Nobel Lords And Afro-Literary Activists: The Case Of Chinua Achebe

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Indeed, it is becoming known around the world, especially wherever the written word is recognized and cherished, that every November 16, the literary community and its fans mark the birthday of Professor Chinua Achebe, the widely known and read author of the famous classic, Things Fall Apart, the indisputable father and rallying point of African literature, and an imposing figure in the world literary arena. Expectedly, at this time annually, from several parts of the globe, the drums sound and encomiums pour out. This has come to become an annual ritual in which friends and admirers of the literary giant celebrate with great excitement. And as the cards and goodwill messages flow into Ogidi, South-East Nigeria, (or presently Bard College, New York), to honour the literary patriarch and “big masquerade” confined to a wheel-chair since 1990 due to an unfortunate automobile accident, it is doubtful if what I have come to term the “annual October irritation” does not in some measure affect the mood of the foremost author’s day and moderate what ordinarily is his inalienable right to celebrate in peace with his family and friends without interference. Although I have not tried to find out how Achebe feels about this, yet the yearly irritation I feel before and after an incestuous gaggle of probably balding and depreciating Swedes who constitute the “Divination Priests” of the Nobel Academy gather in their stuffy chamber in Stockholm to pronounce a new entrant into their “Great Writers Union” takes appreciable toll on me and affects any impulse I have to rejoice with Achebe on his day.

Incidentally, I have no problems with the tiny crowd of probably four or five “literary diviners” who carry out their yearly oracular consultations in far-away Sweden. My problem lies more with the critics, literary journalists and opinion writers, the world over. Achebe’s birthday is in November, and the Swedes have chosen October as the month to announce their distinguished national prize which their countryman, Alfred Nobel, put in place quite some time ago. But the media have also instituted a tradition of making Achebe the principal topic of discourse each time the prize is to be announced so much so, that the Babel and din linger into Achebe’s birthday. Several rambling theories are concocted, fantasies are wound together, and annoying speculations about Achebe’s “chances this year” are thrown up. It has become a time of sloppy analyses and barely literate “re-evaluations” of Achebe’s work; a time of specious inputs to Achebe criticism. The undue exertions invested in all these gratuitous dissipations of energy makes one wonder whether there has become an unspoken understanding among the tiny mob of self-appointed king-makers in Stockholm and their naive cheer-leaders in the media that the Nobel Prize for literature was specially set up so that Chinua Achebe can win it! Can’t they just do their thing a little less riotously and leave the poor man alone to have his peace? Why should Achebe annually become the issue?

Is it not a huge irony, and utterly ridiculous, that almost all serious discussions about the Nobel prize for literature seem to revolve around the very man whom the “literary experts” have long “proved” not qualified for the Swedish prize? But then, come to think about it: can we in all honesty say that the millions of informed Achebe readers in many languages of the world who read Achebe with great enthusiasm and unequaled passion really need the pronouncement of the four or five “wise men” in Sweden to “confirm” that the judgment they have long passed on Achebe was not wrong-headed? Indeed, it is difficult to get over the monumental insult that the whole wide world must never dare to voice out their well considered judgment on an author and his work until some self-appointed dictators of literary merit enter their literary coven in Stockholm and pronounce a “validation” on their long established preference? I refuse to be part of that unfortunately successful blackmail and literary slavery.

Once the Swedes announce the winner of their prize, the same over-indulgent literary barristers will descend on Achebe again: He should have done this or that in his work. His work which they had praised with unparalleled enthusiasm before the “Great Announcement” from Stockholm would suddenly develop this flaw and that flaw. Others will blame him for not following the multitudes to worship at the “Western Literary Shrine” located somewhere in Europe and America, for holding views which the literary “masters” are uncomfortable with, and for giving the Nobel Academy the impression that their prize is just like any other prize, that he is bigger than it, and that he might even spurn it should they decide to award it to him. My plea to all these over indulgent “experts” is to allow some quiet to ensue so we could have the undistracted frame of mind to go on “playing our game” while they played theirs.

I want to mention in passing here that I admire Professor Femi Osofisan a lot and that he is somebody I so much would have avoided joining issues with. Even when he took a whole full page of The Guardian, Lagos, (Sunday, July 4, 1999) to launch an unprovoked attack on me simply because I dared to re-appraise late John Munonye’s place in our literature, I decided to let that pass and over-looked his gratuitous abuses. (see Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye: “John Munonye: A Writer Most Wronged”, The Guardian, Lagos, (Sunday, June 13, 1999:p.42). Indeed it was clear to me and all discerning readers that the only reason for Professor Osofisan’s “rejoinder” was to simply advertise his essay in which he gave Munonye a couple of paragraphs (but which he proudly called “a lot of readings which Ejinkeonye needs to catch up with”), and register his undisguised annoyance that neither I nor Professors Charles Nnolim and Adebayo Williams who had written on Munonye betrayed any awareness of the existence of the “great” piece in our essays. Indeed, I do not really know why he should take it all out on me when earlier critics of Munonye, namely, Nnolim, and even Williams (who wrote right under his nose there, at near-by Ife) demonstrated no knowledge of the existence of Osofisan’s essay, even though he claimed it “has been published several times over” in Heaven knows where.

But I have let that pass and it has in no way diminished my admiration and high regard for the distinguished author of Morountodun And Other Plays. I think I can appreciate Osofisan’s pains. After investing much effort to ensure a piece was published several times over in several “journals”, it is understandable that he is miffed that scholars can still not find it, hence the need to employ all available opportunity to advertise it. The only thing I wondered at was why he needed to gather all that verbiage in order to do just a simple advert. That he never tried as much as refute any point I made in my piece in his said “rejoinder” makes his intention all the more clear. Well, like I said, I have over-looked all that and the professor is still my good friend. But I find his reaction to the announcement of V.S. Naipaul, the West Indian writer, as the year 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in very bad taste. Much as I would have loved to refrain from commenting, I have found out that I just could not. Writing in The Comet, Lagos, (Sunday, October 28, 2001:p7). Professor Osofisan said that the fact of Naipaul winning the prize has served to further prove him right and re-enforce his belief that Achebe could still win the Swedish prize. This statement appears harmless, but Osofisan knows full well that he is deliberately being mischievous. In clear terms what the professor is saying is this: if a writer like V.S. Naipaul can win the Nobel Prize, then Achebe can also win it.

I do not know the criteria on which Femi Osofisan bases his comparison but my feeling is that he was only using that opportunity to embark upon the deliberate mischief of trying to subtly acquit the Nobel Committee of their long established act of employing less than literary criteria to give out their prizes. Indeed, V.S. Naipaul’s prize was long over due. He has all the credentials the European literary “masters” are asking for. Osofisan may have read his friend, Kole Omotosho’s reaction to V.S. “Nightfall’s” prize in an article in The Guardian, Lagos, late last year (2001), but I should think that one of the most perceptive views on Naipaul came from his fellow Caribbean, Ivan Van Sertima in his book, Caribbean Writers (1968). Says Sertima of Naipaul: “His brilliancy of wit I do not deny but, in my opinion, he has been overrated by English critics whose sensibilities he insidiously flatters by his stock-in-trade: self- contempt”. Even Osofisan himself agrees that Naipaul is “so self-hating” and possesses a wit that panders only “to the tastes of his colonial master.” Makes me think that the next Nobel prize winner may probably be Yambo Ouologuem, the author of Bound To Violence! So, Naipaul has long worked hard for his prize.

Can Osofisan sincerely say that he truly believes that the Swedes have not given their prize to Achebe because of literary short- falls in his work? Because that seems to me to be what Osofisan is implying, to “console” Achebe and his fans, to go on praying and hoping, believing that one-day, Achebe may “qualify” for the prize.

For a writer of his status and accomplishment, who has risen to command the respect of many, this statement coming from Osofisan is most unfortunate. In fact, it marks a painful setback in African literature’s march to stabilized independence and literary self-determination.

Ike Okonta, a younger Nigerian writer who lives in Oxford appears to have a better insight into the issues at stake. For him, the Nobel Committee would not be too foolish to give Achebe their prize. Doing so, he says would amount to a grand move to “legitimize ‘heresy'” According to him:

“The reading world, including, the Nobel Committee, know this fact: that Chinualumogu Achebe is not only the greatest writer to come out of Africa, he is also, perhaps, the one writer in the world today who, through his work, single-handedly changed the way in which one people, their history and culture are perceived by another. After the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, the myth of a dark Africa, peopled by savages without history and so without a story, a myth assiduously cultivated and peddled by European explorers and mercenary soldiers of the Frederick Lugard variety, was smashed forever. The guardians of the Western literary cannon in Oxford and Stockholm and Harvard have not forgiven Chinua Achebe for this ‘heresy’. He is widely seen as an ‘uppity nigger’ who does not know his place, who does not accord white ‘Massa’ sufficient respect. Above all, Achebe is considered the cultural equivalent of Kwameh Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Patrice Lumumba, great Africans who made it clear from the outset that their life’s mission was to rid the continent of the armed robbers and rapists that had held her down for five centuries. It is significant that all three were removed from power by the West, and in the case of Cabral and Lumumba, murdered in cold blood by agents of Western imperialism. Had Achebe’s terrain been politics, there is no doubt in my mind that he too would have gone the way of the others, felled by a bullet fired from London or Washington. ‘Heretics’, those that challenge the status quo, are meant to burn at the stakes, after all. Is it likely that the Nobel Committee, which in truth is merely the cultural arm of a rapine project intent on gobbling up all that is non-Western, will reward Chinua Achebe for insisting so powerfully and so brilliantly in his novels, essays, and poems that Africa was not one long night of savagery before Europe came calling in the fifteenth century.?” (ThisDay, Lagos, Sunday, October 29, 200:p7)

But does Achebe really need Sweden’s Nobel prize? Obi Nwakanma does not think so. He says:

“Frankly, I think that Achebe does not need the Nobel prize. The Nobel prize will merely dignify itself if it is awarded to Chinua Achebe. Everyone recognizes that he is among the greatest writers living on earth today. The real significance of Achebe was captured by that announcement in London two years ago in 2000, when he, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott were invited to a special program. The announcement read: ‘Two Nobel Laureates and a legend.’ There is no greater honour.” ( June 4, 2002.)

Be that as it may, we can still ignore all the exasperating noise of October and continue to yearly celebrate the birthday of the “Eagle On The Tallest Iroko”, who despite all he has done to ensure that African literature is freed from the apron strings of Europe and evolve its own standards and its own voice, still refuses to accept that he gave African literature its bearing and autonomous entity. Sometime in 1987 or so, Achebe was a guest at a Writers’ Symposium organized in Dublin by the Irish Arts Council to mark the one thousand years of the founding of the city of Dublin. On the morning of the day Achebe was to speak at the convocation, the Irish Times carried a major story in which a columnist referred to Achebe to as “the man who invented African literature”. Before commencing his presentation that day, Achebe had to use the occasion to dissociate himself from that view. Though he has tried to introduce a superstitious ring to the reason informing his disclaimer, it is quite obvious that Achebe believes that African literature is a communal ethos that has always been with our people in its oral forms until he came forward to unabashedly articulate our story whose existence the colonialists had denied, and re-construct our image which they had distorted. So he does not think any one person should be in a hurry to lay “too heavy a proprietary hand on the smallest item in (our) communal enterprise in creativity.” despite the person’s pioneering efforts (Okike: 30, Nov., 1990: p9).

But of course, anyone who had followed Achebe’s literary progress, the lectures he has given from day one and the interviews he had granted would have no problems placing him. African literature is now engaging serious attention of scholars around the world as a very rich corpus with its own standards, ethos, rhythm and identity. But many would conveniently forget that while Achebe argued at forum after forum that African literature is real, and that that is where he comfortably belongs, his contemporaries were prostrate, cap in hand, before the European “literary Lords” pleading to be accepted as “international” and “universal” writers, vowing and swearing that their Africanness was a mere coincidence, and that they were too big to be confined within the crude fences of African literary aesthetics. Of course many got accepted, and some were rewarded handsomely for saying and doing the “right” things, and for intermittently throwing “bomb shells” that ensured that the growth of African literature was discouraged, but the fact remains that African literature remains their only abiding identity today, and that without the rescuing hand and landing space of African literature, many of them would have been since lost in the dark bottomless pit of Euro-universalism.

We salute Achebe for his consistency and clarity of vision and thought, and for holding on tenaciously to his “unpopular” views and allowing time to vindicate him. We thank him for the African Writers Series of which he was founding editor, and which made it possible for many of the “international writers” of African origin to be discovered and published in the first place. By his stature and merit, Achebe could be published anywhere. But he preferred to be counted among his kith and kin, guiding and pruning them, and using his looming image to authenticate the Series even when other “established” writers spurned the venture, describing it as putting African Writers in a “ghetto-like grouping”. We understand that Africa has long been “proved” and concluded a “primitive” tribe with a mindless past, but Achebe was not ashamed of his “primitive” and “undeveloped” race, their past and literature; he spurned the pride of place offered him by the Euro-universalists, insisting on finding for African literature its own place, instead of leaving it an appendage of Euro-world literature.

Before an Association for Commonwealth Literature and language Studies meeting at Makarere University, Uganda, in January 1974, Achebe declared: “I hold, however, and have held from the very moment I began to write that earnestness is appropriate to my situation. Why? I suppose because I have deep-seated need to alter things within my situation, to find for myself a little more room than has been allowed me in the world. I realize how pompous or even frightening this must sound to delicate sensibilities, but I can’t help it”. After a brilliant outing 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…” This kind of sincerity is so touching. It is most unfortunate that while the “authentic universal” people are realizing that they had long been mired in pitiable self-delusion, African intellectuals are falling over themselves to announce to the world that like Booker T. Washington in his book, Up From Slavery, they are scared of losing their chains.

I must confess that I do not always agree with Achebe, especially on his views about Christianity, which like many intellectuals, he sees from a negative and largely misunderstood perspective. This is mainly because, Christianity (not the life-less orthodox, ritualistic and perfunctory type), unlike other beliefs is not just a religion, but a living experience, explainable only by the experiencer. And because the carnal mind is incapable of understanding spiritually discerned matters, the average intellectual falls easily into the common error of dismissively criticizing what he lacks the capacity to understand, his monumental intelligence in literary and social matters, notwithstanding. One would have wished that Achebe would enter his closet and sincerely ask God to reveal Himself to him instead of continuing to base his impression about Christianity on what he observed from some hypocritical, racist, and unedifying attitudes of some orthordox European missionaries, the life-less rituals, perfunctory ceremonies and hypocritical life-styles of today’s orthodox sects, or the scandalous effusions of all these un-called and clearly unregenerated charlatans that have infiltrated Pentecostalism and true Christian circ les. I would also expect Achebe to yield some grounds on the issue of Igbo orthography, and sacrifice his own preferred alphabets, in order to make way for the evolution of a standard Igbo orthography, so that hope could still be retained of rescuing Igbo language which is about to breathe its last. What will further happen to Igbo language if everyone continues to write in his dialect as he advocates? Wouldn’t we have a Babel situation, with our children utterly confused as to which one to adopt for mutual intelligibility among their peers? In a brilliant interview with The Paris Review (Winter 1994-1995), Achebe said something I would have wished he hadn’t said: “There are grammarians who now sit over the Igbo language the way Dennis did in 1906 and dictate it into Standard Igbo. I think it is a terrible tragedy. I think dialects should be left alone. People should write in whatever dialect they feel they want to write.

In the fullness of time, these dialects will sort themselves out.when I write in the Igbo language, I write my own dialect.” When will this fullness of time arrive? I have read Achebe’s Igbo poems, and I sincerely believe that his rejection of the Standard Igbo goes beyond dialectal chauvinism. His spellings appear to be more of a carry-over from the English orthorgraphy than an attempt to reflect dialectal sound variations. I believe that he has sufficiently made his point about the mistake of Dennis (which I am sure is his main concern) but he will agree with me that Standard Igbo has undergone a lot of orthographical metamorphosis, and as it is today, it now has very negligible semblance to what Dennis produced in 1906. Indeed, today Igbo language remains the only major language in Nigeria that has the lowest readership, and has ably frustrated all attempts to even publish a newspaper in it.

I wonder if we can still talk about Igbo literature any more, because from my modest research recently among school children, I doubt that many of them have heard about Tony Ubesie or F.C. Ogbalu! But the linguists and Igbo language scholars have no reason to allow the language to die, even if Achebe, who is not a linguist, still goes on to experiment with his own preferred alphabets. Did the English use as excuse Bernard Shaw’s vigorous proposition of changes in the English language to let their language die? Creative writers are given to innovations and experimentations and Achebe cannot be an exception. It must however be hastily observed that none of my disagreements with Achebe diminishes his great contributions to African literature. I think that the mere thought that the standard form of his native language emanated from something put together by colonialist Dennis has been quite difficult for Achebe to swallow. And that is quite understandable for a writer whose ant-colonialist stance is legendary.

Today, Achebe can smile that despite all internal and external roadblocks, he has found African literature “a little more room than has been allowed” it. It is a thing of joy that he did not need any endorsement from Stockholm, Oxford or Harvard to do this. The fitting tribute we can continue to pay Achebe is that we do not take African literature back to slavery, giving free hand to the literary colonizers to use the seductive power of their ” cash-box” prizes to crown our “kings” for us, by way of proclaiming to us who they have, by their “superior” literary taste “discovered” as a “leading” and “better” writer in Africa. Let us crown our own kings by ourselves, and if the West refuses to accept them, who cares?

Achebe also founded the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) to provide Nigerian writers a forum to organize themselves, articulate ideas, re-assess and assert themselves in the world. It would be indeed most unfortunate if it is true that what Nigerians call Ghana-must-go politics( politics of money bags) is creeping into ANA, as those who were at their last convention in Port Harcourt (November 2001) where they elected their new executives, have told us. They must resist this with all their might. I appreciate the fact that many ANA members are engaging the attention of ” international” prize-awarding bodies, and are actually bringing ho me these prizes. These, as praise-worthy as they are, must not become criteria to determine who is who in ANA. It is only a country populated by fools that allow foreigners to choose and crown their own kings for them. Ngugi has long warned us to be very wary and “never succumb to the poisonous and divisive flattery of our enemies”. I feel insulted that Europeans are instituting prizes solely to “discover” and reward “good” works from Africa. I just hope that this is not another means of “teaching” us what “good” literature is and which one has met with Euro-universal standards, and therefore the best to come from Africa.

Assuming Nigeria has had governments that are a little less philistine, ANA literary contests should have by now risen in stature as to award prizes that could even attract contenders from anywhere in the world. What does it take? Is it not to raise the monetary value of the prizes? Certainly, we have seasoned scholars who can evaluate any work from any part of the globe! It is unfortunate that Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo’s government which parades an army of men and women who claim to be intellectuals has never thought along this line. Nigeria has the resources to finance this venture. All it may require is for Mr. Obasanjo to simply reduce the vulgar bazaar going on unabated in Abuja, cut down on his juvenile, frivolous, profligate and totally unprofitable gallivanting around the world, and also reduce his wife, Stella’s monumental make-up and wardrobe allowance, and he will have all the money to transform ANA prizes and make them more attractive than the costly foreign ones of dubious value and insidious implications. But will he be able to do this? Will the likes of Dr Catherine Acholonu, Obasanjo’s Senior Special Assistant on Arts and Culture (one of those political jobbers who have been merely invited into the government with non-descript, duplicated portfolios to “come and eat”) be able to summon the will to tell him this?

At least that should fall within the purview of her office, assuming she really has any work to do! It is a big shame that a country that has produced the likes of Tutuola, Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo, Okara, Osundare, Aniebo, Osofisan, Ike, Sofola, Rotimi, Okri, etc., is yet to evolve structures that will make it the rallying ground of African literature. In my view, and I think I am right, the only thing that makes most these foreign prizes more coveted and even respected in Nigeria than the ANA prizes is that they make their recipients instant millionaires. I should think that expecting a president who goes to Europe and America to seek counsel and permission to even prosecute the minutest of his country’s programmes to aid the total de-colonization of our literature would amount to stretching optimism beyond its malleable limit. But I am told that for just shamelessly and obscenely flaunting her flesh before the eager ogling eyes greedy voyeurs, the “Most Beautiful Girl In Nigeria” goes home with 1 million naira as salary. Yet Nigeria’s creative enterprise is treated like an orphan!

As we annually celebrate with Achebe, let us realize that African literature, indeed, Nigerian literature, is on trial. Achebe has tried his best for us, to clear the way and show us the path. We may be scared of accepting it, but not so, many other people. Sometime ago, I was told that at a Literature Conference somewhere in the early 1990s, a consensus was reached among the participating scholars that the earlier title of “The Eagle On Iroko” given Achebe at the famous Nsukka Symposium in 1990 to mark his sixtieth birthday was inadequate. Consequently, Achebe was unanimously declared the “Eagle On The Tallest Iroko”. That I am sure is better and more valuable than one million Nobel prizes. Happy birthday always, Chinua.

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1 comment

catherine acholonu November 23, 2006 - 12:54 pm

This is a literary jobber at his worst. Great works and great writers dont need any politicking to defend their works. Nobel? Tallest Iroko? Are for the likes of those who in their jobbing draw coclusions they are not in the least qualified to, for lack of the facts and due to being blinded by their own urge to find a space, if not on their own, then at least at the side of their iroko, as praise singers!


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