Lesson in communal creativity

Chinua Achebe

August 14, 1998

In The Truth of Fiction (1978), the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe celebrates the possibilities inherent in an imaginative literature, born out of the nation's struggles, but freed from the limitations imposed by a self-consciously oppositional stance: "Its truth is not like the canons of unorthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience."

Characteristically, Achebe articulates as a general message a code that his own life serves to exemplify in its own enlightened progress from impassioned exploration to secure moral integrity. No other African writer has sought so consistently to make the voice and experience of Africa heard and understood at home and abroad.

Appropriately, then, it is the image of the writer as pioneer that Ezenwa-Ohaeto pursues in his biography of Achebe, tracing a life that is shaped and defined by the persistent drive to discover and explain. He begins the biography some years before Achebe's birth in an Igboland positioned at the crossroads between two cultures, one of tribal masquerades and the other of Christian missions, and he ends it in the independent Nigeria of the early 1990s, a country poised for further civil strife, at another crossroads between the familiar path of military rule and the more untested way of popular self-empowerment. Even here, Achebe's voice continues to be heard, urging the military to cede "because Nigerians (say) so".

That desire to create a context within which the people's voice may be heard is evident throughout Achebe's careers in writing, broadcasting and teaching. It is there in his vision of creativity as "mbari", not an individual creative act, but ritualistic and communal, which causes him to reject such heroic titles as "the man who invented African literature" in favour of a share in "that communal enterprise in creativity". Ezenwa-Ohaeto repeatedly reminds us how resonant and far-reaching the significance of that communal act can be.

Studious readers of Achebe's works will find little new light shed on the novels. Achebe's recognition that "We had a story to tell, we were a different people, we must tell this story" is accepted but not interrogated. More illuminating is the detail of the writer's life during the civil war, when he became a hunted man. Here was a situation, as Ezenwa-Ohaeto indicates, that demanded expression not as fiction but as poetry, "something short, intense", such as the poignant "Refugee Mother and Child".

Achebe's commitments to public and academic life are also explored. We are given a persuasive reading of a writer convinced of the validity of what Nadine Gordimer calls "the essential gesture".

It is, however, a largely public portrait. Ezenwa-Ohaeto is forced to fall back on essays and the texts of public lectures for much of his information. The result is a curiously formal portrait of a public figure, glimpsed sharply through his dealings with others but shadowy in his private self. The biographer's inability to offer Achebe's private responses to many events results in some strained and questionable statements. When, after describing the bombing of the writer's home, he concludes: "Chinua Achebe survived, although he had lost his books, some manuscripts, property and several relatives", we cannot know if there is any significance in the order in which the nouns come. Nevertheless, this is serious and painstaking work and even where it is uncritical, it is coherent and scrupulously researched.

Most significantly, the value of the book lies in the way in which it illuminates the steady progress of a life dedicated to changing "the perception of the world as far as Africans are concerned". Even though the situation in Nigeria continually circles back on itself, Ezenwa-Ohaeto leaves us with the convincing image of the author as pioneer, continuing to push the way forward. And as Achebe faces physical impediments he could not have anticipated, the hopes ring out stridently still: "To the very last moment, I think we should be pioneering, finding out more about ourselves, trying to tell our story better so that the next generation can have all the background that we can give."

Sally Dawson teaches post-colonial literature at the University of Leeds and the Open University.

Chinua Achebe: A Biography

Author - Ezenwa-Ohaeto
ISBN - 0 85255 546 6 and 545 8
Publisher - James Currey
Price - £25.00 and £12.95
Pages - 325

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