Oral Tradition and Modern Storytelling: Revisiting Chinua Achebe's Short Stories

By Ogede, Ode | International Fiction Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Oral Tradition and Modern Storytelling: Revisiting Chinua Achebe's Short Stories


Ogede, Ode, International Fiction Review


An exclusive preoccupation with Chinua Achebe's novels has somewhat decidedly deflected attention away from his work both as a short-story writer and as a writer of children's fiction.(1) The aim of this essay is to rekindle interest specifically in Achebe's short fiction. Numerically, Achebe's showing as a short-story writer may not quite place him on a par with that of other world-class writers. Edgar Allan Poe, Nawal El Saadawi, Alex La Guma, Herman Melville, Nurudin Farah, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Buchi Emechetta, Anton Chekhov, Bessie Head, Henry James, and Najib Mahfuz, among others,(2) not only distinguished themselves as master novelists but were equally at home in the terrain of short fiction. However, Achebe's efforts here are quite commendable. Despite the scantiness of his production, Achebe should take solace in the very high quality of his output.(3) Achebe's stories merit attention not only because of the thematic concerns they share with his longer narratives, but also because of the range of stylistic experimentation they put on display. In this essay, I analyze Achebe's singular book of short stories Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) to argue that all of his narrative experimentation in his short fiction can best be appreciated in the context of a debt to the oral tradition.

Oral tradition in this essay refers to the body of tales told both in the home by the fireside and in the wider community in African villages. Achebe heard these tales during his childhood. While he was growing up in the village of Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria in the 1930s, traditional storytelling flourished in the home as well as in the schools.(4) As noted by Isidore Okpewho in his important book African Oral Literature,(5) though different storytellers have different performance styles, there are certain resources that all performers have in their repertoire. Among these are repetition, tonal variation, parallelism, piling and association, the direct address, ideophones, digression, imagery, hyperbole, allusion, and symbolism. In addition, traditional tales tend to conclude with an appended moral that often confirms the norms of the society in which they are performed. Of these resources, the direct address (which ensures interaction with the audience), digression, exaggeration, and didacticism are the features most prominently deployed by Achebe in his short stories. Though traditional storytelling has influenced Achebe's short stories as much as it has his novels, this fact has surprisingly escaped the notice of his critics. Even more astonishing is the fact that some critics have made an effort to deny Achebe's oral heritage entirely. Among them is his longtime associate Ossie Enekwe, who claims that Achebe "developed as a writer in an environment where the short story form is not taken seriously, where there was no flourishing tradition of short fiction."(6) By arguing that Achebe "developed as a short story writer through dint of hard work and perseverance," Enekwe seems to excuse the presumed lack of short fiction in Achebe's oeuvre by blaming the unfavorable background in which Achebe grew up. Nonetheless, Enekwe's allegation that Achebe "made mistakes," that "these were steadily and systematically eliminated as he perfected his skill,"(7) is unwarranted; such special pleading sweeps aside not only the fact that the Igbos generally hold storytelling in high regard, but also the fact that the art of storytelling can legitimately be taken as Achebe's greatest literary influence.

Achebe takes his heritage seriously. Even when the subject of his stories is slight, he is always able to capture the reader's interest with reasonable storytelling skills, as "The Madman" (1972), the first story of the collection, clearly illustrates. In that story, Nwibe, an enterprising and eminent middle-aged man, is about to take the Ozo title, one of the most prestigious awards in his community, when he suddenly experiences a reversal of fortune. …

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