Interviews August 2000

An African Voice

Chinua Achebe, the author of one of the enduring works of modern African literature, sees postcolonial cultures taking shape story by story

Do you see this balance of stories as likely to emerge in this era of globalization and the exporting of American culture?

That's a real problem. The mindless absorption of American ideas, culture, and behavior around the world is not going to help this balance of stories, and it's not going to help the world, either. People are limiting themselves to one view of the world that comes from somewhere else. That's something that we have to battle with as we go along, both as writers and as citizens, because it's not just in the literary or artistic arena that this is going to show itself. I think one can say this limiting isn't going to be very healthy for the societies that abandon themselves.

In Anthills of the Savannah the poet Ikem says, "The prime failure of our government is the ... failure of our rulers to reestablish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation's being." Does this hold true for Nigeria today?

Yes, this is very much the Nigerian situation. The British handed over the reins of government to a small group of educated people who then became the new rulers. What Ikem is talking about is the distance between this new class of rulers and the other Nigerian people. What needs to be done is to link the two together again, so that those who control power will see the direct relationship to the people in whose name this power is wielded. This connection does not happen automatically, and has not happened in many instances. In the case of Nigeria, the government of the military dictator General Abacha is a good example. The story coming out of his rule is of an enormous transfer of the country's wealth into private bank accounts, a wholesale theft of the national resources needed for all kinds of things—for health, for education, for roads. That's not the action of someone who sees himself as the servant of the Nigerian people. The nation's infrastructure was left to disintegrate, because of one man's selfish need to have billions. Or take what is happening today, now that we have gotten rid of this military dictator and are beginning to practice again the system of democratic rule. You have leaders who see nothing wrong in inciting religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. It's all simply to retain power. So you find now a different kind of alienation. The leadership does not really care for the welfare of the country and its people.

What's your opinion about the new President, Olusegan Obasanjo? Are you less optimistic about him now than you were when he was elected, in May of 1999?

When I talk about those who incite religious conflict, I'm not talking about him, though there are things maybe you could leave at his door. But I think he has a very difficult job to do. What has happened to the country in the past twenty years or so is really grave, and I'm reluctant to pass judgment on a leader only one year after he's assumed this almost impossible task. So the jury is still out, as far as I'm concerned. I think some of the steps he's taken are good; there are some steps he still needs to take, perhaps with greater speed, but then it's easier to say this from a distance than when you're actually doing it. Leading a very dynamic country like Nigeria, which has a hundred million people, is not a picnic.

In an Atlantic Unbound interview this past winter Nadine Gordimer said, "English is used by my fellow writers, blacks, who have been the most extreme victims of colonialism. They use it even though they have African languages to choose from. I think that once you've mastered a language it's your own. It can be used against you, but you can free yourself and use it as black writers do—you can claim it and use it." Do you agree with her?

Yes, I definitely do. English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway; it is something which you can actively claim to use as an effective weapon, as a counterargument to colonization.

You write that the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo is on the "right side, on behalf of the poor and afflicted, the kind of 'nothing people' V. S. Naipaul would love to hammer into the ground with his well-crafted mallet of deadly prose." Do you think a writer from a country like Nigeria has a moral obligation to write about his homeland in a certain way?

No, there's no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally yourself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects. That's different from prescribing a way in which a writer should write. But I do think decency and civilization would insist that you take sides with the powerless.

There are those who say that media coverage of Africa is one-sided—that it focuses on the famines, social unrest, and political violence, and leaves out coverage of the organizations and countries that are working. Do you agree? If so, what effect does this skewed coverage have? Is it a continuation of the anti-Africa British literature you talk about in Home and Exile?

Yes, I do agree. I think the result has been to create a fatigue, whether it's charity fatigue or fatigue toward being good to people who are less fortunate. I think that's a pity. The reason for this concentration on the failings of Africans is the same as what we've been talking about—this tradition of bad news, or portraying Africa as a place that is different from the rest of the world, a place where humanity is really not recognizable. When people hear the word Africa, they have come to expect certain images to follow. If you see a good house in Lagos, Nigeria, it doesn't quite fit the picture you have in your head, because you are looking for the slum—that is what the world expects journalists covering a city in Africa to come back with.

Now, if you are covering America, you are not focusing on slums every day of your life. You see a slum once in a while, maybe you talk about it, but the rest of the time you are talking about other things. It is that ability to see the complexity of a place that the world doesn't seem to be able to take to Africa, because of this baggage of centuries of reporting about Africa. The result is the world doesn't really know Africa. If you are an African or you live in Africa, this stands out very clearly to you, you are constantly being bombarded with bad news, and you know that there is good news in many places. This doesn't mean that the bad news doesn't exist, that's not what I'm saying. But it exists alongside other things. Africa is not simple—people want to simplify it. Africa is very complex. Very bad things go on— they should be covered— but there are also some good things.

This is something that comes with this imbalance of power that we've been talking about. The people who consume the news that comes back from the rest of the world are probably not really interested in hearing about something that is working. Those who have the ability to send crews out to bring back the news are in a position to determine what the image of the various places should be, because they have the resources to do it. Now, an African country doesn't have a television crew coming to America, for instance, and picking up the disastrous news. So America sends out wonderful images of its success, power, energy, and politics, and the world is bombarded in a very partial way by good news about the powerful and bad news about the less powerful.

You mentioned that literature was used to justify slavery and imperialism. What is this negative coverage of Africa being used to justify now?

It's going to be used to justify inaction, which is what this fatigue is all about. Why bother about Africa? Nothing works there, or nothing ever will work. There is a small minority of people who think that way, and they may be pushing this attitude. But even if nobody was pushing it, it would simply happen by itself. This is a case of sheer inertia, something that has been happening for a long time just goes on happening, unless something stops it. It becomes a habit of mind.

You said in a New York Times interview in 1988, "I would be very, very sad to have to live in Europe or America. The relationship between me and the society I write about is so close and so necessary." What was it like for you to write this book outside of your own country?

Maybe I make it sound as if it's impossible for me to write outside of Nigeria. That's really not true. I think what I mean is that it is nourishing for me to be working from Nigeria, there's a kind of nourishment you get there that you cannot get elsewhere. But it doesn't mean you cannot work. You can work, you can always use what's available to you, whether it's memory, hearsay, news items, or imagination. I intend to write a novel in America. When I have done it, perhaps we can discuss the effect of writing a novel from abroad. It's not impossible.

Now a related question, which is not exactly the one you've asked, is, Why don't you write a novel about America? The reason for that is not simply that I don't want to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land, it's just the practical issue of this balance we've been talking about. There's no lack of writers writing novels in America, about America. Therefore, it seems to me it would be wasteful for me to add to that huge number of people writing here when there are so few people writing about somewhere else. So that's really my reason, it's nothing mystical. I have no intention of trying to write about America because it would be using up rare energy that should be used to produce something that has no chance of being produced otherwise.

Has living here changed the way you think about Nigeria?

It must have, but this is not something you can weigh and measure. I've been struck, for instance, by the impressive way that political transition is managed in America. Nobody living here can miss that if you come from a place like Nigeria which is unable so far to manage political transitions in peace. I wish Nigeria would learn to do this. There are other things, of course, where you wish Americans would learn from Nigerians: the value of people as people, the almost complete absence of race as a factor in thought, in government. That's something that I really wish for America, because no day passes here without some racial factor coming up somewhere, which is a major burden on this country.

Could you talk about your visit to Nigeria this past summer? What was it like for you to go back there?

It was a very powerful and emotional experience. Emotional mostly because I had not been there in many years, but the circumstances of my leaving Nigeria were very sad, and many people who were responding to my return had that in their mind, and so it was more than simply someone who had not been home in quite a few years. And then you add to that all the travails that Nigeria had gone through in the rule of General Abacha, the severe hardship and punishment that the country had suffered in those years. And the new experiment in democratic rule was also just a few months old when I went home, so it was a very powerful experience.

Do you hope to be able to go back there to live at some point?

Yes, I do indeed. Things would have to be better than they are now for me to be able to do that. Things like hospitals that used to be quite good before have been devastated. The roads you have to take to get to a hospital if the need arises, not to talk about the security of life—both of those would have to improve. But we are constantly watching the situation. It's not just me, but my family. My wife and children—many of them would be happier functioning at home, because you tend to have your work cut out for you at home. Here there are so many things to do, but they are not necessarily the things you'd rather be doing. Whereas at home it's different—it's clear what needs to be done, what's calling for your special skills or special attachment.

What hopes do you have for Nigeria's future?

I keep hoping, and that hope really is simply a sense of what Nigeria could be or could do, given the immense resources it has—natural resources, but even more so human resources. There's a great diversity of vibrant peoples who are not always on the best of terms, but when they are, they can really make things happen. And one hopes that we will someday be able to realize that potential.

Could you talk about your dream, expressed in Home and Exile, of a "universal civilization"—a civilization that some believe we've achieved and others think we haven't?

What the universal civilization I dream about would be, I really don't know, but I know what it is not. It is not what is being presented today, which is clearly just European and American. A universal civilization is something that we will create. If we accept the thesis that it is desirable to do, then we will go and work on it and talk about it. We have not really talked about it. All those who are saying it's there are really suggesting that it's there by default—they are saying to us, let's stop at this point and call what we have a universal civilization. I don't think we want to swindle ourselves in that way; I think if we want a universal civilization, we should work to bring it about. And when it appears, I think we will know, because it will be different from anything we have now.

There may be cultures that may sadly have to go, because no one is rooting for them, but we should make the effort to prevent this. We have to hold this conversation, which is a conversation of stories, a conversation of languages, and see what happens.

Katie Bacon is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound. Her most recent interview was with Jerome Groopman.
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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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