Originally published in the Winter 2013/14 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, published in 2009, opens with a piece by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who died last year at the age of 82. Assuming the Penguin editors meant “contemporary” in the usual sense of the term, this was a remarkable distinction to bestow on an author who published his first novel in 1958 and his last novel (bar one late-in-life flop) in 1966, and who in the last decades of his life published little apart from a handful of essay collections and a meandering war memoir.
But in another sense it was entirely appropriate to call Achebe a contemporary African writer, since African novel-writing has scarcely progressed since he inaugurated it with the celebrated Things Fall Apart. In the decades since that title was published—the same year as The Once and Future King, Our Man in Havana, and The Dharma Bums—the American novel has evolved through a multitude of vogues and phases while the Anglophone African novel has, for the most part, remained as it was when Achebe launched it: unremarkable in its prose, flat in its characterization, anti-Western in its politics, and preoccupied with the confrontation between tradition and modernity.
These characteristics have dominated the African novel so thoroughly that most Western readers assume they are essential to it, just as madness and melodrama are essential to the Russian novel. In fact, the uniformity of African fiction is quite artificial. Nothing about the continent predestined its fiction to be stylistically humdrum and politically tendentious. It was a deliberate collaboration between Achebe, his publishers, and Western multiculturalists that made it that way, to serve the personal interests of the first two parties and the political interests of the third.
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I say collaboration, but conspiracy was the word Achebe used, claiming in his later years to have been one of the “conspirators in the launch of African literature.” Although Achebe was never one to underrate his own importance, in this case the claim is no exaggeration. The locus of this conspiracy was the African Writers Series (AWS), an imprint of the British publisher Heinemann launched in 1962.
It is hard to grasp today just how unprecedented the African Writers Series was at the time. Before Things Fall Apart, almost no African novels had been published in England, or indeed in English. Depending on how you define “African” and “novel,” the number might be in the single digits. In the 1950s, students at places like the University of Makerere in Uganda had started to ask (quite rightly) whether, as African students in Africa, they might not be entitled to study a few African novels in their literature classes. Their professors were not averse to the idea, but both parties soon realized that there simply were not enough such titles to fill a semester’s coursework.
Apart from Heinemann, no Western publishers were interested in African titles, which everyone said would never sell. In Africa itself, the publishing industry was still in its infancy, partly because literacy was far from universal. So, for aspiring fiction writers in Africa in the 1960s, Heinemann was practically the only game in town. And Achebe was their gatekeeper.
His official title was “editorial adviser,” but that doesn’t convey the extent to which Achebe dominated the AWS’s editorial policy during its early decades. The London editors in charge of the series were well-meaning liberals, none of whom had grown up in Africa or even lived there for any extended period, and they were not at all confident in their ability to judge African literary excellence. Their anxiety about imposing neocolonial standards led them to defer to Achebe’s judgment whether they agreed with it or not. One of those editors, James Currey, recalled in his history of the AWS how it went at the board meetings where manuscripts were finally accepted or rejected: “After the discussion had gone on for some time . . . Alan Hill in the chair would say, ‘Well, James, what did the old Chinua say?'” And that would be that.
The only thing more important to the editors than what the old Chinua said was what would sell, which is where the multiculturalists come in. In the beginning Heinemann had trouble getting bookstores to stock its AWS titles, but just when its finances were looking desperate, it was rescued by the education establishment. The early ’60s saw the first “multicultural advisers” hired in British school districts and the first stirrings of multiculturalist ideology in the universities, and these two sources provided some of the AWS’s best customers. In the U.S., Things Fall Apart became such a curriculum staple that it was for a time the second most adopted text in American high schools.
Of course, these buyers were partly driven by concerns that had nothing to do with literature. One of the main reasons educators seized upon Things Fall Apart in the first place was that it allowed them to perpetuate the narrative of a pristine, prosperous Africa destroyed by a rapacious, unfeeling West. Self-righteous missionaries versus honorable pagans, self-serving politicians versus noble anticolonialists—these were the sorts of stories they looked for in future African novels. And with Achebe steering the selection at Heinemann, they got plenty.
The other influential tastemakers were the literary reviewers, and they too brought certain expectations to African literature which proved restrictive. Early reviews had praised Things Fall Apart for being “an authentic native document, guileless and unsophisticated” (New York Herald Tribune) and “written neither up nor down” (Times Literary Supplement). The stubborn identification of “authentic” with “guileless and unsophisticated” led to a perverse situation where simplistic but bad African writing was considered more praiseworthy than anything that seemed to be, as the TLS put it, written up. This mentality filtered through to African writers themselves, and generations of them grew up thinking that writing well meant writing like Achebe. Imagine if midcentury America had produced no Fitzgerald, no Steinbeck, and no Faulkner, and all anybody knew was Hemingway.
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To get an idea of how these factors affected the growth of African literature in practice, it is instructive to look at the career of Wole Soyinka. Soyinka was another Nigerian writer of Achebe’s generation, both of them graduating from the country’s first college, the University of Ibadan, in its first few years of existence. There were several student writers running around campus in those days, but Soyinka was the one everyone thought would hit it big. “When you first met him, until you realized really how intelligent he was, you could easily have mistaken him for just rather a very cocky boy,” recalled one of his teachers in the late ’80s. “But he wasn’t trying to be clever. He just naturally effervesced.”
As Soyinka grew in stature as a playwright and essayist, he proved to be a steadfast enemy of all attempts to impose limits on African writing, especially those limits that were politically motivated. For a long time he resisted being published under the AWS imprint at all, on the grounds that he wanted to be evaluated as a writer, not an African writer. Referring to the series’ signature orange covers, he called it the “orange ghetto.” He also waged a lively and protracted battle in print with representatives of the négritude movement, which held that African literature should concern itself primarily with exploring the essence of blackness and upholding the superiority of its unique form of wisdom. Soyinka wrote off négritude as a “philosophical straitjacket,” cuttingly remarking in one famous essay: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.”
Such pointed dissents from multiculturalist orthodoxy may explain the strange fact that although Soyinka is, by most accounts, a better and more interesting writer than Achebe, he is not nearly so well known. His marvelous plays are rarely assigned in Western classrooms. In commercial terms, Soyinka has never been a huge success, whereas sales of Achebe’s books accounted for as much as a third of the revenue coming in from the African Writers Series even in the 1980s, decades after they had first been published. When Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986, he was cornered at a reception by one particularly effusive admirer who proceeded to praise his work in the most gushing terms. When Soyinka asked, “What have you read by me?” the admirer answered, “Things Fall Apart.”
On those occasions when Soyinka is read in the West, he is often misread, with incidental references to anti-colonial tropes being elevated into central themes, the better to fit Western readers’ expectations. Soyinka was outraged when he learned that the American edition of his novel Seasons of Anomy (1974) promised on its back cover a portrayal of “the clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African traditions.” This was not the point of the book at all, he said, and whoever wrote that blurb should be awarded “the overseas prize for illiteracy and mental conditioning.” To forestall any misunderstandings, his preface to the verse drama Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) states emphatically that “the Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical.” But it was no use. His white audience had a very specific idea of how an African writer should sound and what sorts of things he should care about, and when Soyinka did not conform to that imagined standard of Africanness, he more often than not found himself simply ignored.
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How the literature of English-speaking Africa might have developed if it had been spared Achebe’s overwhelming dominance is suggested by the counterexample of Francophone Africa. France’s African colonies began producing native writers around the same time Britain’s did, but for the most part the two traditions developed independently. It is an indictment of Achebe’s outsize influence that from the 1950s up to the present day, the Francophone African novel has far outpaced the Anglophone in sophistication, inventiveness, and thematic diversity.
The two empires took two very different approaches to the education of their colonized peoples. The British were usually content to preserve local cultures and institutions, both because that seemed morally right and because it was just the easiest thing. The French, with their heritage of Enlightenment universalism, operated on the principle that every African could become a proper French citizen if given the right education. While the British were scrambling to rewrite their grammars to include more local color, replacing Jack and Sue with Matu and Hiuko, generations of Senegalese schoolboys were puzzling over a history textbook that opened with the words “Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois (Our ancestors, the Gauls) . . .” The French wanted to extend first-class national citizenship to their African charges someday, and took for granted that they would want it.
Though it is hard to say which of these approaches showed more respect for the native African, there is no question which of them produced better literature. Francophone African writers were expected to compete on equal footing with their counterparts in the metropole, and the result was greater ambition and more freedom of experimentation. An early example of this is Camara Laye, the son of a Malinke tribesman who published the Kafkaesque novel The Radiance of the King in 1954. For many years there was some controversy over whether Laye had really written it himself, with skeptics arguing that a man of Laye’s educational and cultural background simply could not have pulled off such a technically accomplished piece of fiction. Later, the bawdy and prolific Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembene proved something that none of his Anglophone counterparts had, namely that African writers have a sense of humor. The Ivory Coast’s Ahmadou Kourouma, who unlike the previous two did write frequently about political themes, did so without the overwhelming sense of grievance that mars the work of Achebe and his heirs.
In the 21st century, the difference between the two traditions has persisted. In the French-speaking world, the most famous African novelist currently working is probably Alain Mabanckou; in America, it is Teju Cole. Mabanckou is best known for African Psycho (2007), a Congolese takeoff on the Bret Easton Ellis hit (interesting premise, that), and for Broken Glass (2009), which is narrated by the resident drunk of a Brazzaville bar in the form of a notebook he starts when the proprietor commissions him to write the bar’s history. In neither of these books is anyone haunted by the legacy of slavery, the plight of the Native Americans, or the rantings of Edward Said, as characters frequently are in Teju Cole’s undisciplined breakout novel, Open City (2011). In fact, Mabanckou has specifically rejected calls for more political comment in his books, saying he has no interest in acting like “le pompier de l’Afrique,” Africa’s firefighter.
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The state of the Anglophone African novel is not entirely the fault of Chinua Achebe and his multiculturalist enablers. Some of the blame must lie with those conscientious Western critics and readers who should have paid more attention when African writers tried to move beyond the limits Achebe set. It is appalling to think that Soyinka—a man equally at home with Shakespeare, Brecht, and Barthes—should have been forced to give a 1973 lecture at Cambridge University under the auspices of the Department of Social Anthropology because the Department of English wouldn’t sponsor him, refusing to believe that an African writer would be literary enough for them. It is dreadful (though amusing) that when Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House, she forwarded the manuscript of Bessie Head’s classic The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977) to the children’s department.
But there is no getting around the sad truth that Achebe was an artist with a narrow gift and a political agenda, that he imposed these limitations on African literature, and that the Western Left used their cultural influence to enforce these limits. Now that Achebe is gone, we can only hope that African writers will be allowed the freedom to get out from under his influence. An African proverb says that when an old man dies, a library burns down. Perhaps with Achebe’s death a new library will spring up.