Lingering Issues In Achebe’s Female Characterisation

Recently, (Saturday April 12, 2008), I was at the National Theatre, Lagos, because of Prof Chinua Achebe, Africa’s best known and most widely read author, who many regard as the indisputable father and rallying point of African Literature. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) had organized a forum to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, published in London by William Heinemann in June 1958.

I was held back at the office by some engagements, and by the time I arrived at the venue, I had missed a substantial part of the ‘Interactive Session’. I came in while Segun Olusola, former ambassador and arts enthusiast, was concluding his speech. As I sat down, I heard him paying glowing tributes to Achebe and his novel and saying how happy he was to be at the event. He then announced that he would also grace the Awka event in honour of Achebe and Things Fall Apart, coming up more than a week later.

Achebe evokes a very special kind of pleasant, soothing feelings in most people that have read either his novels or essays. And this was evident in the emotion-laden speeches made by various speakers at the National Theatre that weekend.

The literary patriarch and icon was absent at the ceremony, but his image loomed large everywhere, and this, mind you, was not because of those large posters and billboards bearing his photograph (and, of course, the emblem of the main sponsors, Fidelity Bank Plc) displayed at strategic points by the organizers.

There is something profoundly unique about Achebe and his work that confers dignity and awe on any event organized around him. The spirit of the man breathes through the pages of his works, giving you the very palpable feeling that the gifted story teller and meticulous teacher himself is by your very side, as you read, physically telling you his most enchanting tales in the very unique way that only him can tell them. His wit, deep insights, the overpowering wisdom he conveys with such sagely precision, simple and subtle diction and disarming style, the impressive imageries he effortlessly conjures, and the pleasant local colour he so generously splashes on his narratives, never cease to overwhelm. Achebe is one writer whose reputation and looming image was neither built nor enhanced by any prize. What further glamour can occasional decorations add to an already very colourful and big masquerade? The man rather dignifies any prize he decides to accept, and not the other way round. For instance, as Achebe and Things Fall Apart are celebrated across the world this season, only an insignificant few consider it necessary to recall that a few months ago, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize – a very important no doubt. Such information, though great in its own right, makes little or no difference to the man’s already solidly established stature.

It is impossible to read Things Fall Apart without visualizing the village of Umuofia in its alluring freshness in the warm embrace of rich nature in its most exciting vivacity and purity. This is the only novel I know written by an African that has acquired such a stature and influence, as to be so celebrated in such a grand fashion.

No, doubt, Chinua Achebe is Africa’s rare gift to the world, and Nigeria should never cease to be glad and grateful that this giant emerged from its loins. A focused and consistent writer, the views expressed by Achebe in the sixties and seventies, as the nature and boundaries of what is today known as African literature were being meticulously defined, have remained valid and timeless. They now constitute an invaluable reference material for anyone seeking a better and reliable understanding of Africa, its literature and culture.

With his novels, superb lectures and rich essays, Achebe has been able to compel the world out there to significantly alter their entrenched warped views about Africa. After a particularly brilliant speaking engagement in Canberra, Australia, in the summer of 1973, Professor Manning Clark, a distinguished Australian historian wrote to Achebe and pleaded: “I hope you come back and speak again here, because we need to lose the blinkers of our past. So come and help the young to grow up without the prejudices of their forefathers…” I find this display of sincerity very touching.

It is interesting that Things Fall Apart enjoys significant readership across cultures and races, and its message continues to register lasting impacts that are simply rare and peculiar. Not a few Nigerians can recall the instant celebrity status they had suddenly assumed or even some favours that had come their way, in one remote part of the world or the other, just because they had let it be known that they were from Chinua Achebe’s country. Achebe has also remarkably excelled as a critic and essayist. His 1975 Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled, “An Image Of Africa: Racism In Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness,” which I am never of tired of re-reading, has not only significantly altered the nature and direction of Conrad criticism, but is now widely regarded as one of the most influential essays in the criticism of literature in English.

As I listened to several speeches at the National Theatre on that Saturday, I could feel the depth of admiration displayed by the various speakers towards Achebe and his work. The whole thing was moving on well until one lady came up with elaborate praise for Achebe for the significant “improvement” his female characters achieved in Anthills Of the Savannah, unlike what obtained in Things Fall Apart, which we had all gathered to celebrate that afternoon.

Now, I would easily have ignored and quickly forgotten this comment as “one of those things” one was bound to hear in a “mixed crowd” if I had not also heard such thoughts brazenly expressed by some female scholars whom I thought should be better informed. For instance, I was at a literary event in Port Harcourt some years ago when a female Professor of Literature announced with the excitement of someone who had just discovered another earth: When Achebe created his earlier female characters, we complained; then he responded by giving us Clara (in No Longer At Ease), and we still complained; then he gave us Eunice (in A Man Of The People) and we still asked for more; and then he gave us Beatrice (in Anthills Of The Savannah). Unfortunately, I have encountered thoughts even more pedestrian than this boldly flaunted in several literary essays by women and some men.

Honestly, I had thought that this matter had long been resolved and forgotten. It should be clear (and I should think that this has been sufficiently stressed) that whatever perceived differences in the various female characters created by Achebe are a function of the prevailing realities in the different settings and periods that produced them, and Achebe’s ability to record those realties so accurately should not be construed to mean that he also “celebrates” them (as some fellows have wrongly imputed) or advocates their sustenance.

In his lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, specially slated to precede the very memorable Eagle On Iroko Symposium, organized to mark Achebe’s sixtieth birthday in 1990, Prof Dan Izevbaye described Achebe as “history’s eyewitness.” Today Achebe is being widely hailed for using his first novel, Things Fall Apart, to change the distorted images of Africa celebrated in the heaps of mostly concocted historical and literary accounts about the continent and its people by Western writers. But Achebe did not see any wisdom in countering these distortions with greater distortions. He merely presented reality with both its glowing and unedifying sides with exceptional insight, penetration and grasp of the real picture which the foreigner, whose impressions were mostly coloured by many years of deep-seated prejudices, was incapable of capturing.

It is a credit to Achebe’s mastery of his art that even though his readers may be shocked, for instance, at the bloodcurdling murder of Ikemefuna, they would still find it nearly impossible to categorize the incident as one more evidence of savage pleasure in wanton bloodletting. The reader is able to see an Okonkwo with genuine human feelings that are even more appealing than those of the whitman who was attempting to “civilize” him, but who would have no qualms wiping out an entire community, as happened in Abame community! Indeed, no sane person would endorse any religious observances that prescribe human sacrifices, but the reader would most likely catch himself empathizing with a highly traumatized and sorrowful Okonkwo who had killed the boy as a national duty prescribed by the deity he and his people worshipped at that time. Our dilemma is compounded when we see that the same community that sacrificed Ikemefuna would later banish Okonkwo for accidentally killing a man with his gun during a ceremony in honour of dead great man. That is the reality of that era. And so, when Achebe also records reality as it pertained to gender placement in Okonkwo’s time, he is only playing effectively his role as “history’s eye-witness.” Maybe, the feminists would have been happier if he had recreated Okonkwo’s community to suit their notions and expectations, and in effect fall guilty of the same charges of distortions that have trailed colonialist portrayals of Africa in many works. We seem to forget, at times, that Achebe was writing like someone who was part of that society and not some foreign observer desperate to ‘confirm’ some preconceived notion. Umuofia was a society in transition, and the author was able to capture the prevailing mood of the time, instead of imposing on it his own idea of how the society should be.

I agree with Prof. Ian Watts in his book, The Rise Of The Novel, that there must be “a correspondence between the literary work and the reality which it imitates.” I wonder what kind of novel Achebe would have produced if he had made a couple of women sit with the elders of Umuofia to deliberate on the banishment of Okonkwo, or even the killing of Ikemefuna. Granted, that would have earned him the boundless admiration of certain feminists, but the novel would have been unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the subsisting features in the Igbo traditional environment in the period Things Fall Apart or Arrow Of God was set.

Written by
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
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