Bookish lectures in which the Nigerian Nobel Prize–winning novelist reflects on his life and work.
Achebe (Hopes and Impediments, 1989) is the renowned author of Things Fall Apart, the most widely read novel ever to come out of Africa. Here, in three lectures given in 1998 at Harvard, Achebe draws on his recollections of childhood and youth to describe the origins of that 1958 book, as well as of the Nigerian independence movement that was reaching its full flowering in the late ’50s. At several points Achebe recalls an undergraduate class in which he and his fellow students read Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson, which was set in Nigeria and full of white-man’s-burden tropes; when one of those students rose and informed the teacher that “the only moment he had enjoyed in the entire book was when the Nigerian hero, Johnson, was shot to death by his British master,” Achebe realized that he was witnessing the birth of a “landmark rebellion” (one in which Nigerians would press for their own sense of national identity) and of a literature destined to be filled with better heroes than the “embarrassing nitwit” Johnson. Achebe’s tour of English literature highlights the outrageous interpretations of African culture that much of it contains (in books that depicted Africans as, in the words of one white author, “a people of beastly living, without a God, laws, religion”). Plainly as tired of multiculturalist appropriations of African cultures as of imperialist ones, Achebe urges his listeners to seek authentic voices, ones outside the confines of the imagined “universal civilization” of Europe and North America.
A welcome book for Achebe’s many admirers, as well as for all students of contemporary African cultures.