Chinua Achebe was certainly one of the greatest writers Africa and the world ever produced. But, like the English writer Graham Greene, the Nigerian was denied the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why? The unofficial deduction, heard over and over again, was simply that in the case of Achebe and Graham Greene, they were too committed in their support of the oppressed to serve the interests of the big powers, writes Peter Jazzy Ezeh from Enugu.
In the depths of winter on Saturday, 23 November 1985, I arrived in Stockholm to investigate the neglect of African writers in the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature since its inception. I knew nobody in that inclement, sub-Arctic part of our planet. Indeed, colleagues on the Paris-based Journalistes-en-Europe training programme had been doing their best trying to dissuade a Johnny-come-lately to the cold climates from embarking on what they rightly considered a hazardous undertaking. But it was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not to be missed.
When I heard the news of the death of Nigeria’s great novelist, Chinua Achebe, I thought of that journey. I remembered some of my experiences then only faintly but there are some highlights of it that stand out as if they were only yesterday. The first priority was to look for a place to pass the night. My main tasks would begin on Monday. By sheer serendipity, I came upon a visiting Chinese called Luu who had stayed a longer period and seemed to know a thing or two about the city. And who, more importantly, was so friendly. Luu was staying in a cheap youth hostel and was willing to take me there. The Swedes had converted a decommissioned ship into a youth hostel, naming it Af Chapman and stationing her on the banks of one of the city’s lakes. It was the cheapest place my shoestring budget could accommodate.
I arrived at the Af Chapman too thoroughly tired from the hassles of the day to notice that I had myself become something of a spectacle. In the well-subscribed hostel, I was the only person of my colour. The receptionist demanded my passport. I brought out the green booklet and handed it over to her. She had not looked at my particulars just yet, but she exclaimed something that I did not understand in Swedish. But I knew she was pleased because I had never, and still never have, seen an official react with such ecstasy to a mere travelling document. “Ah, Nigeria! Nigeria, the country of Chinua Achebe!”, she followed up in English. Never mind what she did to the pronunciation of the name. How many times in the life of a Swede would she speak Igbo, the language from which the writer’s name was taken?
It was her turn to show me something in print too. She rummaged in her daypack and brought out a book. It was an all too familiar one; the old edition of the English version of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
“It is a major set book in our English literature class this semester,” she enthused. “Chinua Achebe, a marvellous writer!” She informed me that she was majoring in English at Stockholm University and was temping as a receptionist at the Af Chapman. I told her that I was a Nigerian journalist currently based in Paris and I had come to Stockholm to do a story on the denial of the Nobel Prize to African writers, 80 years on. I would visit the establishments that were connected with the prize and would have an interview with Lars Gyllensten, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, givers of the prize.
When I asked her to compare Achebe or any other African writer she knew with Claude Simon, the French writer who won the prize that year, I was surprised at the answer. “I only heard the name after he won the prize. At any rate, my specialisation is English literature.”
Achebe was Nigeria’s greatest export to the modern world. And he was self-made in the intellectual or ideological sense. And he made others too.
After writing his path-finding Things Fall Apart, he helped begin the African Writers Series of the Heinemann Group that published other African writers intent on correcting the supremacist contemptuous projection of this part of the world by European writers. Nearly every African writer of note published from the 1960s to date has one thing or another to do with Chinua Achebe.
But his was far from being a mere boohoo over the lost glory of the past, or a thoughtless wild goose chase after some atavism. He was thoroughgoing in his pragmatism. Africa must engage the world the way the world now is, but it must do so standing on its own feet.
As a character cautioned in one of his early short stories, “The Sacrificial Egg”, growths are of two types. “There is good growth and there is bad growth” (read development or modernisation). He spent his writing career advocating for what will amount to good growth for Africa. Achebe was one of the few reasons his country was ever mentioned in a good light. And there is a lesson in all this. In all aspects of life, social or individual, achievements that are worth the name come only when people think originally and rise above a cheap self-serving fame hunt.
Achebe could have got himself ensconced in the bountiful pleasures that life offered graduates in the late-colonial and early independence periods, but he chose to explore something novel; something that would endure because it served a higher social purpose.
Such people are not desperate to win praise because often they are usually at a distance others are yet to reach. You cannot praise what you do not understand. They give humanity the benefit of their ideas, not minding when the rest of society will see the sense in such ideas.
In the words of Achebe’s best-known character, Okonkwo, if occasions so demand, they “fight alone”. They are the schoolmasters of the masses. And they are always on the side of freedom, whatever the price. As the playwright, Zulu Sofola, has made one of her characters say in Wedlock of the Gods: “It is a slave who sees the truth but ties his tongue with silence.”
Achebe put it more poignantly in a nonfictional comment that one of the foremost authorities on his work, G.D Killam, attributed to him in a 1970s essay: “No selfrespecting writer will take dictation from his audience. He must remain free to disagree with his society and go into rebellion against it if need be.”
That is not to say that such people are infallible. They are also humans; only, they are humans that have something important to tell their society or the world and they go on to do so without minding who is upset or pleased by it. Their friend, first and foremost, is truth. Often they will go on with their message even if the price to be paid is deprivation of material comfort, the embarrassment of being passed over in a reward that is well merited, or something worse. Achebe was denied the Nobel Prize, but so also was the English writer Graham Greene, and one or two others that should have got it. The unofficial deduction that I have heard over and over again for such an unfair denigration is simply that, in the case of these two at least, they were too committed in their support of the oppressed to serve the interest of the big powers. Just as it is true that such great writers are the targets of the powers they try to rein in, so also is it true that no truly important writer has failed in the end to secure his/ her own niche in history, whatever his/her contemporaries may do.
It is time that finally certifies a writer. Chinua Achebe is one of the greats, to put it most simply. His body might go the way of all flesh, but his works will no doubt live forever. He has transformed from a mere man to metaphor. He has become emblematic of the fact that by becoming original, by drawing from his roots, by taking reasonable pride in his tradition, the African – corporate and individually – can attain true greatness in the present world.
As a quintessential teacher, he created characters to show us how not to do it. Apart from the paths that are confirmed to be wrong, all others are free for exploration. Present-day Africans cannot be an Okonkwo and carry on as if social life were some kind of boulder, stationary and unchangeable. We must recognise the importance of change and find rational ways to negotiate our place in it.
Nor should we just jump at any design for change, like Obi does in Things Fall Apart. Note that for the parrot in the cage of a bird collector’s cosy portico, there is a change. But everyone can see who the unilateral beneficiary from such a change really is.