SaharaReporters Interview Exclusive: Achebe A Celebrated Storyteller, But No Father Of African Literature, Says Soyinka
By SaharaReporters, New York
Also: Why He Wished Achebe Had Not Written His Last Book; What He Told Ojukwu Before The War; Genocide, And Other Issues
.Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has described Africa’s most well known novelist, Chinua Achebe, as a storyteller who earned global celebration, adding, however, that those describing Achebe as “the father of African literature” were ignorant.
In a wide-ranging interview with SaharaReporters, Soyinka paid tribute to the late novelist who died on March 21, 2013 at 82. Soyinka, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature, also spoke on his personal relationship with Achebe and other Nigerian writers; his regrets about Achebe’s last book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra; and his attempt to talk the late Biafran leader, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, out of fighting a war. Soyinka also answered questions about Heinemann’s African Writers Series and scolded “clannish” and “opportunistic hagiographers” fixated on the fact that Achebe never won the Nobel Prize.
Below is the full text of the interview.
Question: Do you recall where or how you first learned about the death of Professor Chinua Achebe? And what was your first reaction?
Soyinka: Where I heard the news? I was on the road between Abeokuta and Lagos. Who called first – BBC or a Nigerian journalist? Can't recall now, since other calls followed fast and furious, while I was still trying to digest the news. My first reaction? Well, you know the boa constrictor – when it has just swallowed an abnormal morsel, it goes comatose, takes time off to digest. Today's global media appears indifferent to such a natural entitlement. You are expected to supply that instant response. So, if – as was the case – my first response was to be stunned, that swiftly changed to anger.
Now, why was I stunned? I suspect, mostly because I was to have been present at his last Chinua Achebe symposium just a few months earlier – together with Governor Fashola of Lagos. Something intervened and I was marooned in New York. When your last contact with someone, quite recent, is an event that centrally involves that person, you don’t expect him to embark on a permanent absence. Also, Chinua and I had been collaborating lately on one or two home crises. So, it was all supposed to be 'business as usual'. Most irrational expectations at one’s age but, that's human presumptuousness for you. So, stunned I was, primarily, then media enraged!
Question: Achebe was both a writer as well as editor for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. How would you evaluate his role in the popularization of African literature?
Soyinka: I must tell you that, at the beginning, I was very skeptical of the Heinemann's African Series. As a literary practitioner, my instinct tends towards a suspicion of “ghetto” classifications – which I did feel this was bound to be. When you run a regional venture, it becomes a junior relation to what exists. Sri Lankan literature should evolve and be recognized as literature of Sri Lanka, release after release, not entered as a series. You place the books on the market and let them take off from there. Otherwise there is the danger that you start hedging on standards. You feel compelled to bring out quantity, which might compromise on quality.
I refused to permit my works to appear in the series – to begin with. My debut took place while I was Gowon's guest in Kaduna prisons and permission to publish The Interpreters was granted in my absence. Exposure itself is not a bad thing, mind you. Accessibility. Making works available – that’s not altogether negative. Today, several scholars write their PhD theses on Onitsha Market literature. Both Chinua and Cyprian Ekwensi – not forgetting Henshaw and others – published with those enterprising houses. It was outside interests that classified them Onitsha Market Literature, not the publishers. They simply published.
All in all, the odds come down in favour of the series – which, by the way, did go through the primary phase of sloppy inclusiveness, then became more discriminating. Aig Higo – who presided some time after Chinua – himself admitted it.
Question: For any major writer, there’s the inevitable question of influence. In your view, what’s the nature of Achebe’s enduring influence and impact in African literature? And what do you foresee as his place in the canon of world literature?
Soyinka: Chinua's place in the canon of world literature? Wherever the art of the story-teller is celebrated, definitely assured.
Question: In interviews as well as in writing, Achebe brushed off the title of “father of African literature.” Yet, on his death, numerous media accounts, in Nigeria as well as elsewhere, described him as the father – even grandfather – of African literature. What do you think of that tag?
Soyinka: As you yourself have observed, Chinua himself repudiated such a tag – he did study literature after all, bagged a degree in the subject. So, it is a tag of either literary ignorance or “momentary exuberance” – ala [Nadine] Gordimer – to which we are all sometimes prone. Those who seriously believe or promote this must be asked: have you the sheerest acquaintance with the literatures of other African nations, in both indigenous and adopted colonial languages? What must the francophone, lusophone, Zulu, Xhosa, Ewe etc. etc. literary scholars and consumers think of those who persist in such a historic absurdity? It's as ridiculous as calling WS father of contemporary African drama! Or Mazisi Kunene father of African epic poetry. Or Kofi Awoonor father of African poetry. Education is lacking in most of those who pontificate.
As a short cut to such corrective, I recommend Tunde Okanlawon's scholarly tribute to Chinua in The Sun (Nigeria) of May 4th. After that, I hope those of us in the serious business of literature will be spared further embarrassment.
Let me just add that a number of foreign “African experts” have seized on this silliness with glee. It legitimizes their ignorance, their parlous knowledge, enables them to circumscribe, then adopt a patronizing approach to African literatures and creativity. Backed by centuries of their own recorded literary history, they assume the condescending posture of midwiving an infant entity. It is all rather depressing.
Question: Following Achebe’s death, you and J.P. Clarke released a joint statement. In it, you both wrote: “Of the ‘pioneer quartet’ of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe.” In your younger days as writers, would you say there was a sense among your circle of contemporaries – say, Okigbo, Achebe, Clarke, Flora Nwapa – of being engaged in a healthy rivalry for literary dominance? By the way, on the Internet, your joint statement was criticized for neglecting to mention any female writers – say, Flora Nwapa – as part of that pioneering group. Was that an oversight?
Soyinka: This question – the omission of Flora Nwapa, Mabel Segun (nee Imoukhuede) – and do include D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, so it is not just a gender affair – is related to the foregoing, and is basically legitimate. JP and I were however paying a tribute to a colleague within a rather closed circle of interaction, of which these others were not members. Finally, and most relevantly, we are language users – this means we routinely apply its techniques. We knew what we were communicating when we placed “pioneer quartet” in – yes! – inverted commas. Some of the media may have removed them; others understood their significance and left them where they belonged.
Question: Did you and Achebe have the opportunity to discuss his last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, and its critical reception? What’s your own assessment of There Was a Country? Some critics charged that the book was unduly divisive and diminished Achebe’s image as a nationally beloved writer and intellectual. Should a writer suborn his witness to considerations of fame?
Soyinka: No, Chinua and I never discussed There was a Country. Matter of fact, that aborted visit I mentioned earlier would have been my opportunity to take him on with some friendly fire at that open forum, continuing at his home over a bottle or two, aided and abetted by Christie’s [editor’s note: Achebe’s wife, Professor Christie Achebe] cooking. A stupendous life companion by the way – Christie – deserves a statue erected to her for fortitude and care – on behalf of us all. More of that will emerge, I am sure, as the tributes pour in.
Unfortunately, that chance of a last encounter was missed, so I don't really wish to comment on the work at this point. It is however a book I wish he had never written – that is, not in the way it was. There are statements in that work that I wish he had never made.
The saddest part for me was that this work was bound to give joy to sterile literary aspirants like Adewale Maja-Pearce, whose self-published book – self-respecting publishers having rejected his trash – sought to create a “tragedy” out of the relationships among the earlier named “pioneer quartet” and, with meanness aforethought, rubbish them all – WS especially. Chinua got off the lightest. A compendium of outright impudent lies, fish market gossip, unanchored attributions, trendy drivel and name dropping, this is a ghetto tract that tries to pass itself up as a product of research, and has actually succeeded in fooling at least one respectable scholar. For this reason alone, there will be more said, in another place, on that hatchet mission of an inept hustler.
Question: One of the specific issues raised constantly in recent Nigerian public “debate” has to do with whether the Igbo were indeed victims of genocide. What are your thoughts on the question?
Soyinka: The reading of most Igbo over what happened before the Civil War was indeed accurate – yes, there was only one word for it – genocide. Once the war began however, atrocities were committed by both sides, and the records are clear on that. The Igbo got the worst of it, however. That fact is indisputable. The Asaba massacre is well documented, name by victim name, and General Gowon visited personally to apologize to the leaders. The Igbo must remember, however, that they were not militarily prepared for that war. I told Ojukwu this, point blank, when I visited Biafra. Sam Aluko also revealed that he did. A number of leaders outside Biafra warned the leadership of this plain fact. Bluff is no substitute for bullets.
Question: Your joint statement with Clarke balances the “sense of depletion” you felt over Achebe’s death with “consolation in the young generation of writers to whom the baton has been passed, those who have already creatively ensured that there is no break in the continuum of the literary vocation.” How much of the young Nigerian and African writers do you find the time to read?
Soyinka: Yes, I do read much of Nigerian/African literature – as much as my time permits. My motor vehicle in Nigeria is a mobile library of Nigerian publications – you know those horrendous traffic holdups – that's where I go through some of the latest. The temptation to toss some out of the car window after the first few pages or chapter is sometimes overwhelming. That sour note conceded – and as I have repeatedly crowed – that nation of ours can boast of that one virtue – it’s bursting with literary talent! And the women seem to be at the forefront.
Question: In the joint statement issued by J. P. Clarke and you following Achebe’s death, you stated: “For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter.” There’s the impression in some quarters that Achebe, Clarke and you were virtual personal enemies. In the specific case of Achebe and you, there’s the misperception that your 1986 Nobel Prize in literature poisoned your personal relationship with a supposedly resentful Achebe. How would you describe your relationship with Achebe from the early days when you were both young writers in a world that was becoming aware of the fecund, protean phenomenon called African literature?
Soyinka: Now – all right - I feel a need to return to that question of yours – I have a feeling that I won’t be at ease with myself for having dodged it earlier – which was deliberate. If I don’t answer it, we shall all continue to be drenched in misdirected spittle. I’m referring to your question on the relationship between myself and other members of the “pioneer quartet” – JP Clark and Chinua specifically. At this stage in our lives, the surviving have a duty to smash the mouths of liars to begin with, then move to explain to those who have genuinely misread, who have failed to place incidents in their true perspective, or who simply forget that life is sometimes strange – rich but strange, and inundated with flux.
My first comment is that outsiders to literary life should be more humble and modest. They should begin by accepting that they were strangers to the ferment of the earlier sixties and seventies. It would be stupid to claim that it was all constantly harmonious, but outsiders should at least learn some humility and learn to deal with facts. Where, in any corner of the globe, do you find perfect models of creative harmony, completely devoid of friction? We all have our individual artistic temperaments as well as partisanships in creative directions. And we have strong opinions on the merits of the products of our occupation. But – “rivalry for domination,” to quote you – healthy or unhealthy? Now that is something that has been cooked up, ironically, by camp followers, the most recent of which is that ignoble character I’ve just mentioned, who was so desperate to prove the existence of such a thing that he even tried to rope JP’s wife into it, citing her as source for something I never uttered in my entire existence. I cannot think of a more unprincipled, despicable conduct. These empty, notoriety-hungry hangers-on and upstarts need to find relevance, so they concoct. No, I believe we were all too busy and self-centred – that is, focused on our individual creative grooves – to think ‘dominance’!
Writers are human. I shudder to think how I must sometimes appear to others. JP remains as irrepressible, contumacious and irascible as he was during that creative ferment of the early sixties. Christopher was ebullient. Chinua mostly hid himself away in Lagos, intervening robustly in MBARI affairs with deceptive disinclination. Perception of Chinua, JP and I as ‘personal enemies’? The word “enemy” is strong and wrong. The Civil War split up a close-knit literary coterie, of which “the quartet” formed a self-conscious core. That war engendered a number of misapprehensions. Choices were made, some regrettable, and even thus admitted by those who made them. Look, I never considered General Gowon who put me in detention my enemy, even though at the time, I was undeniably bitter at the experience, the circumstances, at the man who authorized it, and contributing individuals – including Chief Tony Enahoro who read out a fabricated confession to a gathering of national and international media.
But the war did end. New wars (some undeclared) commenced. Chief Enahoro and I would later collaborate in a political initiative – though I never warmed up to him personally, I must confess. Gowon and I, by contrast, became good friends. He attended my birthday celebrations, presided at my most recent Nigerian award – the Obafemi Awolowo Leadership Prize. JP was present, with his wife, Ebun. What does that tell you? Before that, I had hosted them in my Abeokuta den on a near full-day visit. Would Achebe, if he had been able, and was in Nigeria, have joined us? Perhaps. But he certainly wouldn’t have been present at the Awolowo Award event. That is a different kettle of fish, a matter between him and Awolowo – which, however, Chinua did let degenerate into tribal charges.
Well then, this prospect that “my 1986 Nobel Prize in literature poisoned my personal relationship with a supposedly resentful Achebe” – I think I shouldn’t dodge that either. Even if that was true – which I do not accept – it surely has dissipated over time. For heaven’s sake, over twenty-five people have taken the prize since then! The problem remains with those vicarious laureates who feel personally deprived, and thus refuse to let go. Chinua’s death was an opportunity to prise open that scab all over again. But they’ve now gone too far with certain posturings and should be firmly called to order, and silenced – in the name of decency.
I refer to that incorrigible sect – no other word for it – some leaders of which threatened Buchi Emecheta early in her career – that she had no business engaging in the novel, since this was Chinua’s special preserve! Incredible? Buchi virtually flew to me for protection – read her own account of that traumatizing experience. It is a Nigerian disease. Nigerians need to be purged of a certain kind of arrogance of expectations, of demand, of self-attribution, of a spurious sense and assertion of entitlement. It goes beyond art and literature. It covers all aspects of interaction with others. Wherever you witness a case of ‘It’s MINE, and no other’s’, ‘it’s OURS, not theirs’, at various levels of vicarious ownership, such aggressive voices, ninety percent of the time, are bound to be Nigerians. This is a syndrome I have had cause to confront defensively with hundreds of Africans and non-Africans. It is what plagues Nigeria at the moment – it’s MY/OUR turn to rule, and if I/WE cannot, we shall lay waste the terrain. Truth is, predictably, part of the collateral damage on that terrain.
Yes, these are the ones who, to co-opt your phrasing, “diminished (and still diminish) Chinua’s image”. In the main, they are, ironically, his assiduous – but basically opportunistic – hagiographers – especially of a clannish, cabalistic temperament. Chinua – we have to be frank here – also did not help matters. He did make one rather unfortunate statement that brought down the hornet’s nest on his head, something like: “The fact that Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize does not make him the Asiwaju (Leader) of African literature”. I forget now what provoked that statement. Certainly it could not be traced to any such pretensions on my part. I only recollect that it was in the heat of some controversy – on a national issue, I think.
But let us place this in context. Spats between writers, artists, musicians, scientists, even architects and scientific innovators etc. are notorious. They are usually short-lived – though some have been known to last a life-time. This particular episode was at least twenty years ago. Unfortunately some of Chinua’s cohorts decided that they had a mission to prosecute a matter regarding which they lacked any vestige of understanding or competence or indeed any real interest. It is however a life crutch for them and they cannot let go.
What they are doing now – and I urge them to end it shame-facedly – is to confine Chinua’s achievement space into a bunker over which hangs an unlit lamp labeled “Nobel”. Is this what the literary enterprise is about? Was it the Nobel that spurred a young writer, stung by Eurocentric portrayal of African reality, to put pen to paper and produce Things Fall Apart? This conduct is gross disservice to Chinua Achebe and disrespectful of the life-engrossing occupation known as literature. How did creative valuation descend to such banality? Do these people know what they’re doing – they are inscribing Chinua’s epitaph in the negative mode of thwarted expectations. I find that disgusting.
China, with her vast population, history, culture – arts and literature – celebrated her first Nobel Prize in Literature only last year. Yet I have been teaching Chinese literature on and off – within Comparative literary studies – for over forty years. Am I being instructed now that those writers needed recognition by the Nobel for me to open such literary windows to my students? Do these strident, cacophonous Nigerians know how much literature – and of durable quality – radiates the world?
Let me add this teacher complaint: far too many Nigerians – students of literature most perniciously – are being programmed to have no other comparative literary structure lodged in their mental scope than WS vs. CA. Such crass limitation is being pitted against the knowledgeable who, often wearily, but obedient to sheer intellectual doggedness, feel that they owe a duty to stop the march of confident ignorance. For me personally, it is galling to have everything reduced to the Nigerian enclave where, to make matters even more acute, there are supposedly only those two. It makes me squirm. I teach the damned subject – literature – after all. I do know something about it.
So let me now speak as a teacher. It is high time these illiterates were openly instructed that Achebe and Soyinka inhabit different literary planets, each in its own orbit. If you really seek to encounter – and dialogue with – Chinua Achebe in his rightful orbit, then move out of the Nigerian entrapment and explore those circuits coursed by the likes of Hemingway. Or Maryse Conde. Or Salman Rushdie. Think Edouard Glissant. Think Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Think Earl Lovelace. Think Jose Saramago. Think Bessie Head. Think Syl Cheney-Coker, Yambo Ouologuem, Nadine Gordimer. Think Patrick Chamoiseau. Think Toni Morrison. Think Hamidou Kane. Think Shahrnush Parsipur. Think Tahar Ben Jelloun. Think Naguib Mahfouz – and so on and on along those orbits in the galaxy of fiction writers. In the meantime, let us quit this indecent exercise of fatuous plaints, including raising hopes, even now, with talk of “posthumous” conferment, when you know damned well that the Nobel committee does not indulge in such tradition. It has gone beyond ‘sickening’. It is obscene and irreverent. It desecrates memory. The nation can do without these hyper-active jingoists. Can you believe the kind of letters I receive? Here is one beauty – let me quote:
“I told these people, leave it to Wole Soyinka - he will do what is right. We hear Ben Okri, Nuruddin Farah, even Chimamanda Adichie are being nominated. This is mind-boggling. Who are they? Chinua can still be awarded the prize, even posthumously. We know you will intervene to put those upstarts in their place. I’ve assured people you will do what is right.”
Alfred Nobel regretted that his invention, dynamite, was converted to degrading use, hence his creation of the Nobel Prize, as the humanist counter to the destructive power of his genius. If he thought that dynamite was eviscerating in its effects, he should try some of the gut-wrenching concoctions of Nigerian pontificators. Please, let these people know that I am not even a member of Alfred’s Academy that decides such matters. As a ‘club member,’ however, I can nominate, and it is no business of literary ignoramuses whom, if any, I do nominate. My literary tastes are eclectic, sustainable, and unapologetic. Fortunately, thousands of such nominations – from simply partisan to impeccably informed – pour in annually from all corners of the globe to that cold corner of the world called Sweden. Humiliating as this must be for many who carry that disfiguring hunch, the national ego, on their backs, Nigeria is not the centre of the Swedish electors’ world, nor of the African continent, nor of the black world, nor of the rest of the world for that matter. In fact, right now, Nigeria is not the centre of anything but global chagrin.
Chinua is entitled to better than being escorted to his grave with that monotonous, hypocritical aria of deprivation’s lament, orchestrated by those who, as we say in my part of the world, “dye their mourning weeds a deeper indigo than those of the bereaved”. He deserves his peace. Me too! And right now, not posthumously.
It is not all bleakness and aggravation however – I have probably given that impression, but the stridency of cluelessness, sometimes willful, has reached the heights of impiety. Vicarious appropriation is undignified, and it runs counter to the national pride it ostensibly promotes. Other voices are being drowned, or placed in a false position, who value and express the sensibilities between, respect the subtle threads that sustain, writers, even in their different orbits. My parting tribute to Chinua will therefore take the form of the long poem I wrote to him when he turned seventy, after my participation in the celebrations at Bard College. I plan for it to be published on the day of his funeral – my way of taunting death, by pursuing that cultural, creative, even political communion that unites all writers with a decided vision of the possible – and even beyond the grave.