categorize as contemptible, are often unwilling to rein in their appetite for self-aggrandizement in order to serve more humanistic or visionary goals.
Years ago, a Nigerian publisher friend of mine was fond of describing culture as an index of power. At the time, I did not fully grasp the power of his assertion. Its full implications began to dawn on me only after I moved to the United States. I came to a growing awareness that—Nigeria’s oil wealth notwithstanding—the country’s true and abiding assets (her image, identity and cultural currency) depended on the enterprise of her most gifted artists.
Wherever one goes in the world, one is apt to encounter a somewhat understandable but reductive image of Nigeria. That image is of a land teeming with 419 scam entrepreneurs. But a narrative of the extraordinary creativity of her writers, musicians, fine artists, and moviemakers serves to counter the unflattering face of Nigeria.
Let me cite an example or two. Some years ago, I was speaking with Claire Gaudiani, who was then the president of Connecticut College in New London, when she asked about my country of origin. When I answered, she exulted, “Oh, I just met and heard a fascinating Nigerian writer in London, Wole Soyinka.” Our conversation took an enthusiastic turn. When a writer-in-residence at her college took a sabbatical, Ms. Gaudiani persuaded the English Department to invite me as a stand-in teacher.
I can’t count the number of times I have met people in the US who—on learning I’m from Nigeria—would affectionately say they had read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. On finding out that I knew Achebe personally, they would be transfixed with awe.
Despite its enduring technical challenges, Nollywood—Nigeria’s effervescent answer to Bollywood—has captured the curiosity of people around the world. Four years ago, I made my first visit to Kenya. Many Kenyans, from cab drivers to academics, talked excitedly about a weeklong visit to Nairobi of a Nollywood actress. Incidentally, I had never heard about the woman! But that gap in my knowledge merely demonstrated an important fact of cultural production. Whether I knew her or not, that actress embodied and represented me as far as the Kenyans were concerned. If she acted disagreeably in Kenya, she risked tainting all Nigerians with the broad brush of her character. In the same way, her positive carriage rubbed off on all Nigerians, even on those of us who didn’t know who she was.
A year ago, I was in Austin, Texas to attend a book festival. One night, I was walking the streets of the city with a few of my US publisher’s staff, looking for a joint that offered beer and books. As we turned a corner I heard Fela’s music blaring from a backyard. A few people stood around, swaying. I immediately went in, introduced myself, and told them I was not only a Nigerian I also knew Fela. They gave me a gushing welcome, apologized that their party was winding down, but invited me to show up the next night at a club they said played marvelous African music.
When my turn came to speak at the Achebe conference in London, I knew what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t going to read a conventional scholarly paper that teased out some arcane aspect of the text. Numerous other speakers had done a terrific job in that respect. I chose, instead, to tell stories of the ways in which Achebe’s work had enchanted me from the first moment I had read it.
In my secondary school days, I told the audience, many of my schoolmates took to reading books by James Hadley Chase and Barbara Cartland. Chase’s books, I recall, carried such titillating titles as Do Me A Favor: Drop Dead and The Way The Cookie Crumbles. I remember a particular classmate, a fanatical aficionado, who had “consumed” more than 50 titles by Chase. One day, he asked me why I was content to read “bush” novels, a reference to the fact that some of the fiction I relished reading were set, in part at least, in Africa’s pre-colonial rural communities. He fancied himself a scion of Enlightenment, engaged not with machetes but guns, not with elders with their proverb-rich speech but with jacket wearing, gun-wielding mobsters dripping with “gonna” and “wanna”.
I never read even a single book by Chase. The reason: I was fortunate to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart quite early. The book left me entranced, seduced me, filled me with an insatiable appetite for other writers who articulated the African experience. Once Achebe had set the hunger, I went searching for other African writers.
What a treasure I found. For, while many other students fattened themselves on Chase’s pabulum, I was discovering Ngugi, Beti, Soyinka, Awoonor, Nwapa, Armah, Nagenda, Ousmane, Ouologuem, Emecheta.
I credit Achebe with saving me from Chase. And I believe that he and our other great writers can help save Nigeria if only we would pause in our frenetic hankering after material ephemera—to read and ponder their words. Let’s find the time to reflect deeply on the import of Achebe’s imperishable art and that of his fellow laborers in the vineyard of African letters.