Remembering Chinua Achebe

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based senior GoI officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

Imaginative literature does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience. – Chinua Achebe/ The Truth of Fiction.

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the “Babel: Season 2” series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute on 25 September 2008./image: Stuart C. Shapiro/wiki

Chinua Achebe, considered as the greatest of African writers, died yesterday at the age of 82. There is complete unanimity that he was Africa’s best-known novelist and the founding father of African fiction. He was a writer of realist premises and of progressive leanings and once famously said that, “any good story or any good novel should have a larger political and social message and a purpose.” He wrote about the effects of colonialism and its aftermath, as well as political corruption and attempts to introduce democratic and social reforms. One of his admirers, a literary critic, noted that, “his realistic treatment of Nigerian life is as valuable anthropologically and sociologically as it is creatively.” Those familiar with good literature have read his most seminal work, the world famous novel, ‘Things Fall Apart,’ that influenced a generation of writers from Africa and from around the world by giving voice to the oppressed. It dealt with an exploration of the tragic effect of British colonialism on a traditional African man. Achebe is best known for his novels and essays which critique post-colonial Nigerian politics and society as well as the impact of the West on Africa, for whom Nelson Mandela, who read the novel Things Fall Apart while he was incarcerated during the long 27 years, once paid the most handsome tribute, “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe, the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.

chinuaIn his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe contested and challenged European narratives about Africans; he also brought in a new form of novel writing by fusing oral traditions with literary modes. Challenging European stereotypes about Africa and Africans was the leitmotif in Things Fall Apart, as he put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilisation for the first time from Europeans”. But, he also refused to give emphasis to the tempting proposition among African writers of treating pre-colonial Africa as a pastoral idyll, as a land of plenty and bliss that was vandalised, ripped bare and disembowelled by the colonialists to penury and to its present pathetic state.

Wole Soyinka, the other giant of African literature, mourned Achebe’s death, “We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter.” Soyinka said: “No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives. His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression.”

While it is true that Achebe was the first of the African writers to tell the story from an African’s own perspective, critiquing British imperialism, but even beyond Africa, people who were colonised or oppressed could relate to his stories. People all over the world who are colonised and oppressed would continue to be inspired by Achebe’s writings and his ideals, and he would continue to live through his humanistic writings.

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