A

Achebe, Chinua Nigerian, 1930--

Chinua Achebe is the first major African novelist to be widely read and recognized both inside and outside Africa, and is also renowned for his role as the founding editor of the African Writers series published by Heinemann. His career as an essayist is limited to two collections of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day ( 1975) and Hopes and Impediments ( 1988), as well as The Trouble with Nigeria ( 1983), a long essay which diagnoses the reasons for the political stagnation of post-colonial Nigeria. However, the influence and importance of his essays have far exceeded their actual number. They have been instrumental in establishing the critical and theoretical issues with which other African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, and the bolekaja critics (Chinweizu and Madubuike) have had to grapple, and along with the work of the Frantz Fanon are among the earliest examples of the type of critical writing that has come to be known as "post- colonial" criticism.

Achebe's essays are mainly conversational in nature, written for lectures that he has been invited to give in response to specific questions and situations. In the essays in Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and ImpedimentsZ (which reproduces five essays from the earlier collection), he articulates three characteristic concerns in his self-appointed role as spokesperson for the African novel. In essays such as "Colonialist Criticism" ( 1974), he is critical of the failure of European critics to understand African literature on its own terms. In their demand that African fiction be concerned with issues and themes that are "universal," Achebe sees European critics as perpetuating a colonialist attitude which views "the African writer as a somewhat unfinished European who with patient guidance will grow up one day and write like every other European." For Achebe, evidence of the autonomy and uniqueness of African literature from its European counterpart can be seen, for example, in the very different role that the African writer must have toward his or her society. In "The Novelist as Teacher" ( 1965), he attacks the notion that the African writer should adopt the Western Modernist pose of the angst-ridden writer living on the fringes of society. The African novelist has an obligation to educate, to "help society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." Achebe is aware this might mean that ". . . perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure. But who cares? Art is important, but so is education of the kind I have in mind." The Igbo ceremony of mbari, a festival of images in which every member of the society participates, provides him with an example of artistic production in which "there is no rigid tension between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a 'function' of society" (Morning).

More controversially, Achebe has defended the use of English and other European languages in the production of African fiction against those critics who suggest that authentic African experience can only be represented in an African language. On the one hand, this is because for Achebe, English -- being "a language spoken by Africans on African soil" (Morning) -- is an African language. As he suggests in "The African Writer and the English Language" ( 1964), English (as well as French and Arabic) also makes it possible for there to be national literatures in Africa which cut across the enormous linguistic differences present within each nation. Although he feels that the English language can express his experiences as an African, it is important to recognize that "it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its African surroundings" (Morning) -- a point which critics of Achebe's stance have often failed to understand.

One of Achebe's most famous and important essays -- an essay which he has described as his "standard-bearer" (Hopes) -- is "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" ( 1975). While admitting that Conrad is "undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction," Achebe draws attention to the fact that he is nevertheless "a thoroughgoing racist." In Achebe's opinion, Western critics have praised Conrad's novella while never addressing the racism at its core; Conrad depicts Africa as incomprehensible, frenzied, dark, grotesque, and dangerous, and Africans as ugly, inarticulate, inhuman, and savage. Achebe criticizes this failure, and effectively deals with a range of rejoinders which might be used to "save" Conrad from being labeled a racist. For example, while it may be possible to see these attitudes as those of Conrad's character Marlow, Achebe claims that Conrad "neglects to hint, clearly and adequately, at an alternative form of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters." While it is now common for literary critics to approach fictional works through a consideration of issues such as race, Achebe's criticism of Conrad is an early and influential example of the shift of literary criticism toward a more explicit treatment of the broader politics of fiction.

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Encyclopedia of the Essay
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers ix
  • List of Entries xiii
  • Preface xix
  • A 1
  • C 137
  • D 203
  • E 239
  • F 273
  • G 319
  • H 373
  • I 419
  • J 425
  • K 443
  • L 457
  • M 503
  • N 591
  • O 611
  • P 629
  • Q 683
  • R 685
  • S 725
  • T 829
  • U 865
  • V 871
  • W 883
  • Y 911
  • Z 915
  • Indexes 925
  • General Index 961
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 981
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