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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chinua Achebe and the Damnation of Faint Praise

Posted by Smurov, Guest Author, on 02/27/08 at 12:12 PM

A few weeks back, at Critical Mass, there was an interesting interview with Norman Rush, an author primarily known for writing about his time in the Peace Corps in Botswana (hat tip). I won’t comment on Rush himself, but something he said caught my eye. After the interviewer asks him if he was influenced by any African writers--and good for Scott Esposito for asking a question that wouldn’t occur to nine tenths of critics in his place--Rush namedrops the usual troika (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and moves on. But he first places himself in his place as a white writer, noting that “No non-African could do what Achebe has done.”

Maybe. Probably. Hell, almost certainly. But there’s a backhanded-ness to this compliment that makes me nervous. See, here’s the thing: Achebe is just a great writer, full stop. I’m not sure anyone could do what he did; I may be biased, but to me he’s almost without peer, by any criteria. And while this may seem like a small point, like complaining that a genuine compliment just isn’t enough of a compliment, there’s a larger point of which it’s in service, a larger issue of who gets to “know” what sorts of knowledges and why. It diminishes his achievement to pretend that white writers don’t write about the things he wrote about, because if Rush’s novels (or any post-war white novelist) had to be placed next to Achebe’s, we might have to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that the best practitioner of English literature might be an African.

I am certainly not suggesting we treat novel-writing like a foot race; it’s not, but the lengths gone to prevent such a side by side comparison merits attention in its own regard. There certainly are those who implicitly treat literature as a kind of olympic sport, and for “our” writers to share the same field with “their” writers (whoever “we” are) would be as calamitous as for a black pitcher to throw to a white batter in baseball’s pre-Jackie Robinson era. He might strike him out, after all (or, more complexly, he might not). So, as a result, we get separate events for “race” or “cultural” writers, distinct and cordoned off from the more universal concerns of real writers. And, as widely read as Achebe is, it always irks me that people so rarely revere him in the way that I think he should be revered. I may seem to be making the banal request that people should revere him more, I’m not, not really; I’m saying we should revere him better, doing so for better reasons.

Things Fall Apart, for example, is a very deceptively simple book, and this apparent simplicity deceives (I suspect) the vast majority of his readers, from those who read it as simple anthropology to those who never trace out the use of Yeats in the title. Okonkwo may be a man who never let thinking get in the way of whatever he wanted to do, but his puppet-master’s seemingly uncrafted and naïve narration is as tightly plotted and structured as the Greek dramaturgy it both tropes on and exceeds (something Soyinka has done more ostentatiously, but not necessarily as well). And while it may seem to be the simple story of a man and his destiny, a simply redemptive vision of a romantic lifestyle wiped out by colonialism and a condemnation of the colonialists that did it, part of its magnificence as a piece of writing is that it manages to be all of this without disturbing its ability to also be about the ways that culture gets politicized, the way that traditionalism manages to express (and, dare I say, sublate) deeper and less coherent political anxieties and desires, particularly different modes of gender practice. And then it’s a novel which engages these conflicting desires with a certain magnificent disdain for resolving them, or moralizing on them; in fact, so much of what Okonkwo does is gets moralized upon in such spectacularly unsuccessful ways that one can (I would argue) understand Okonkwo only by deferring judgment of him, like a particle in a parable on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The plot hinges on why Okonkwo kills his stepson, but that act is also the novel’s black box; one can offer any number of explanations for Okonkwo’s act (and the consequences which it provokes in the style of Greek tragedy), but the novel does everything in its power to illustrate the ultimate unknowability of that origination, until one is left only to reflect on the ways that Okonkwo’s unknowability gets known, the ways that fictive truths take the place of a true truth eternally deferred. Precisely because the author refuses to authoritatively know Okonkwo, the novel has a profound and complex double-life, a narrative given shape by the absence at its center.

Anyway. The real point buried back there is that Achebe is not, in a “literary” sense, anything but a peer of “great” writers. And of course Norman Rush didn’t say that. But there is, hidden in the nest of assumptions out of which his aside slithered, a particular claim for the proper spheres inhabited by white writers and the proper sphere inhabited by Africans: what an African knows, a non-African cannot, and vice versa. To say that only an African could write what Achebe wrote is to excuse himself for not having done so, and to claim his own little piece of the rock, the white-in-Africa novel.

Not many people waste their breath in asserting that only a white person could really understand what it means to be white, and rightly. I think of the mystifications of the title character in Esk’ia Mphaphlele’s “Mrs. Plum” as an example of how it can be through the eyes of non-white characters (and authors) that “whiteness” gets expressed in all its glory. Sometimes those who live outside your world understand you in a way you don’t understand yourself, and this is as important a part of identity as the kind of claims made by any “race” writer. And it seems to me to be largely a white fiction that only Africans can understand Africa, in many case a means of deferring the necessity to even try, and Rush’s space-clearing gesture for himself also awards himself a kind of white privilege within “African letters”: happy to be shielded from competition, he is awarded a tiny, but comfortable corner in which to sit. Rush is as much a race writer in this sense as Achebe. But while Achebe was canny enough to realize that non-Africans would be quick to extend him the benefit of the doubt with regards to his subject (being African, he must surely know Africans), he was also well aware that he hardly deserved that credit, and made something of that realization. What, after all, did a Christian-educated Nigerian of the mid-twentieth century really know about the inner life of a late nineteenth century Igbo warrior, a man who never lived to hear the word Nigeria? So instead of eliding that knowledge, he built a magnificent literary edifice on top of it. Instead of donning the victory wreath he was awarded for a game he preferred not to play, he proclaimed that the center was hollow, and would not hold.

From the Washington Post on March 9th: “No European writer could have written ‘Things Fall Apart,’ “ says Ernest Emenyonu, who chairs the department of Africana studies at the University of Michigan at Flint. It was “a new kind of writing.”


What, after all, did a Christian-educated Nigerian of the mid-twentieth century really know about the inner life of a late nineteenth century Igbo warrior, a man who never lived to hear the word Nigeria?

I like where you mention that Achebe’s novel in fact describes an experience that really had little to do with Achebe’s own life experience. If anything, the story of Okonkwo might be thought of as approximating (roughly) the experience of his grandparents’ generation. (And that is harder to do than one might think...)

In short, I agree with you that it’s a mistake to think that Achebe is a simple native informant.

By Amardeep Singh on 02/28/08 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And then it’s a novel which engages these conflicting desires with a certain magnificent disdain for resolving them, or moralizing on them..."

This is what I love about the novel. Teaching it to undergraduates, my greatest problem is suggesting that they refrain from the easy moralizing, an almost impossible task.

By jd on 02/29/08 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been pleased to see that high schools are beginning to include Achebe.  It might be a result of feel-good multicultism, but Achebe is at least a world-class writer.  If only I could say the same for his contemporary, William Golding, and the over-taught *Lord of the Flies*.

By on 02/29/08 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with jd that its almost impossible to keep students from moralizing, or, to put it another way, get them to grapple with the fact that Okonkwo is presented as neither hero nor anti-hero.  This was what made it impossible for me to get past my rudimentary gender critique and understand what Achebe was doing the first couple times that I read Things fall Apart lo these many years ago in highschool.
To Smurov’s point about the difficulty of having the book treated as a “native informant,” this is something that I worry about in terms of teaching novels in the context of a history course.  I tend not to teach Things Fall Apart mostly because I figure that students are reading it elsewhere (and because it’s actually set in the proto-colonial period of mid-nineteenth century southeastern Nigeria, which just confuses students trying to assimilate the survey), but its naturalism, and what some have criticized as its anthropological explanatory style, does lend itself to a tranparent reading by students.  Ngugi’s fiction, by contrast, or some of Achebe’s later writing, call attention to their literaryness, their symbolic and metaphorical construction.

By on 03/02/08 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How do you feel about the fact that people aren’t actually engaging with the critique of white domination so obviously present in the quote you chose to discuss which sits at the center of your post?

I haven’t read the book. I’ve seen is mentioned loads of times. I’ll be reading it, now.

I think what you’ve written about whiteness and the space of uniqueness it carves for itself as a way of maintaining white privilege specifically in literary circles, I dare say, even in blogging circles, is so obvious, so ubiquitous a way of moving and dealing, that I’m sure many people take it for granted and simultaneously erase any knowledge of this process.

There is a literary apartheid system you’re describing that many understand is for the protection of us writers of color. Of course we’d want to be recognized in a racialized context and not have to compete on an open field with white writers.

There is a conflation of white privilege with white writers actually being better practitioners of the art than writers of colour. In actuality the artificial separation, as I think you point out, actually serves to protect the egos and reputations of white writers whose unearned privileges often hobble the development of their technique and ideas.

Which, as you’ve also pointed out, means that the work of white writers, including the writer you mentioned up above (rush? i don’t know his work), cordoned off ofttimes in their own minds in such a protectionist fashion that speaks to a fairly entrenched form of informal yet systemically supported affirmative action, doesn’t really pass muster when placed alongside even the most deceptively simple works penned by important people of colour authors, specifically, since you were talking specifics, African writers like Achebe.

Thanks for this. I’m hoping more responses come your way. Your post was short (I wanted more) but completely tight and well written.

By darkdaughta on 03/04/08 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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