Professor Chinua Achebe In Conversation With Iranian Journalist, Nasrin Pourhamrang
Recently, the classic African novel Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, was translated into Persian by Ali Hodavand and released in Iran. Nasrin Pourhamrang, Editor-in-Chief of Hatef Weekly Magazine interviewed the author on a wide range of topics from Art, culture and literature; politics, cultural and linguistic preservation; to the legacy of colonialism and his forthcoming book, There Was a Country-A Personal History of Biafra.
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He was raised in the large village of Ogidi, one of the first centers of Anglican missionary work in Eastern Nigeria, and is a graduate of University College, Ibadan. His early career in radio ended abruptly in 1966, when he left his post as Director of External Broadcasting in Nigeria during the national upheaval that led to the Biafran War. Achebe joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and represented Biafra on various diplomatic and fund-raising missions. He was appointed Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and began lecturing widely abroad. For over fifteen years, he was the Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. He is now the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.
Chinua Achebe has written over twenty books – novels, short stories, essays, children’s books and collections of poetry. His latest work There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra will be available from Penguin publishers in September. Achebe has received numerous honors from around the world, including the Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as honorary doctorates from more than forty colleges and universities. He is also the recipient of Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award; the Peace Prize of the German Book trade (Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels) in 2002; the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction in 2007; and the Gish Prize in 2010.
------------------------------Nasrin Pourhamrang: Technology has come to the help of the borderless world of art and literature and has eliminated the geographical frontiers. How do you feel about the fact that your novel has been translated into Persian and that Iranian readers can read some of your works for the first time and make an acquaintance of Chinua Achebe?
Chinua Achebe: I received the news of the Persian translation of Things Fall Apart with great joy! Of course, one of the goals of any writer is to connect with his or her readers. Things Fall Apart in particular, indeed all my books, have enjoyed a warm readership. I am particularly grateful for the effort of the translators of my work. They extend the reach of Art, in this case stories, to more people who may not have encountered them in the original English. I am told with this Persian translation that Things Fall Apart now exists in nearly 60 world languages! It is a wonderful blessing and I am deeply, deeply, grateful! So, the fact that readers in Iran can also read my work is very important to me.
NP: Are you familiar with Iran, its culture and civilization? Have you ever heard of the artworks of Iranian artists as well as the work of her authors and writers?
CA: I am a life-long student of Literature, History, Art and Culture. I can’t, however, claim to be an authority on Iranian history and culture. Let me also confess that I was caught looking through my Encyclopedia Britannica before this interview – my grandchildren insist that no one does that anymore!
Nevertheless, I am aware of the writings of Herodotus on the Persian Empire and the spectacular golden art work of the Achaemenid period. I have always wanted to see the ruins of Thachar palace and Persepolis; the Quajarid reliefs, paintings from Iranian antiquity and the beauty of Persian calligraphy up-close. Of course, Persian carpets, as you are well aware, are adored the world over. In university, we encountered stories about great Persian emperors like Cyrus the Great who Alexander the Great revered. Also Darius the Great…and the later emperors.
As a writer, as you might expect, I have a special interest in the ancient scrolls of Persian philosophy. I have also been taken with the medieval poetry of Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Khayyam, Farrid Attar; as well as epics such Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi. Modern Iranian classics such as The Blind Owl by Hedayat and Sin by Farrokhzad should be required reading around the world, in my opinion. On my desk is Cypress Tree by Kamin Mohammadi, who I understand, is a very talented young female writer.
Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe chats with former
South African President Nelson Mandela at a Steve
Biko memorial ceremony in Cape Town in 2002.
Biko, a leader of the Black Consciousness movement,
died after being beaten by members of Apartheid’s
police force. Photo/AFP
CA: “Peaceful co-existence between all racial and religious groups is my sincere wish for mankind.” After the ancient civilizations of Africa, there are no peoples older than those that inhabit what the British first called “the Middle East.” The great world religions come from this part of the world. Islam and Judaism are considered Abrahamic religions because they are believed to descend from God through Abraham. We would not have Christianity without Judaism and the Jewish people. The three religions share many values and tenets and beliefs. There are parts of the Quran that integrate Jewish history.
I wish to highlight lessons from Iranian history that should be championed by Iranian people in today’s precarious world. It is important for all of us to remember that the Iranians and the Jewish people have enjoyed a very long, mutually beneficial and fruitful relationship. It dates back to 727 B.C. and the deportation of the Jewish people to Media and Persian from Samaria… that is nearly three thousand years ago! Cyrus the Great, who we have mentioned in this conversation, through a decree later known as the “Cyrus Declaration” allowed the Jewish people who lived along the Babylon river to return to Judea to rebuild their lives. Many, however, who had lived in Persia for a few generations, decided to remain and formed permanent Jewish settlements of intellectuals, merchants and artisans for centuries.
Jewish scholars (something I am told can be confirmed in the Talmud – a revered Jewish book of rabbinical postulates), teach us that the environment was so tolerant for Jews in ancient Persia during this period that in a mark of their own magnanimity towards the Persian people, there was a call by Rabbis of the time for a picture of Susa the capital of Persian Kings to be engraved on the eastern gate of the temple of Jerusalem!
My appeal, therefore, is to the ancient virtue of Iranian hospitality, tolerance and peace. It is vitally important that the educated classes in Iran point out this glorious history which is central not just to the Middle East; but to all of mankind.
Finally, I would like to see the Dialogue of Civilizations proposed by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami become reality–bringing together representatives of all of the earth’s people to Tehran in an environment of freedom of creative, intellectual,cultural and religious expression.
CA: The Nigerian-Biafran war raged from 1967-1970 and claimed nearly three million lives. The conflict wiped out twenty percent of my people – the Igbo and other Easterners- who were known as Biafrans. In There Was a Country- A Personal History of Biafra, I tell three interweaving stories – using an autobiographical prism to recount two broader stories – the story of pre and post-independence Nigeria, and the story of Biafra and its aftermath.
I have been asked why it took me over 42 years to write about Biafra…The answer is that I was not ready… I had to find the right vehicle that could “carry our anguish, our sorrow… the scale of dislocation and destruction…our collective pain.” In many ways, I can say that I have been writing this book for about four decades – at least in my head and the very scribbling on paper almost as long – particularly the research, interviews, data collection etc. I discovered while working on the book, quite interestingly, that it would not be a straightforward work. I found that I had to draw upon prose, poetry, history, memoir, and politics and that they were independently holding conversations with each other – perhaps because no one genre or art form could bear the weight of the complexity of our condition.You see, the Biafran war was such a cataclysmic event that in my opinion changed the course, not only of Nigeria, which has not fully recovered from that conflict, but of all of Africa. I hope your readers pick up a copy!
Chinua Achebe Reads An Igbo Poem at the 2011
Achebe Colloquium in Rhode Island, USA
NP: It is interesting to me that your first novel, Things Fall Apart, which is also your most widely read and translated book was published by a British publisher (William Heinemann LTD). Why did you offer it to a British publisher while it depicted the difficulties and cultural contradictions which the people of your country have suffered as a result of the colonial presence of the British in the past decades?
CA: That is a timely question…… In my new book, There Was a Country-A Personal History of Biafra, I point out that when a number of us [i.e. African writers] decided to pick up the pen and make writing a career there was no African literature as we know it today. There were many that preceded my time, but still, the numbers were not sufficient. And so I had no idea when I was writing Things Fall Apart whether it would even be accepted or published. All this was new - there was nothing by which I could gauge how it was going to be received.
In those days, one had very few avenues to get published…we had very few choices. My first novel was rejected by a number of publishers before providence led it into the hands of Alan Hill at Heinemann after Donald McRae, another Heinemann executive with extensive experience in Africa encouraged Heinemann to publish the novel with a powerful recommendation: “This is the best first novel I have read since the war.” So, you can tell that I had a good beginning and was only too pleased to have Heinemann publish the work. Later, Alan Hill and James Currey and I developed the African Writers Series (I served as first General Editor for the first one hundred titles). The African Writers Series ended up publishing many of the well-known writers of the era from Africa. In many ways, without the intervention of Alan Hill and Heinemann, many of the writers from that generation may not have found a voice.
NP: Over 50 years have passed since you wrote the book Things Fall Apart. Have your viewpoints and approaches toward the presence of a colonial power in the soil of your country changed since that time? Would you make changes and edits if you were to decide to write such a novel or rewrite it now and especially reconfigure the personality and reflections of the main characters such as Okonkwo?
CA: Every thinking person, if you consider yourself a serious intellectual grows…Intellectual evolution and growth does not mean, however, that all of a sudden horrendous things in our shared history appear less appalling. It means that greater knowledge and understanding help place the best and worst of events in clearer perspective.
The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one but one of great complexity, with contradictions- good things as well as bad. We do not have enough time to outline every aspect of the colonial and post-colonial condition…So, one cannot talk about making changes or edits to a book that was written to speak to a condition that existed and continues to exist in different forms and different guises.
NP: Your books and novels are considered to be the representative of modern African literature. In your view, what are the most prominent features and attributes of the modern African literature?
CA: Yes, well…remember that there was an entire movement, a whole group of us… In There Was a Country, I discuss this in greater depth.
Things Fall Apart, I believe, now has a life of its own. I think it is now more famous than I am! (Laughter). The fifty plus translations are a big indication of its impact. I feel like a parent watching a child succeed from the sidelines. The other books have also been successful. It feels good. I am very grateful. What was the second part of the question?
NP: What are the most prominent features and attributes of the modern African literature?
CA: Yes…I have stated elsewhere that one cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African literature as one unit but as a group of associated units – in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa.
National literature in my definition is written in national languages and has a potential audience throughout the countries that speak that language. Ethnic literature, by contrast is available to a particular ethnic group within that country or sub-region.
I have often been asked why I choose to write in English rather than in my native language. That is a flawed question and a false choice, because most of us think and write in and speak both our ethnic language and the national languages we were taught in school. Context is very important…Those that ask this question fail to understand my goal and the goal of several other pioneers of modern African writing. When I picked up the pen to make writing a career, African literature did not exist as it does today…the numbers were not there. One of the consequences of colonialism was the loss of the many traditions of Africa.
Many of us engaged Africa’s past, stepping back into what can be referred to as the “era of purity” before the coming of Europe. What we discovered we put in books and that became known widely as “African Culture.” Some of us would decide to use the colonizer’s tools: his language, altered sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition. I borrowed proverbs from our culture and history, colloquialisms and African expressive language from the ancient griots, the world views, perspectives, and customs from my Igbo tradition and cosmology, and the sensibilities of everyday people.
It was important to us that a body of work be developed of the highest possible quality that would oppose the negative discourse in some of the novels we encountered. By “writing back” to the West we were attempting to reshape the dialogue between the colonized and the colonizer. Our efforts, we hoped, would broaden the world’s understanding, appreciation, and conceptualization of what literature meant when including the African voice and perspective. We were engaged in what the Nigerian literary scholar, Ode Ogede, terms “the politics of representation.”
(L-R) John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo; Chinua Achebe (center) and
Wole Soyinka – after meeting with former Nigerian Dictator, Ibrahim
Babangida (IBB), to plead for the lives of the poet General Mamman
Jiya Vatsa and sixteen other officers for staging what has since come
to be known as a phantom coup March 1986
NP: So your choice of writing in English was as much a political choice as a practical one?
CA: Yes. And this requires some further clarification…My books appear in English because it is Nigeria’s national language and the language through which I can reach the most readers, both in Nigeria and world-wide. Many of the national languages, as you are aware, are inherited languages from our colonial history that were “shoved down our throats.” Within Nigeria’s borders, there are two hundred and fifty (250) ethnic groups and distinct languages – note I said distinct languages not dialects – and this requires emphasis because Nigeria with 160 million people, exists in an area of Africa that is one of the most populous, as well as genetically, linguistically, and culturally diverse regions of our planet. A national language in such an environment despite its problems, serves both a practical as well as a logical way to communicate across this diversity, effectively.
Let’s be clear – there are areas of Africa where colonialism divided peoples… But on the whole it did bring together many peoples… And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another…The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together we can have a manageable number of languages to communicate in. Indeed we would not be able to hold this conversation if we both did not speak English. We would not be talking about the influence of Things Fall Apart and its impact without this strategic choice.
So there were many practical reasons to write in a National Language: I have already mentioned the fact that I could reach many Africans across languages, but also I could reach others across the world as well, like you. But I have also stated multiple times that it is neither necessary nor desirable for an African writer writing in English to attempt to write like a native speaker…he or she must attempt to find a way as I mentioned earlier to alter the language sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition…reinventing the language of the colonizers to tell our stories and retell our collective histories.
NP: There is, however, the problem of the disappearance of native or indigenous cultures and languages…
CA: Yes, the“beating down” of older African cultures and languages, traditions, and philosophies must be halted. We must continue to recapture, revive these endangered cultures, languages and traditions… and this will require large scale intervention…This is a real emergency, and in my opinion requires bold action.
There are two levels to this solution. Economists often talk about the micro and macro levels. On the individual level…I have already spoken about African writers engaged in the retelling of their own stories and recasting their image and the image of their people through novels, children’s books, poetry etc. There are those that write solely in their native languages. I write a lot of poetry in Igbo and edited a literary journal, Uwa NdiIgbo, for several years – for a focused Igbo readership. I have given full scale lectures to upwards of 20,000 people at a time – the two most recent The Odenigbo lecture and the Ahajioku lectures in 1999 and 2009 respectively in Igbo land in Nigeria.That kind of effort is important, but I am afraid it only scratches the surface of the problem… the sheer scale of the crisis demands big solutions, large scale intervention.
Let me let you in on a well-guarded secret…For several decades, the Achebe foundation –an organization that is now run by my son Dr. Ike Achebe and on whose board I serve as Chairman-has been working quietly on the Igbo Language project. This initiative was developed to create a language dictionary, a vast array of language tools and educational and linguistic guides, as well as a data base of phonetics, syntax, grammar etc.- to preserve Igbo, a fast disappearing language.
NP: What you describe is quite remarkable but sounds so incredibly daunting…
CA: Yes, in many ways it is…but one must not let despair crush our resolve! There is another layer of complexity that I would like to point out that makes this work so vitally important: Literacy in African traditional languages – the number of people who can read and write in a given language – is very low. This is not unique to Africa, indeed it also true in all places around the world where we find the problem of linguistic extinction. The building blocks of literary and linguistic fluency (equally important) – the alphabet, phonetics, penmanship, diction, syntax, grammar etc. must be also captured and widely taught. It is also important to state that language does not exist in a cultural vacuum…in cultural isolation. The ‘Omenani’ of a people – their belief system, customs, cosmology, values, and worldview – are channeled through a people’s language. Now, these are aspects of a people’s culture (and there are other vital components)that should be captured as well, if one is to attain the goal of preserving a people’s language effectively.
NP: How do you avoid the perception that you are imposing your will on others - something that your work has so eloquently highlighted?
CA: That is an excellent question…The Achebe foundation’s Igbo project does not and will not practice cultural imperialism. We do not impose artificial structures on the languages (a subject of my Odenigbo lecture of 1999), but will strive to preserve what is on the ground and respect linguistic dynamism. That means having the people themselves lead the way and having members of our team approach the work with humility…not with the “I am here to save the world” mentality, but with a “how can we, together, accomplish this incredibly important task!” spirit. Another way to protect indigenous cultures is to make sure you have present local representation and a diversity of workers and perspectives on the project.
A small army of experts and partners from around the globe – linguists, computer scientists, statisticians, literature professors, linguistic historians, educators, etc. – have been working on this for several decades. It is all very exciting, but it also means that no one group can exert an undue influence or pressure on the work. There is also a major push to capture what has been termed “linguistic idiosyncrasies” – speech patterns and accents that may have been lost to history. For instance, in the dictionary there is a list of several versions of a single word (in various dialects) rather than one standardized version.
We intend very soon to present our work to the local schools and provide teachers, students, parents, communities, women’s groups and others with tools to preserve, engage with, and propagate Igbo language and culture.
NP: Your work with the Igbo Language project is incredibly important. Do you intend to spread your effort to other parts of Africa, other endangered languages of the world?
CA: Yes and I hope that the funding will be available. There are many other languages that UNESCO and others have placed on the endangered list. We would like to provide a helping hand in confronting the problems facing several other African languages in much the same way we have tackled the Igbo Language project, to protect them from extinction… but we cannot do it alone. This project has been very expensive and has required personal expenditure on my part…and I do not consider myself a wealthy person. Thankfully, it has also been supported by several foundations and universities in America, but more funding is needed.
International NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and African governments should tackle this alarming problem as well. African governments have a lot of work do - there are stumbling blocks to reading that we have discovered – poor eyesight for example. There is a great need for reading glasses in the millions – it is quite alarming.
You can see from what I have described and how long it is taking in just one instance that language and cultural preservation is a painstakingly difficult process that requires an army of dedicated workers and a great deal of resources and effort. This is not a simple problem but one of great complexity. And we need well-funded, large-scale projects to tackle this problem before it is too late.
NP: You’ve experienced living in what you have termed the “poorer addresses of the planet” – in African nations – as well as in developed Western countries. What’s your evaluation of the relationship between wealth, technology and culture?
CA: In my opinion, good art can come from any culture and background. Great Art does not cluster in one part of the world or the other. We are living in interesting times. Globalization is our reality, for good or ill… and I can talk about the problems for hours! There are also good things – technology: the internet, television, emails; other tools – have made our world smaller. Many of the best artists and writers are global citizens – they move constantly. Today, there exists a significant degree of cross-fertilization of cultures, ideas, values, stories, art, music, languages – you name it, on a grand scale across the globe. Many artists might have come from former less developed colonies but now they operate on the world stage. So the times have changed.
Having said that, I still feel that before we can announce the arrival of the Great World Story, or Universal culture, we should hear all the stories… appreciate all that the world has to offer. We should hear more stories and revel in the Art from indigenous societies of Africa, Australia, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, from Native Americans, from China,India, Brazil and under-represented cultures of Latin America - countries like Ecuador, Uruguay - the Caribbean, and Oceania etc.
Artists from the developing world do no one a favor by blindly copying Western styles and forms. And let me be clear, because I am often misunderstood: I am not decreeing how a writer should write. I am not suggesting that artists should not or cannot be influenced by other artists from different parts of the world. That is welcome. I am suggesting that an artist should be true to who and what they are and should aspire to produce the best art that they can …that is when the magic in art is released. What I am calling for is an environment where freedom of creative expression is not only possible but protected… where an artist from any part of the world can acquire and develop their unique voice and then express themselves on the Great Cultural Stagein full ear shot of the world!
NP: You are now based at Brown University – an American Ivy League University, where you hold the David and Marianna Fisher University Professorship and spearhead the Achebe Colloquium. Tell me a bit more about this initiative.
CA: Yes… well the eminent Ruth Simmons, the former President of Brown recruited me to Brown in 2009, to start a new project in keeping with my life’s work. The Achebe Colloquium on Africa as it is called annually brings together an international group of scholars – Africanists, officials from African governments, the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and other organizations – for two days of intense deliberation and exchange of ideas on the importance of strengthening democracy and peace on the African continent. We have had three gatherings since its inception and discussed topics like Corruption, the leadership crisis in Africa, the Rwanda Genocide, the Crisis in the Congo, Nigeria’s myriad problems, the Arab Spring etc. This year’s conference will focus on Governance, Peace and Security in Africa.
NP: Let me end on a lighter note. Why have you attempted to write books for the children while you’ve been mostly focused on writing serious novels for the adults? How is it possible for you to shift your concentration from the complex and problematical world of adults to the simple and happy world of children? Which type of writing is more enjoyable to you?
CA: I decided to write for children as a matter of urgency and necessity. I first noticed there was a problem when I had my first child Chinelo and went to the bookshops to buy books for her. This was soon after independence from Great Britain. The books about Africa for children were, to put it mildly, not appropriate. So I decided that if I did not like the content of the children’s books, I would write my own. Now, around the same time, my friend Christopher Okigbo – Africa’s greatest modern poet – was the Cambridge University Press’ representative for the entire West African region. He also wanted to create a body of work that was based on local thought and African values for our children. Okigbo was a phenomenal publisher. He was so busy with the world and life and yet he got Cyprian Ekwensi to write a Passport of Mallam Ilia. He then came to me and said “Chinua you must write a children’s book.”
So, in many ways, Chike and the River was a mandated work by Christopher Okigbo. Okigbo had a way of “getting you to do something that you want to do.” He had a saying that the books he published must be first rate or he wouldn’t bother at all. He outlined the Cambridge University Press ‘culture’ – their expectations for a certain number of pages, for a particular moral code, for a particular standard of writing etc. When I accepted to write the book, I already had an inspiration in my life from which to draw for this particular story. I shared in Okigbo’s desire to mold young children into good citizens through good story telling. It sounds heavy, but infact, good writing has a heaviness of its own – like the moral purpose that pervades Shakespeare or the work of Charles Dickens.
So when I took my manuscript in 1966 to Okigbo, he sent it immediately to the Cambridge publishers and they said they liked it but it was too short, to which Okigbo said in good humour to me: “go and read Ekwensi’s children’s book to get a sense of what we want.” So I went back to work and increased the length of the book. It wasn’t something I was planning to get done immediately, but Okigbo gave it an urgency. We were both concerned that African literature for children as it was formulated up to that point, had numerous stories in our oral tradition, but nothing in published form, so I too understood that there was work ahead of us to do, and quickly! I later published other books for children How the Leopard Got Its Claws, The Flute, and The Drum.
I think writing is very serious work and very important. All writing for me is a privilege and a joy. I do not have a favorite genre and I have written novels (prose), poetry, children’s books, essays, non-fiction works and political commentaries.
I will leave you with a passage from my new book There Was a Country-A Personal History of Biafra, that I feel encapsulates my sentiments about writing:
"The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into familiar and occasionally unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, towards a deeper understanding of self, society, or of foreign peoples, cultures and situations."
Ms. Nasrin Pourhamrang is an Iranian journalist and the chief editor of Hatef Weekly Magazine, a local publication based in the northern Iranian province of Guilan. Interview reproduced here with permission. (August 2011)