Originally published in The Guardian Newspaper
Chinua Achebe, 'the father of modern African literature', talks to Ed Pilkington about inventing a new language, his years in exile from his beloved Nigeria - and why he changed his name from Albert
By rights I should be talking to Chinua Achebe in Ogidi, his home town in Nigeria. He should be telling me about his efforts as chairman of the village council to build schools, improve the water and bring health to the people. We should be talking about whether and when the rains will come, and how the yam harvest is doing this year.
Instead, we are sitting in a bungalow on the banks of the Hudson, upriver from New York, surrounded by clapboard houses, rolling green hills and cows chewing the cud. The nearest restaurants have names such as Rose's Kitchen, Pat's Place and Hickory. As I arrive, Achebe is sitting at his desk at the window overlooking a gravel front drive.
It seems a strange place to find the writer credited above all others with inventing the modern African novel. Nadine Gordimer, one of the many writers indebted to Achebe for the ground that he broke, described him last month as the "father of modern African literature". She was one of the judges who awarded Achebe, now 76, this year's Man Booker international prize, given every two years for an exceptional lifetime's achievement. A writer as driven and as political as Achebe neither needs nor solicits such recognition, yet he is grateful to receive it.
"I'm a practised writer now," he says, as we start to talk in his small, homely sitting room. "But when I began I had no idea what this was going to be. I just knew that there was something inside me that wanted me to tell who I was, and that would have come out even if I didn't want it."
That "something inside me" was his first, and enduringly monumental, novel, Things Fall Apart. Rereading it before I see Achebe, I find the book has lost none of its power to shock. Set in the 1890s, the first two-thirds of the story steeps you in the ancient ways of Achebe's Igbo people, with their several gods, elaborate ceremonies and hierarchies, and the tough but effective policing mechanisms that force Okonkwo, the subject of the book, into exile for accidentally killing a boy.
And then comes the memorable line: "During the last planting season a white man had appeared in their clan." The white missionaries, and the terrible destruction they brought, had arrived.
Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart turned the west's perception of Africa on its head - a perception that until then had been based solely on the views of white colonialists, views that were at best anthropological, at worst, to adopt Achebe's famous savaging of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, "thoroughgoingly racist". As research for his 1975 essay on the Conrad book, Image of Africa, Achebe counted all the words spoken in Heart of Darkness by Africans themselves. "There were six!" he tells me, laughing luxuriously. The rest of the time Conrad's Africans merely make animal noises, he says, or shriek a lot.
By contrast, Things Fall Apart was, Achebe says now, "A story that only someone who went through it could be trusted to give. It was insisting to be told by the owner of the story, not by others, no matter how well meaning or competent."
And it was not just the ownership of the story that was revolutionary - the language was too. Achebe's novels are part standard English, part pidgin, part language of folklore and proverb. His writing crackles with vivid, universal and yet deeply African images. "Living fire begets cold, impotent ash"; "If you want to get at the root of murder ... look for the blacksmith who made the matchet". "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly," he writes in Things Fall Apart, "and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."
Achebe says he is particularly pleased that the Booker judges recognised the way in which he created a new language for Things Fall Apart. "The story is so different from what I had read as a child; I knew I couldn't write like Dickens or Conrad. My story would not accept that. So you had to make an English that was new. Whether it was going to work or not, I couldn't tell."
If bald sales statistics are any measure, it did work - handsomely. Things Fall Apart has sold more than 10m copies and has been translated into 50 languages. More importantly, it spawned a whole generation of African writers who emulated its linguistic ingenuity and political vision. In the same week as Achebe won the Booker, one of his great admirers, fellow Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, took the Orange prize for Half of a Yellow Sun.
When he was first writing Things Fall Apart, Achebe intended the novel to tell the story of three generations: the traditional villager Okonkwo, his son Nwoye (who is converted to Christianity by the missionaries), and Okonkwo's grandson Obi, who is sent to England to study. When Achebe realised that the novel was becoming too thinly stretched, he planned to break it up into three parts. The trilogy would relate the colonial destruction of Africa in three acts: the land as it was before the white man, the arrival of the missionaries, and finally the internalisation by Africans of colonial ways. It would also tell Achebe's own story, with Okonkwo representing his grandparents, Nwoye his Christian convert parents, and the English-educated Obi being Achebe himself.
In the end, part one became Things Fall Apart and his next novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), following Obi to London, was part three of the story. The middle volume remains unwritten. Why is that, I ask him?
"When I came to write it I found I didn't want to do it. This is the generation who accepted the missionaries. That seemed to me requiring some explanation. Why would anybody leave his father's belief and go for some foreign religion?"
Achebe's own parents lived the life of converts, changing their names to Isaiah and Janet and Christening him Albert. Born in 1930, he lived a childhood full of the Bible and hymns, and he learned English from the age of eight. Later, he was sent to the University of London - located in the Nigerian city of Ibadan (it is now called Ibadan university).
Through his early years this goodly Christianity was life as he assumed it should be. Villagers in Ogidi who remained aloof from the church were considered "lost" by his family. "We called them the people of nothing," says Achebe.
But as he grew older he puzzled over the fact that others, especially an uncle who resisted conversion, were leading different lives. They would hold "heathen" celebrations and offer food to "idols", as his parents would have it. What began for the young Achebe as curiosity grew into bemusement and finally anger about the lies that he had been told as a child.
"The difference between what I had been told and what I saw was very powerful. The language the church people used - of 'idolisation' - was in itself an assault. And it hasn't changed. Missionaries today still believe they are going to save lost souls. And it is a great lie."
The paradox, I suggest, is that if it weren't for the missionary influence, for that very English education, he would not be the writer he is today. "Our lives were nothing but paradoxes," he replies.
The dawning realisation that his childhood world was founded upon a lie provided the rocket fuel that propelled him into writing, and made him swap the name Albert for the local name Chinua. In his more recent work he has turned the focus of that anger from the colonial intruder on to the African interloper - the corrupt and corrupted leaders who inherited the mantle of power from the white man and went on to abuse the hopes generated by independence.
In A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) he tears into the greed, egomania, lust and laziness of post-independence African rulers, giving us a chronicle of Nigeria's descent into the autocratic rule under which it still labours today. In those books, and in a stream of non-fiction essays, he has been a consistent irritant to the powerful.
And he has paid the price. His literary life has been punctuated by threats and periods of semi-exile. The most bizarre incident arose out of his depiction of a fictional coup in A Man of the People. At the time west Africa was a stranger to military revolts, but he decided to include a coup in the story, he says now, simply to "frighten my readers. I wanted to scare the hell out of those politicians who were misbehaving so badly".
On the Friday before the book was published, he was attending a meeting of writers in Lagos when a friend who had just read the proofs of the novel burst in, exclaiming: "Chinua, you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened, except the coup."
The next morning, however, Nigeria's first military coup was set in train. On the Sunday Achebe's British editors contacted him via the embassy to check he was OK and to see if he wanted to go ahead with publication. Yes, he said, and the novel went public on the Monday.
The coincidence of that fictional description and the real-life coup that was led by plotters from his own Igbo people put him under suspicion. Drunken soldiers came by his office looking for him. Eventually, he fled to his home in Igboland. In the Biafran civil war that followed, he acted as part-diplomat, part-proselytiser, making the case for the short-lived Biafran republic. He captured the tragedy of the war, and the famine that it prompted, in poetry. He wrote of the starving boy with "large sunken eyes stricken past boredom to a flat unrecognising glueyiness".
Meanwhile his political activities were monitored closely from the north - "I was not popular with the military," he says with admirable understatement - and in the end he was forced to spend periods in America, where he took up university teaching.
More recently, he has had to live in America once again, but for very different reasons. In 1990 he was driving between Ogidi, where he had just been made chairman of the village council, and Lagos, when his car crashed. Achebe was knocked unconscious. "Apparently the car rolled over and over and was virtually lying on top of me. My son couldn't do anything himself so he ran to the road and shouted 'This is Chinua Achebe' at people to make them stop. Crowds came to lift the vehicle off me."
He spent six months in a hospital in London. "It changed my life," he says, unnecessarily - the impact of that crash is visible. Achebe sits in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. He says he feels "continuous, curious" pain and as we talk he rubs his knees from time to time as though trying in vain to soothe them.
The fact that he cannot sit for long periods makes it difficult for him to do anything quickly, and he regrets that his work has suffered. His desk is covered in unfinished essays and manuscripts, or in his peculiarly precise diction: "There is a need for a number of things on my table to move to the finish spot."
Two things stand out among that pile of unfinished business: a new novel that he says is well under way, though he won't talk about its narrative. And a translation of Things Fall Apart into his mother tongue - remarkably it has yet to appear in his Igbo dialect.
The other huge impact of the crash is simply his location. He came to the US after London in search of the best specialist treatment. He teaches at Bard college in New York state, but says he is really here because of the medical care he is getting. He intended to stay for a year, but 15 years later there is still no end in sight for his medical exile.
I ask him what he misses most about Nigeria. "I miss having to be told how things are there. When the old people came and told me they wanted me to be chairman of the council of my village I had to respond. That's what I intended - to strive to develop, to build schools and hospitals ..."
The accident has left him weakened, and the longer we talk, the softer his voice becomes. When I come to transcribe the recording of our conversation, I have to turn the volume up.
Achebe is not lonely: he has his family with him by the Hudson. There are African masks and ivory carvings all around the room. But you can almost touch his longing to be back home.
Someone asked him recently, he says, to write about his favourite place. It got him thinking about why he loves Ogidi so much when it has no great mountain or cathedral and even the River Niger is miles away. So what is it that explains this deep longing?
His voice rallies just a little as he replies: "I can't really explain it. But for me this place, this village, is significant. It is where I formed my identity".