Holding the middle ground
Achebe: a car accident in Nigeria left him permenantly confined to a wheelchair.
ESSAYS: MOLLY McCLOSKEYreviews The Education of a British-Protected Childby Chinua Achebe, Allen Lane, 166pp, £20
IN The Education of a British-Protected Child, Chinua Achebe’s new collection of essays, the author recalls attending a symposium in Dublin some years ago, organised by the Arts Council, around the theme of literature as celebration. While some writers present took issue with the theme, Achebe, calling on the more inclusive notion of “celebration” favoured by his people – he comes from the Igbo ethnic group, one of the largest in Africa – embraced it. For the Igbo, celebration is “the acknowledgment, not the welcoming, of a presence . . . the courtesy of giving to everybody his due”. As such, it includes all significant encounters, even and especially those new and threatening – even colonialism.
Achebe also recalls that on the morning he spoke in Dublin The Irish Timesreferred to him as “the man who invented African literature”. Though this sort of title is often bestowed on him, Achebe balks at such “well-meant but blasphemous” characterisations, citing an Igbo taboo against claiming for oneself what arises out of the communal enterprise that is creativity. The paragraphs on Dublin provide a jumping-off point for an essay that touches on themes Achebe returns to throughout this collection: art and its necessary representation of the totality of humanity, colonialism and its effects – including the languages in which people choose to write – and the question of who can lay claim to which stories.
Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, in eastern Nigeria, in 1930. His father was a teacher and Christian evangelist. Both parents were passionate about education. His first novel, Things Fall Apart(the title taken from Yeats’s The Second Coming), is the most widely read work of African fiction to date. Published when he was only 28, it is an account of Nigerian village life and its encounter with colonialism.
Achebe has since written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. In 2007 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize. He has lived in the US since 1990, when a car accident in Nigeria left him permanently confined to a wheelchair, and is on the faculty of Brown University, in Rhode Island.
The title of the new essay collection refers to the moment in 1957, three years before Nigeria’s independence, when Achebe acquired his first passport and saw himself defined as a “British Protected Person”. The feeling that came with this sudden awareness of his status – “Somehow the matter had never come up before!” – frames the discussions that follow. Rather chillingly, Achebe describes how as a schoolboy he read the “African” books of Rider Haggard and John Buchan and identified not with the “sinister and stupid” African “savages” but with the “smart and courageous” white adventurers.
By the time he encountered Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, however, he was fully aware that he was not on Marlow’s boat but was instead “one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces”.
“The day I figured this out,” Achebe writes, “was when I said no, when I realised that stories are not always innocent; that they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you.” Hence the importance of vigilance regarding the stories that are told both about and to us.
Though Conrad’s “poisonous writing” and the dehumanising images that were generally employed in literature to justify the slave trade and the colonisation of Africa are frequent points of discussion, Achebe does not confine his criticism to the colonial mindset. In keeping with his commitment to view events from the “middle ground” – a position that fences out fanaticism and acknowledges ambiguities, which dwells not in the humiliations of colonial rule or the dramatic protests against it but in the space “where the human spirit resists an abridgement of its humanity” – he refuses to close ranks.
Some of his sharpest criticism is reserved for a fellow African, the Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who in the late 1970s renounced the use of English as his writing language in favour of his native Gikuyu. Achebe defends his own decision to write in English and accuses Ngugi and others of trying to “rewrite their story into a straightforward case of oppression by presenting a happy monolingual African childhood brusquely disrupted by the imposition of a domineering foreign language”. Achebe terms such a Manichean view a “historical fantasy”.
James Baldwin also comes up for interrogation, though any criticism here is tempered by great affection. Achebe is full of admiration for the “uncompromisingly brilliant” American writer, but he calls attention to Baldwin’s blind spots and tries to place them in context – not least the context that is the “historical alienation” that often characterises the relationship between Africans and African-Americans.
Though the book revolves thematically around a few broad concerns, the subject matter is varied. Achebe writes of Martin Luther King, of riding on a segregated bus in Northern Rhodesia in 1960, of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria. He explores what it means to be Nigerian – in the context of the nation’s move towards independence, the Biafran war, the decades of bad leadership. He discusses debt forgiveness and the reductionist “poverty synecdoche” that is used to define Africa.
Most of the essays date from the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, and this collection offers readers little that is new. Pity Achebe didn’t write about the accident that left him paralysed and how his life – particularly his inner life – has adjusted, or about contemporary race relations in his adopted homeland. However, his reaffirmation of the importance of the “middle ground” at a time when, as he notes, the dramatic and the spectacular are more admired, makes the collection a worthwhile addition to his corpus.
Molly McCloskey is a novelist and short story writer who has lived and worked in East Africa. She has recently completed a non-fiction book on schizophrenia, and is currently the Writer Fellow at Trinity College