#Chinua #Achebe, the Father of African Literature


When I read that Chinua Achebe, the father of African literature, had died on Thursday, March 21st, I remembered the  effect his novels Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease had on me as a graduate student at the University of Illinois.

1.  Introduction–the novels of Chinua Achebe as great literature

Although I was focusing on Asian studies as the basis for my Master’s degree, I was introduced to the novel Things Fall Apart by one of my classmates in my Japanese class who also was interested in Africa and African culture.    As Harold Bloom describes in his book about the classics of Western literature, The Western Canon, one of the aesthetic emotions one encounters with great works of literature besides that of the experience of beauty is the experience of the sublime.

The experience of beauty is what we associate with something that is “good”, but the experience of sublime is when we encounter something that is so powerful that it goes beyond our conventional notions of what is “good” or “evil”.   We come to works of great literature not necessarily being better selves, but we definitely come back as larger selves than we were beforehand.

2.  Things Fall Apart–ancient tragedy

With Things Fall Apart, I read the story of the clash of civilizations, the culture of the Igbo tribe in what would become Nigeria, and the culture of the European colonizers of Africa.   The protagonist Okonkwo is destroyed by the encounter, and I was moved by his downfall and this opened up a reservoir of compassion for people whose cultures have been destroyed through colonization.    From Dances with Wolves to Avatar, my heart is always on the side of those who have faced the threat of extinction by a civilization that is superior perhaps only with respect to technology.

But the mere story itself would have made it a good book that was memorable; to me what made a piece of great literature was to see it as embodying the emotions of Greek tragedy, which according to the formula expressed by Aristotle as quoted in James Joyce’s An Artist as a Young Man is that which arrests the mind before what is grave and constant in human suffering.    Because it is grave and constant to the human condition, it causes compassion.   This means that I no longer saw Okonkwo as a product of another culture, but as a fellow human being.   And after having read the story, I could not look at people from Nigeria the same way as before, as an “other”.

3.  No Longer At Ease–modern tragedy

And then with his novel No Longer At Ease, I read the story of Obi, the grandson of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart, who is facing corruption charges in Lagos.    The transfer from tribal to urban life in two generations is a bit of a cultural shock for the reader, but the tragedy of Obi, although moving, is a story of different sort than that of his grandfather.   It is not an example of ancient tragedy, but modern tragedy.   What I took as the difference between the two was that in modern tragedy, one’s destiny was not determined by God or Fate as in ancient tragedy, but by the State.   It was a thought that was frightening to me, but compelling at the same time because it had been so beautifully depicted in his novel.

4.   Chinua Achebe–astride continents and centuries

And this comes to the heart of why Chinua Achebe will have a special place in my heart.   For having written a novel exemplary of ancient tragedy, he wrote a work of completely different character which was exemplary of modern tragedy.   It was like reading the Iliad and the Odyssey and then contemplating the kind of genius that Homer must have been to create BOTH works, each a piece of great literature in and of themselves but so different in character that it was hard to believe that one person could span them both.

And that for me is the legacy of Chinua Achebe.   Yes, he caused me to have an interest in Africa and African culture that has stayed with me for all of my life.   However, he also showed me that great literature not only knows no geographical boundaries, but it also knows no temporal boundaries and can forge a link between the world view of primal cultures, of so-called “modern” culture, and whatever culture may turn into in the future.

The world will certainly miss you, Chinua Achebe, but will always have access to your wisdom as long as there are people that love to read.

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