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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This interview is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

In Conversation with Chinua Achebe Brenda Lyons
brenda lyons: I’d like to begin with a question of your beginnings, your parents, even grandparents: who are they and how have they influenced your writing?

chinua achebe: I think the best thing would be to begin with my parents; I didn’t know my grandparents on either side. My parents were Christian converts, among the early Christians from the Igbo people. My father was one of the evangelists of the church missionary society; and he went to college, which the mission had set up at the beginning of this [i.e. the twentieth] century. While he was a student there, he met my mother, so she converted, too; and they were married in 1909. That was part of my original background – an Anglican, Protestant, Christian family. We read the Bible, sang hymns, and went to church and Sunday school. In addition to the Christian community there was a non-Christian community in the villages, because not everybody became a convert; and so when I was growing up, you saw both sides. We belonged to the Christian side. We tended to look down on the heathen, pagan half, as we called them. It wasn’t a bitter, unduly hostile relationship at the stage when I was growing up. I think a certain level of accommodation had been reached between the converts and others.

At what point in your personal development did you begin to be interested in the other side?

Actually, quite early. I can’t put a date to it because I wasn’t sure what was happening, except I knew I was a very curious child and fascinated by things that were strange, not very familiar. The other side of the community was unfamiliar; and not only that, I was actively admonished not to participate in heathen feasts or celebrations. You were not supposed to do that, if you were a good Christian.

But it was more than just idle curiosity; I really got interested in whatever was behind this difference. There were things happening on the other side which were spectacular, the masquerades, dancing, music, drumming – these were things we really couldn’t compete with in the church. The hymns were good in their way, but they couldn’t compete with the drumming or dancing or the masquerade.

There was a story about my great-uncle, who was a man of some standing in the village; he brought up my father who had lost his parents very young, so lived with this uncle. The story is that he sent the missionaries packing from his compound, because he said that their singing was too mournful. He didn’t like the sound they made. So this is simply an indication of what I was saying, that the sound made by the heathen was more appealing in some ways than the sound made in the church.

On the other side of your Christian experience, is that the part of the pantheon of Igbo gods, like Chukwu?

Yes. Chukwu is, of course, the Supreme God, so he belongs to both. The Christians appropriated the Supreme God for their own use. This is natural and normal. But the other gods, the subsidiary gods, that’s where there is a difference, because the Christians would not accept that there are other gods; and the people in the village would say, yes, that’s Chukwu. But Chukwu is too powerful, too big to be involved in the little, personal, petty matters of individual human beings. So you must deal with his lieutenants who have more time. And so you have a whole hierarchy of other gods and goddesses.

Like Ala?

Ala, yes, and so many others. Then as you get down the pyramid, you come to the ancestors who have become gods. They fight, men who were alive before but have become minor gods; and they are also offered prayers and sacrifices. I was fascinated by all this.

Ezeulu would be…?

… the priest of a special kind of god in this hierarchy. Ulu is not an ancestor, but a god made for a particular purpose. It’s almost more like magic; you bring things together and you create or give yourself access to power. So there were some gods that belong to that category. Not very often. It doesn’t happen very often, but that’s obviously something that was not unheard of. A community in distress might say we need a god to deal with this particular problem; and they would go about making, creating, that god.

Does this god-making relate to chi?

No, it doesn’t relate to chi. Chi is something very, very old, as old as the Supreme God, I think, because it seems to me that chi is perhaps a manifestation of the Supreme God himself in every individual. Each individual is given a little spark from the abundance of the supreme deity to accompany him or her through their life in this world. That’s chi, and everyone has a different one, a different spark. This is not a god mankind has anything to do with. It is something which comes from above.

Your Igbo ancestry is apparently the single most significant source of your fiction. Does this relate to your philosophy of the writer’s responsibility?

Yes, I think it comes from there, though not completely. You say the single most important, and I would say that’s true, but that’s not the only source of my inspiration because I have been exposed to others. For example, the Christianity we were talking about, the Western-based education I had and my readings in the literature of the world, and so on. I think all this must have a share in one’s total inspiration. The most important and perhaps most fundamental is my awareness of my Igbo identity or African identity, because in the end the Igbo identity is simply a particular form of an African expression. You would find similar expressions in other cultures. I have had the experience of travelling around Africa since my books were published and wherever I have gone, people have said the same without a new variation: This story could be our story if the names were the names of our people. I’ve heard this said in Kenya, Kikuyu and by the Shona people and others. So I think that it’s also a unified African consciousness in which the Igbo culture partakes.

But in The Trouble with Nigeria you warn against the idea of unity?

Well, not the idea of unity. I warn against facile appeals to unity, hypocritical appeals to unity. You can use unity as a slogan, and I’m not interested in that. I’m talking about real factors that are common, and people don’t turn those into slogans. They’re real. But you must also recognise the diversity; and so it’s a dialectic. The people who are prone to slogans are also prone to singlemindedness, which I find repugnant. While I’m talking about unity, I’m also aware of the things that are distinct and distinctive, which are also important.

You were talking about comparisons with other African cultures. What about within Nigeria: what are some comparisons with Hausa, Yoruba, and others?

Yes, well I deliberately went very far to show you that even across thousands of miles you do have these similarities, whereas obviously if you are talking within Nigeria itself the similarities would be infinitely stronger because these are people who have lived as neighbours for thousands of years.

I understand from a Zairian friend that the chi is also there, but it’s a different name.

Yes, the Yoruba, for instance, would talk about ori, which is translated, literally, ‘head’ or ‘my head’. But if you look at the way ori operates, you find it is quite close to the concept of chi.

I’ve heard that you have described the Igbo people as a lost tribe, like the Israelis.

No, I’m very wary of rushing to such conclusions. It’s really fanciful, until one has a lot more evidence. For quite some time people have remarked on certain similarities between the Jews and the Igbos. But I think we have to be careful.  

There was one very very powerful missionary who, as it turned out, married my parents; he was called Basden. He was not only a missionary; he was an anthropologist, and he wrote one of the early, detailed studies of the Igbo people. He was one of those who drew attention to those similarities, for instance, circumcision on the eighth day. This is very crucial in Igbo culture. Now it does not happen frequently like that; in fact in most parts of Africa, circumcision comes much later in life. Male circumcision, I’m talking about. But with Igbos it’s on the eighth day, and this is something that the Jews have, as well, I’m told. There are other things… but that does not prove they are the lost tribe.

What was it like as a boy growing up in Ogidi?

Well, it is difficult to answer that, I mean, unless you know what it’s like growing up elsewhere; you have one experience, and you take one road and the other is not taken. But I found it rich and exciting, because there was so much going on, a kind of crossroads situation. This is one way in which I’ve described it; you are at the crossroads – as a phenomenon a very, very important place in mythology, you know, where two roads cross, where the spirits meet human beings, where the water meets the land, day meets night. All these are very powerful places; and living in Igboland at the time I was talking about is rather like that, the crossroads of Europe and Africa, of Christianity and traditional African religions coming together and intersecting. At that intersection all kinds of very powerful things can happen. This is why in mythology, you know, the crossroads is where you take sacrifice, because that’s where your path as a human being would cross the path of the spirits. That’s where you leave your sacrifice so the spirits can see it. It’s also a place to avoid at certain times, because of this power that emanates there. So it’s very very fruitful, I think, for an artist who is aware of this kind of thing – this, I forget whose phrase it is, you know, this zone of occult instability where things are possible, all kind of things, but also danger, peril. So it’s the excitement of creativity and of danger.

So the notion or phenomenon of the crossroads, then, is another source of your fiction?

Yes, and of my view of the world, I think, really…

What about the differences between your writing of novels and poetry?

Well, I didn’t write much poetry until the Biafran War. I wrote a few things now and again, really to amuse myself. I didn’t take that form to heart the same way as I did when I found I couldn’t write novels, or when I found that writing novels would just not be feasible, just not possible during the crisis in Nigeria and the war and immediately after the war [when] I found poetry more congenial. I found short stories more, not just congenial… practicable, you know. This is something you could do in that kind of tight situation. I don’t know why really, but that’s the way it happened. At certain times I found myself working more in poetry, and that phase passed. So I think I’m back to my novel phase again.

Your first language was Igbo?

Yes.

There’s a slight change when you go from Ibo to Igbo?

Yes, well, not really; I-g-b-o would be the correct thing. That’s the way that the word is called by the owners of the language, not the people. But the British simplified it to I-b-o, because that’s easier… I-b-o not I-g-b-o (hard stress on ‘g’). But today, I think, except in strict, scholarly places, it would be pedantic to insist that it must be this, because many, many people living in Nigeria, even among the Igbo people themselves, would call themselves Ibo, so I would say that either can be used.

Are there significant differences in the literary production of the Igbo, compared with Yoruba, Hausa, or some of the other Nigerian cultures?

Yes, I think there is a difference in quantity. That’s a historical matter, which would be too complicated to go into, but Igbo language and literature have had some problems which, it would appear, the other two competitors, Hausa and Yoruba, which are of equal size, have not had. This is a debate, almost a distracting debate on dialect, which has brought in grammarians, scholars, linguistics people having a field day trying to invent a new Igbo dialect of their own making; and I think this is an absurd and ridiculous exercise, because language is not created by grammarians. Language is created by those who speak it, and grammarians should only go in and study what is there, but in Igbo language, we have a situation in which people are writing PhDs on all kinds of aspects of this and imposing, attempting to impose a form of the language on its literature.

So for you, language is something that is alive, and the dictionary is then the catalogue that traces the usage of the people?

Yes, there’s a certain genius in the language, certain laws which can elude scholars. Why is one dialect more popular than another, for instance? Why do people want to speak this way? I think really what we should do is go and listen to people, rather than try and create a new language. That’s a problem Igbo has had; I mean, it’s been a limiting factor to the production of a viable literature.

What is the problem really?

This attempt by certain scholars in universities to legislate for the language, how this language should be written and spoken. And that has been a hindrance to the natural development of its literature. So I have my own little group that is fighting this and insisted that poets should write the way they feel like and the way they speak and the way they’re reared. And this other group will say that there’s been so much confusion – the Tower of Babel, you know. They want to standardise, and they go into all kinds of arguments for standardisation.

Is your group related to what you’re doing in Okike?

Yes, that’s where most of us operate, and particularly what we’re doing in a new journal, which is called Uwa ndi Igbo (The World of Igbo), which I launched some time ago. It’s a bilingual journal, and what I’m saying is let poets write their poetry anyhow they want; and let’s not become burdened with theories from non-poets, which is really what grammarians are.

And there’s now an Igbo dictionary, too?

We had a dictionary once upon a time, and I think it needs to be revised, updated. That’s one of the projects one hears about, but that really should be taken in hand.

Speaking of language, reading Elewa’s and other West African patois in Anthills seemed like a kind of poetry, actually, in the natural cadence, and a certain rhythmical repetition, an intensity in abbreviated syllables maybe. Do you read it or hear it that way?

Well, I think pidgin, or the West African or Nigerian patois, is interesting in its own right. Whether it is more poetic than other forms of English, I really don’t know. I think it is very different, especially to the Western ear, and it’s possible that one’s reaction could be, okay, ‘this is wonderful’ or else ‘I don’t understand what is going on here’. Actually, it’s an important language that is not only used by people like Elewa, who have access to no other kind of English, but even by those who have the so-called standard English, who would use this pidgin or patois at certain moments. Certain situations, not only when they want to be humorous but also at other times, when they want to be close or intimate with other people, all kinds of situations.

One critical study of your work said something, I believe, about your use of it being humorous, but I sensed it was more political than that and about a kind of camaraderie, maybe even, at some extreme, a kind of cult language?

Yes, in a way, in a particular sense, because you learn this as a group. This is also something which links you up with people who are not normally in your social group, but who for particular purposes are invited, when you are creating another kind of fraternity, which is when you have the working class, for instance, meeting with the elite. This is very important for the future, a relationship between groups in this society – for creating new friendships, new links. So these are like cult purposes or intentions.

Like some of your characters in Anthills, Ikem or Chris…?

Chris a little, and certainly Beatrice from time to time, yes, would communicate with the other people in pidgin. Yes.

The old Abazon man, the traditional poet/storyteller in Anthills, describes the writer as one whose language and poetic, prophetic imagination is in opposition to what I’ll call the Hemingway school of real life experience.

Yes. I think the real life experience is a very narrow and impoverished way of looking at reality. Real life is there, but also the other life, I mean, it’s not as if that other life is unknown to us. We have the capacity, the capability, to use it, this other life – the poetic life, the prophetic life, the visionary life. All this is within our grasp. And so why do we suddenly decide we’re not going to use this? It seems a very short-sighted way of looking at our nature as human beings. Whoever made us gave us these facilities to use and there’s no reason why we should impoverish ourselves by deciding we should only work on two spark plugs when we have six.

Or infinite…?

Yes, or infinite, whatever number we have. It’s quite clear we’re not using all the number we could use.

Did the production of Anthills feel like a breakthrough novel to you?

In a way, yes, a breakthrough, because I hadn’t written a novel for a long time. One might almost say that I was jinxed, you know, with A Man of the People. But it wasn’t a desperate situation for me. I just didn’t feel like writing a novel; and when I felt like writing a novel, I wrote one. Well, it isn’t quite right to say I didn’t feel like it, because I did begin to write some years before Anthills, but it wasn’t working, so I knew I wasn’t ready. I was aware that a novelist should write a novel every so often; the publishers expect a novel from you, and your readers expect this, so in deference to all those concerns, I set about trying to write a novel, but they didn’t work. So since I have this notion that things, like creativity, have a life of their own, I wasn’t going to get so frustrated or do anything silly like write anything which wouldn’t satisfy me, so I simply waited until I was ready to write something that I could call my own.

Looking back, why do you think that happened to you?

I think it’s the very horrendous history that we went through in the end of the 1960s. I’m referring to the Biafran War and all the things that relate to it and the things that have flowed out of it.

So then did you come to some conclusions about why you didn’t?

Well, let’s put it another way. My fiction is really a series of fictional renderings of our history, of African history. This is really one way of looking at what I have done. I have tried, I have taken critical moments in modern African history, especially its relationship with Europe and all the other things that have happened since, and retold the events fictionally. The first coming of the white man to an African community in Things Fall ApartArrow of God goes back a bit to fill in the gaps that Things Fall Apart didn’t quite handle, so that’s a revised version of the story and an enriched version of the story. And then coming to the period of independence in which we were handling our own affairs in A Man of the People, and there I threw in something which was to become quite potent in African history. At that point there was no way of knowing that this was going to be so. The military, the story ends with the military. And that was in itself a huge break, because it wasn’t really on the cards. There was no way you could have written that into the history of Africa as we saw it when we were getting our independence in the 1960s. That was something we were not prepared for, and something which in its consequences has been absolutely disastrous, you see. It is out of the military that we had the civil war in Nigeria, one of the most bloody wars in recent history in which perhaps as many as a million people have perished, and all the other things that accompanied that bloodletting. All the things that followed the end of it – the discrimination and persecution that happened; all that’s more or less unhinged our history, if you like. For me, you know, the story, the history suddenly was an accident; the history encountered a horrendous accident and that needed a new thinking, new reflection…

To me that brings to mind, of course, your own exile within your country and a tragic irony, I believe, of the book that actually got you in trouble, How the Leopard Got His Claws.

Yes, well, it didn’t get me into trouble. The break-up of Nigeria had happened, and the war was imminent. A friend, Christopher Okigbo, and I, had started a publishing house in a new place of refuge; we had fled for our lives, Christopher from Ibadan, I from my family, from Lagos. This is something I could not even contemplate when it was happening, that the day would come when I could not live in my national capital, you know, when it was just touch and go, whether one survived. And so those events were so traumatic; and since we were writers, a poet and a novelist, the way we could respond to this situation was to publish new literature in this place of refuge, as we thought. You know, we would return to our ancestral homes. The idea of Nigeria was not working, obviously, and thousands and thousands of people who’d gone out and left their ancestral homes were massacred. So it couldn’t be home to them. So this is a new and painful reality to deal with, and one way we thought we could deal with it was to start writing and publishing; and we said we’ll start with children’s books. So we got this story which obsessed me. It was really a very weak, conventional story about how the dog became man’s servant, you see, and while I was editing it, it seemed to take control of me, really, and changed completely. The leopard came into it, and it was no longer the dog who was the good guy, because I don’t like people who become slaves, you see, even slaves to man. And so the dog became the villain, and the entire story changed completely and it became a parable on the break-up of a common shelter, a common house, a common country, if you like.

It seemed to me a utopian creation story…

Yes, that’s right; in the beginning there was no Nigeria, but then, you know, the people got together and said ‘let’s create this shelter’. And so there was this tragedy which befell the shelter. And that was one level of reading the story. If you don’t know this background, you can read and enjoy the story as a children’s fable. What happened was that when the federal troops overran the capital, the Biafran capital where we had set up, they destroyed the publishing house. I mean they razed it to the ground.

This was in ’66?

Yes, thereabouts… ’67. And so, at the end of the war, we went; and it was a surprise, this little building in between tall buildings was totally erased; and the other things around it were standing, so it looked like, you know, somebody didn’t like publishing. And it wasn’t easy to say who did it or whether it was an accidental thing or not, except that some years, a few years later, someone who was working in the federal intelligence and who had been present in Enugu when the federal troops took over the place, revealed to me that he was aware of this book and that it was the most important thing that came out of Biafra. So I just sort of realised that perhaps the destruction of the place wasn’t an accident. Somebody actually saw and took away the manuscript, the galleys, because they book was at the galley stage.

Was it banned?

No, it wasn’t banned. I issued it, and no, it’s not banned to my knowledge. Fortunately, we haven’t come to that stage of banning books in Nigeria. What we’ve done, of course, is people perhaps censor themselves. People may refuse to read a certain author because they don’t like what he is saying or decide to be totally oblivious of what a particular writer has written. But that’s not government; government hasn’t done that yet in Nigeria.

You’ve talked about the need for African writers to produce children’s books. Do you think it’s also the responsibility of other writers to produce children’s books?

I think where there is no emergency, then it’s up to the writers in that kind of a situation to decide what to do, because they don’t have this particular need, a kind of fire brigade action which I’m recommending for Africa. But I’m aware that there is a disaster area in Africa. There is really nothing for children to read. This is why our writing has to be seen as of a different order from writing, say, in the United States or Europe. We do have this almost compulsion to respond all the time to the real need in our society, to respond to social problems, problems of development, to political issues, and so what we write carries an aura which may even appear to those in other kinds of societies to be not quite right, you know, that other writers should be so serious about social problems and political problems. I constantly come across comments which suggest this in the West. This is too earnest; this is too political. But that’s the nature of writing in Africa. It can’t be anything else. Africa and the Third World, I would say. Now those who think they have a different mandate are, of course, entitled to celebrate their own mandate. But this is ours. And there’s really no way anybody can dissuade us from fulfilling what we see as a mandate of the artist in our society.

*     *     *

I’ve wondered if the progression of your titles, going from Yeats with Things Fall Apart to Eliot – is there a conscious progress in those titles, as well as in the genealogy?

Well, no, I’m not aware [of that]. I think perhaps those titles taken out of literature, out of written literature, were probably what you would expect from a young and not very experienced writer perhaps. Also, one who’s deeply moved by certain things which he has taken out of Western culture. I was really moved by Yeats, for instance. His poetry I found very congenial. I found his view of history as not something linear, but something that goes round and round, very very satisfying. And the particular poem I took Things Fall Apart from is one of the most powerful I had read at that point in time. Eliot in a different way was a revelation, you know. When I came to Eliot at the university, he wasn’t new, but almost new in the sense that people were still seriously divided with the evaluation of what his contribution was, and there was very very strong adherence – and those who weren’t quite sure what to make of this new poetry. But again, the particular poem beyond any measure was so powerful in its own right, beyond whatever one might say and, also, a poem that takes a grand view of history – and in such a short poem.

‘The Journey of the Magi’?

Yes, yes. These people journeyed far, you know, and have seen a sight which changes their lives forever. And they have come back, and that’s a great image. So I think I was at the stage in my life when I would want to associate with those kinds of images; but I think I’ve outgrown that and I’m more likely to seek my titles from the material out of which the story is made. We already have acknowledged our relationship with the West and it’s not necessary to go on doing it in that particular way.

A Man of the People named a populism for me that Anthills developed; and Nadine Gordimer in her review of Anthills mentioned the link between the end of the fourth novel and Anthills.

Well, it is a successor story, because as I was saying earlier on, I have been attempting in my career to situate each novel at a critical moment in our history; and Africa now is in the grip of military rule, so this is a full-fledged story of the military in government. It’s hinted at, almost a throwaway, in A Man of the People. I really had no notion that we would come to a situation where we would become a military country to the extent now that we’ve had more military years than civilian by far. And so the military becomes the problem, which didn’t exist in A Man of the People, but significantly the hint was dropped. We didn’t get into it; we didn’t know what it was going to mean. Even some people might have thought this is a deliverance, and many people did think when the military arrived, this is wonderful. These are wonderful boys, disciplined, well trained, you know; they’re really going to be business-like and sort out our problems and everything would be fine. Some people thought that. I never did, as a matter of fact, because I never accept any quick solution; and so even though I wasn’t dealing with the military, I simply brought in a military coup, but I was careful to talk also about the counter-coup, even in that first hint. So you had already, not just this possibility, but the possibility of its opposite and this entrenchment of one after another, because whenever there’s a coup there will be, if you allow it, a counter-coup. And the soldiers will then stay indefinitely.

What’s the relationship between what your characters say and how they say it?

Very important. How the characters speak is a measurement of their character, whether we call it a character that has qualities of mind and language and vision or the lack of all that. So the way you articulate your feelings is in keeping with that. If there is any discrepancy, then something is wrong, the character is not working. So the way that a character speaks is the communication of what I want this character to represent or that it represents. If this character develops in the course of his experience, then this character’s language and way of expressing things will also show this development. That’s what interests me… So the language is really central; I don’t regard it, really, as being separate.

Do they come to you through sound or visual images or both?

Probably both.

Are there particular physical conditions in which you prefer to write?

Well, I like lots of space, I don’t like tiny office spaces. I hate paper, you see, and one of the problems I have is a disorganised table all covered with letters, unanswered, piling up. And I move them from one side of the table to another, and from one part of the room to another. So if I have space, I will work much more often. I don’t type, I write by hand; and that’s very tedious and long, but that’s the way I write.

Have you tried the computer?

At the New York Review of Books they sat me in front of a word processor.

How did you relate to it?

I didn’t.

If you were the interviewer, what would you ask of yourself? And how would you answer?

I don’t know, you’ve asked all the questions I would ask of myself, the real art for when people are to write. I would then add that even if, let’s accept that if the end were to have no effect, I don’t really know if I would stop being a novelist. If it really came to that, and I was absolutely certain that there was no hope to act, what would I do then? I probably would be doing the same thing, because apart from everything else, it’s really freeing, you know.

    The pleasure of the text…?

Yes, I think there’s nothing better than doing what you enjoy. The world, which is killing its language… hopefully, there is something else in the world.

This interview is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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