Do you ever find yourself wandering around bookshops and you see a name pop out in several places at once? Chinua Achebe is a writer I have not heard of for way too long.
This book is a collection of Achebe’s essays. He’s a writer of a vast canon of poems, novels, essays, stories, a well-known and leading professor, of whom I’ve never been exposed to. And here lies the most piercing part of this essay collection; Achebe comments on how long it has taken for African literature to receive the exposure it needs.
This volume is a mastercraft in social and cultural study. He writes of Nigeria, his home country and his Igbo ethnicity. He reflects on the impact of British colonisation and its dominance on his education and culture. He writes about English language and the weight of one’s choice to write within it. He writes many moments of critique on the novel, Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, seeking to dialogue with the book’s racist portrayals of African people within the novel; they’re presented as ‘savages,’ beast-like demons skulking in the forest, in Conrad’s words, ‘subhuman,’ reacting with violence as the white men delve deep into their home land to claim it as their own. This most blistering point of this essay is a moment where Achebe finds that when he first read this, he read it as if in the mind-set of the colonised British man, seeing the Africans in the novel as savages, serving as an absolute arrow into the heart of the effects of British colonization and its flooding of education.
By the end of the volume, I was completely in awe of these essay’s work, their writing. This is a book of seeing. At no point, did I feel manipulated by Achebe. He takes the middle ground so well in the face of being scorned, standing as possibly one of the most important writers and thinkers I have had the chance to stumble into. I wish I had been in the space when he delivered these speeches aloud, to hear the fire I am enthused by when reading them.
What I ask of myself now is why has it taken me so long to stumble into this work? When I look back at my degree, I can’t think of one African writer or translated work even cropping up in the secondary reading list. I think further back in my education and there is a slim line of classics that are upholding similar ‘explorations’ as Heart Of Darkness. These were all thrown to me at an early age as books to learn from. They are blinding.
I believe we can see and understand the world deeper through literature, but I do not think we can do this by absorbing these ancient texts, shaped by archaic thinkers. This used to be our only reference point in the world but this is no longer the case. We need to hear the stories from their core, from the people living through these experiences, to be exposed to them from our earliest ages. These writers need the same exposure as all others receive. We need to be challenged to read wider than the first option on that slim line of classics.
Chinua Achebe, The Education Of A British-Protected Child, Collected Essays, 2009, Alfred A. Knopf