Story-teller torn from his roots

July 16, 1999

Chinua Achebe, author of 'the most cited book in African literature', tells Jennifer Wallace of life in exile

Chinua Achebe dreams of home every day. "I can't imagine a situation in which Nigeria would cease to feel like home," he says. "Our exiles are different from other exiles in this respect. When Nigerians get together, they talk about nothing else. Even when they are not together, in little families, this is what they are occupied with."

Achebe's "little family" - he and his wife Christie - spend their days in a clapboard bungalow on the campus of Bard College, 100 miles north of New York City. The walls are covered with Achebe's awards, and his study displays a large map of Africa. Yet despite these attempts to make himself feel at home, his house, set among trees full of chipmunks, seems very American.

Achebe's current - and second - exile began in 1990 when he suffered a terrible motor accident. Nigerian hospitals were unable to deal with his injuries, so he was flown to Britain. After six months he moved to the United States, to a professorship in literature at Bard College but also - he is still paralysed - to be near excellent medical care. He expected to stay only briefly while convalescing, but Nigeria's political situation began to deteriorate.

The country's leader since 1985, Ibrahim Babangida, kept postponing a return to civilian rule but finally allowed a democratic election in 1993. Although Moshood Abiola was elected by popular vote, the election was annulled and a weak interim government set up. That was overturned in a military coup led by General Sani Abacha and Abiola was imprisoned. Abacha - described by Nigerian Wole Soyinka as "a gloating sadist and self-avowed killer" - instigated the harshest regime Nigeria had known, arresting and executing many leading figures, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. Most of the country's intellectuals fled, and Nigeria's key institutions were left barely functioning.

"I don't like to call myself an exile in the sense it means for many people," Achebe says. "But at the same time, Nigeria would be very difficult for me to live in now with the hospitals broken down and so on." Exile is particularly difficult for Achebe because his writing is so rooted in the African community. He wrote his first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958, because he felt that nobody was describing the Africa he knew. "I was aware that my real story had not been told. I had read novels, but nothing I saw was about me." This may have been because Achebe's education was based on a British curriculum; his geography lessons included the Vale of Evesham.

Things Fall Apart is about a community under threat. It focuses on the fate of Okonkwo, a leader of the Igbo tribe who possesses all the virtues of strength and courage traditionally admired by his people but who cannot adjust to changes in customs - particularly those brought about by the arrival of the first white man. Christian missionaries cause division in the society, as some Igbo people, such as Okonkwo's son, convert to the new religion while others resist. Okonkwo feels that he is carrying his people with him, as he always has done, when he kills a white man. But he quickly discovers that his tribe has moved on and that, in his mad act of killing, he has isolated himself from his community for ever.

Unable to live with the shame, he commits suicide. His hanging body is cut down from the tree by white men as his own people cannot touch it. "It is an abomination for a man to take his own life," one of the characters explains to the white district commissioner. "His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it."

Achebe's depiction of Okonkwo, caught between two worlds, was probably inspired by his childhood. He grew up in a Christian household but was surrounded by more traditional neighbours. His parents were pioneer Christians and tried to control their children's contact with those they considered heathen. But Achebe became fascinated by his people's traditional stories. "I was perfectly certain that I was going to heaven, but the masquerades, the stories - I liked those as well. They were not offered as part of my education. So I found myself sneaking out to listen to them, and I discovered that the storytellers weren't very different from me," he remembers.

The story of Okonkwo, published just before Nigerian independence, was an instant success. At last African people felt they had their own account of their lives. BBC World Service journalist Elizabeth Ohene, who was brought up in Ghana, says: "It was supposed to be literature - it was a school set book in Ghana - and yet I could relate to it immediately." Even now, according to Ato Quayson, director of the African Studies Centre at Cambridge University, Things Fall Apart is "the most cited book in African literature".

The book also brought African literature to international attention. Published by Heinemann, it inaugurated a new series of African writing for which Achebe went on to become general editor, playing a seminal role in discovering African authors. The novel exerts a powerful pull on countries confronting their colonial past. School children in Korea have recently written to Achebe, telling him of the novel's significance for them when they think of their colonisation by Japan. "Stories have a way to go where they want to go," he muses.

Achebe's 1966 novel, A Man of the People, moved closer to the present, depicting a newly independent imaginary African country in the 1960s. African politics, represented in the novel by the leader Nanga, are corrupt and chaotic; order is established at the end only through a military coup. Achebe's novel was published in January, a few days before the attempted military coup of the idealistic Major Nzeogwu in Nigeria.

After the second military coup of that year, which established the harsh regime of Yakubu Gowon, dedicated to crushing eastern Nigerians, Achebe found himself hunted by soldiers. Because of the ending of A Man of the People, he was thought to have been close to Nzeogwu. He smuggled his way out of Nigeria's capital, Lagos, to his home region of eastern Nigeria.

When, in 1967, eastern Nigeria claimed its independence as the Republic of Biafra, Achebe played a key part in the new regime, working at the ministry of information. The war between Biafra and Nigeria touched him directly. Nigerian planes bombed his house, and his best friend, Christopher Okigbo, who had helped him set up the Institute of African Studies at what became the University of Biafra, was killed. "The civil war was a very traumatic experience for me," he says. "It was violent and bloody, and we were absolutely stunned."

After Biafra's defeat in 1970, Achebe returned to his post at the Institute for African Studies in Nsukka, but found that those who had been involved in Biafra were being covertly punished. His request for a passport was repeatedly refused and his freedom curtailed. When the University of Massachusetts invited him in 1972 to take a visiting professorship, he decided to leave. He spent four years in the US, during which he says he felt too sad and disorganised to write. Only after General Gowon's regime was overturned by another military coup did he think about returning, accepting a chair at the University of Nigeria in 1976.

Imaginative writing is crucial to the identity and prosperity of any people, Achebe believes. "It's important that we understand how our ancestors dreamed the world," he says. "Even when the practices have gone, there are still remnants of the thought behind it that are active in our lives and we do not realise it. Finding stories is not only to show that you were kings in the past. You might find things that will explain why you haven't done as well as you should have, and that's as valuable."

Achebe is working on a novel, his first since Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987. Just as during his last period of exile, he is finding it difficult to write when he is living so far away from his native land. So is he thinking of returning, especially now in the new democratic era of Olusegin Obasanjo's government, sworn in six weeks ago. "Many people want me to come back," Achebe says. "They understand why I am not there. But there is almost a plea to come back, and this is something I cannot really ignore." Hedging his bets - but perhaps soon he will return.

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