This was a great collection of essays from one of my favourite authors. I’m quite in awe by how Achebe managed to almost singlehandedly put African literature on the map and it’s clear he cares a lot about his culture, his continent, and fiction in general.
If there’s anyone I would trust to succinctly point out what’s wrong with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” it would be Achebe. Out of all the essays I read in this collection, his “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” was the most interesting, and had me saying “Yes!” more times than any other. “Heart of Darkness” had always bothered me, especially as so many people seem to like it. I admit I couldn’t even finish it. What Achebe wrote about it sums up my feelings about the book:
“And yet it is set in Africa and teems with Africans whose humanity is admitted in theory but promptly underminded by the mindlessness of its context and the pretty explicit animal imagery surrounding it.”
But so many people say books like this aren’t too be taken that seriously, they are just fiction. But the more I read the more I realize fiction isn’t just fiction; it shapes our beliefs in so many ways. And when race is added to the mix, well…
The other essays were just as thought-provoking and interesting. I got the sense that this is the sort of book that needs to be taught in school. Achebe is a fearless critic of colonialism, racism, and imperialism, and rightly so. But the book also focuses on his advocacy of literature. In particular I really enjoyed his look into African oral tradition, and his contrasts of African and European literature. He got me thinking about the fact that African oral stories do not belong to anyone once said out loud, it gives a different view of authorship for sure, especially contrasted with a book. Things like that I’d never really considered before, despite coming from that tradition,.
This book was published in 1990 so a lot of things have changed since then. For one, America is now a lot more powerful and influential in Africa than Europe is, but still, I felt so many of the points in this book were still valid:
“Many Europeans have made enormous contributions towards the understanding of Africa in Europe. Some of them have even helped us to see ourselves anew in the freshness of an itinerant perspective. But what we are talking about here is dialogue which requires two people and cannot be replaced by even the most brilliant monologue.”
The last quote made me think about the present: I see the dialogue happening, especially online, and it’s exciting to see these new voices entering the dialogue, unearthing stories that were hidden, ignored, or misunderstood. The empire is writing back, as they say, and it’s been powerful.
I always forget how funny Achebe is, and then I read something like this:
“How often do we hear people say, “Oh I don’t have the time to read novels,” implying that fiction is frivolous? They would generally add—lest you consider them illiterate—that they read histories or biographies, which they presume to be more appropriate to serious-minded adults. Such people are to be pitied; they are like a six-cylinder car which says: Oh, I can manage all right on three sparking-plugs, thank you very much. Well, it can manage somehow but it will sound like an asthmatic motorcycle!”
It would have been interesting to see how Achebe would have responded to Ben Okri’s Guardian piece.