Chinua Achebe and the Importance of Writing Back
The pen is mightier than the sword. With one sentence of your sharp
pen you can demolish anybody
The Importance of Writing in the Modern World
Writing has perhaps never carried such a great importance as it does in the modern World, particularly in relation to truth, power and domination. The Pen, as the police superintendent in Chinua Achebes novel Anthills of the Savannah claims, possesses a great might, and can be used to demolish, suppress, dominate and determine the lives of millions of people, very few of whom will be aware of the power and employment of the weapon being used against them. Domination of people no longer requires military oppression; instead, the ability to control and direct a globally accepted discourse on humanity seems to have become a much more discreet, yet powerful strategy to maintain power.
The growth in the importance of writing is undoubtedly one of the consequences of the post-modern argument concerning the subjectivity of truth, an argument that aims to destroy the traditional central tenets upon which accepted beliefs have been based. The search for an indisputable moral truth has long since been abandoned by thinkers in the modern world, and the analytical focus seems to have switched to determining the conditions under which ideas and concepts become accepted as truth in particular contexts. This new concept of truth has therefore become almost a prize in a multi-sided worldwide power struggle, and it is a prize that enables the winner to maintain social, cultural, economic and political hegemony throughout the world.
Probably the leading thinker in the field of truth and power must be French philosopher and sociologist, Michel Foucault, a writer who focused much of his attention on the connections between truth and power and the manipulation of the truth by those in power in order to maintain dominance over individuals in society. In an interview conducted during the 1970s, Foucault summarized his views concerning the relationship between truth and power in the following way,
truth isnt outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions
would repay further study, truth isnt the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor
the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world:
it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its general politics of truth: that is, the types of discourse which
it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.
Truth therefore, is flexible and is able to be manipulated when and where it is deemed necessary, thus placing an enormous amount of power in the hands of those in the position to manipulate accepted discourse.
Foucault refers to the idea that each society has its regime of truth, and of course, it is difficult to deny the accuracy of his observation: after all, the most fundamental and undeniable truth for a Muslim in Afghanistan, that being the fact that there is only one God, would be ridiculed by million across a politically created border with India. As every society naturally benefits from the spreading of its particular version of the truth, a worldwide discourse war becomes inevitable, each society attempting to force the acceptance of its own truths onto other societies. This in fact, is the whole theoretical principle of what is referred to as writing back, an attempt by previously suppressed peoples to reveal their own particular truth to the world.
Edward Saids masterful analysis of the wests views on Asia, Orientalism, includes numerous examples of how the wests discourse concerning the east became accepted on a worldwide scale. Orientalism as an academic discipline was developed in order to support the political and economic imperialism conducted by European nations in Asia and Africa. Knowledge of the people and culture of the colonized state became vital if the European imperialist wished to maintain and justify its dominance.
To have such knowledge of a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority
here means for us to deny autonomy to it the Oriental country since we know it, and it
exists, in a sense, as we know it. British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt
The collection and proliferation of knowledge leads to a construction of truths, which in turn, as Foucault has shown, lead to power and domination. Whether or not the collected knowledge had any connection with the reality of the situation was of little importance; truth could be created and was in the hands of the masters.
The control of truth, or in other words, the telling of the story, is exactly what writers such as Chinua Achebe have been rebelling against during the past half century. Achebe, reacting to works such as Joyce Carys Mr. Johnson, and more famously perhaps, Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness, has spent his literary career trying to write back against the excessively negative portrayals of African people and society found in the works of European writers. In a recent interview, Achebe pointed out that, The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. Achebe recalls his disgust during his first reading of Carys limited understanding of African culture, while his response to Racism in Heart of Darkness has become an integral part of the post-colonial literary canon.
Achebe is a firm proponent of Foucaults thesis concerning the relationship between truth and power, and he sees it as his moral responsibility as a writer to represent those who have not had the opportunity to tell their story. Referring to the suppressed people in colonized Africa, but also noting the similarities with other silenced groups in society, Achebe notes that, storytelling has to do with power. Those who win tell the story; those who are defeated are not heard. In other words, history and truth are created by those in power; the weak are simply not represented in the war of truth.
Achebe however, is not pessimistic about the future, even accepting that the truth accorded to ones own story is dependent on political and economic power. Indeed, the African response can be said to have started with Achebes own Things Fall Apart, an analysis of the destruction suffered by a Nigerian village as a consequence of British colonialism. In the same interview, Achebe outlined his hopes for the future of storytelling.
When the African response began, I think there was an immediate pause on the European side,
as if they were saying, Okay, we'll stop telling this story, because we see there's another story.
But after a while there's a certain beginning again, not quite a return but something like a reaction
to the African story that cannot, of course, ever go as far as the original tradition that the Africans
are responding to. There's a reaction to a reaction, and there will be a further reaction to that. And
I think that's the way it will go, until what I call a balance of stories is secured. And this is really
what I personally wish this century to see -- a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people's accounts.
Whether or not this balance of stories will ever occur is debatable, however the attempt at creating the balance is justified due to the literary domination that Africa has suffered at the hands of European writers over the past centuries. Somalian writer, Nuruddin Farah agrees whole-heartedly with Achebe claiming that he, came to understand that colonial subjects die a kind of death when they lose the right to define themselves in the terms of their birth, as they are made to respond to the multiple identities imposed on them by others: when they are forced to see themselves as someone elses invention.
Writing back therefore, is at base, an attempt to redress the balance in the worldwide war of truth: truth about people, society, the past and the present. In many ways, the whole concept of making ones voice heard is reminiscent of Virginia Woolfs call to women to find A Room of Ones Own, and begin to produce literature analyzing the feminine experience now that the official sexual discrimination boundaries had been removed for women. The struggle to take African people beyond the shadows referred to by Conrad is being waged, and the success of the novels of Achebe and his colleagues would seem to suggest that inroads are being made against the domination of the consciousness of white-supremacy.
Upsetting the Status Quo
Writing in order to reveal a social evil is certainly not a new strategy; siding with the suppressed members of a particular society has always been a typical method employed by writers in order to evoke sympathy in the potential readers. Perhaps Englands greatest novelist, Charles Dickens, made a whole career out of portraying the difficulties faced by the poor, particularly poor children in industrialized London. Other novelists such as Thomas Hardy, George Elliot, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson all based their novels on poor, suppressed characters under the domination of other people or external social forces in general.
Achebe claims, unreasonably I think, that it is the novelists moral duty to side with the oppressed in his writing. He argues that, there is a moral obligationnot to ally yourself with power against the powerlessI do think decency and civilization would insist that you take sides with the powerless. There is perhaps, a contradiction in Achebes thinking here: his whole career has been based on fighting against universals and accepted opinions in civilization. The terms decency and civilization, when referring to universal truths, if accepted by all, would limit the ability of writers on the other side of those truths to write back themselves.
Instead of proclaiming a universal moral obligation for all writers, Achebe is simply pointing out his own particular strategy: writers must represent those who are unable to represent themselves. Marx and Lenin would entirely agree with such arguments, and in fact, these arguments helped to justify a dictatorship of the elite in a supposedly proletarian revolution in communist Russia. Achebes aim however, is not to dominate, but to genuinely give a voice to the previously unheard millions of Africans.
Achebe is not alone in his quest: the desire to give a voice to the silent is widespread throughout African literature. Indeed, when referring to his writing colleagues, Achebe says that, their concern seems to upset certain people whom history has dealt with differently and who persist in denying the validity of experiences and destinies other than theirs, The certain people referred to here undoubtedly means the vast amount of Europeans who have benefited from colonization and imperialism in Africa, and who consequently have no wish for the African voice to become public.
The group of people unwilling to listen to the story of the oppressed does not, however, need to be limited to those Europeans who have left the continent since the independence of most territories. Certain groups of Africans themselves have benefited from the suppression of individuals in society, and these groups also naturally feel threatened by the revelation of the weak mans situation. This relationship, between the dominating and dominated Nigerian nationals, is in fact the central theme on which Achebes novel, Anthills of the Savannah, is based.
One of the central characters of the novel, Ikem, is the editor of the major newspaper in the city in which the novel takes place. He is at once part of the regime, having connections with the president and other members of the cabinet, while also against the regime due to his affiliation with the oppressed members of society, particularly those in the anti-government areas of the country. Ikem is eventually kidnapped and murdered by the state security organization, the reason being that he has become a threat to the regime. Whether or not he does actually constitute a threat is debatable, the regime is able to publicize the fact that he is a threat to national security and the murder is therefore justified.
Before his murder, Ikem is well aware of his precarious position as a writer fighting an oppressive regime. During a lecture at the university, he informs the students about the reasons why he is likely to find himself behind bars shortly.
storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the
right-to-freedom of the human spirit in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the
university or wherever.
Not only politics, but also in religion and education, those in power are attempting to silence the vast majority of the population, who happen to under their control in one way or another. Foucualt also touched on this point, referring to the fact that there is no single enemy in society: power relations occur in all aspects of society and millions of mini-revolutions are able to occur every day; this in fact, is all one can hope for in the modern world of entrenched capitalist power.
The Power of the Story and the Role of the Writer
Achebe seems to be well aware of his position as an African writer in the modern, American-dominated world. It is highly unlikely in the near future that any oppressed societies will develop the military might to overthrow the political, economic and cultural hegemony of the west throughout the world; therefore, a different strategy must be employed, and it is due to this almost helpless situation, that the story develops its importance.
Anthills of the Savannah takes as its oppressed people, residents of the region of Abazon, a poor area in the north of Kangan, presumably Nigeria. A group of these poverty stricken people arrive in the capital in order to request assistance from the regime due to the fact that their region has been struck by drought. The lobbyists are denied access to the President, however during their stay, they find time to hold a meeting to which Ikem is invited. He is portrayed as the hero of the people of Abazon, his native homeland, due to his ability to represent their struggle in words, if not in action. One of the Abazonian leaders explains the situation in the following way:
it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the
sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our
escort; without it, we are blind.
The members of the congregation from Abazon appreciate the work that Ikem is doing for them by representing their struggle in his newspaper editorials. Furthermore, they seem to understand the fact that Ikem is less than willing to actually join any armed or aggressive campaign against the regime. Storytellers, in their opinion, are not cowardly people hiding behind their pens, but are simply using their abilities to the best advantage of the struggle in general. As the leader of the Abazonian delegation explains,
To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time
to get up has finally come. To others, he gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise
with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.
The storyteller is therefore just as important as the warrior; both have their role to play in the struggle and neither should deny the others contribution. Achebe is of course, partially defending his own position as an African exile, writing from the comfort of the United States of America and not having to suffer the hardships of life in Nigeria.
Despite the obvious personal interest nature of his opinion, Achebe does have a valid point and it is the inability of warriors to tell their story that in many ways results in them being referred to as terrorists, guerillas or other words with negative connotations. Whether a fighter is referred to as a terrorist or a freedom fighter seems to depend on his ability to publicize his version of the struggle.
Achebe also takes great care to emphasize the point that the telling of the story is not necessarily an easier way out than fighting the field of battle. Once again, his opinions are expressed through the Abazon representative claiming that, When we are young and without experience we all imagine that the story of the land is easy, that every one of us can get up and tell it. But that is not so. Once again, such lines can be read as self-praise, however the point is valid, as the evidence suggests that not a great deal of writers representing suppressed groups of people have had success in publicizing their stories in the past: writing against entrenched power systems may not be so easy.
The novelist therefore, is justified in his avoidance of armed conflict in the struggle, as he too, has his role to play, and this role is no easier than any other. The novel thus becomes a weapon, just like a gun or a bomb, and it is the utilization of this weapon that plays a key role in the success of the movement. This role for the novel is of course, a far cry from the views held by previous novelists throughout the history of English, or perhaps world literature. The novel developed as a tool aimed at supplying the uneducated with moral lessons about life, while at the same time providing emotionally charged entertainment. Later, D.H. Lawrence wrote a short article in which he defended the novel as the book of life, pointing out that novels are written to reveal the truths behind humanity and life itself.
Post-colonial novelists however, have different objectives: the time for revealing the objective, universal truths behind life itself has come to an end. The new objectives are both varied yet connected at the same time. Somali novelist, Nuruddin Farahs objective is to keep my country alive by writing about it. As long as literature fails to be produced from Somali writers, Somalia as a country is almost dead in may ways, and it will simply become a playground for imperialists to dominate without concern for the welfare of the people living there.
Ikem, and Achebe, view the novelists role in a slightly different way. The novelist, Ikem claims, has experience and knowledge, and although he would willingly sacrifice his home comforts to join the armed struggle, it would be impossible to simply throw away experience and knowledge. Therefore, the novelists duty is to use this knowledge in order to help his people. I have arms that reach out in all directions a helping hand, a hand signaling for help. With one I shall touch the earth and leave another free to wave to the skies.
Achebe however, is careful not to allow the great importance given to the writer to turn the novelist into some kind of messiah for the people, a person whose words will revolutionize society and save the oppressed from the rulers. This, Achebe claims, would be impossible due to the fact that the writer does not possess the answers. He is not a messiah bringing the word of God to the uneducated, but a guide, hoping to point the oppressed in the right direction. This of course, is not what uprising people wish to hear from their appointed leader; it is basically an honest admission from Achebe. Ikems words should suffice as an example to all arrogant writers, claiming to possess the ultimate truth.
No, I cannot give you the answer you are clamouring for. Go home and think! I cannot decree
your pet, text-book revolution. I want instead to excite general enlightenment by forcing all the
people to examine the condition of their lives because, as the saying goes, the unexamined life is
not worth living. I dont want to foreclose it with a catchy, half-baked orthodoxy.
The Role of the African Writer in the Modern World
African writers, due to the centuries of imperialist oppression that they have suffered, are now seemingly under an obligation to tell their side of the story. Europeans, when discussing African people, will undoubtedly have pictures in their minds from films such as Zulu or novels such as Heart of Darkness, in which Africans are stereotyped as warriors with face-paint and spears. This was the main reason for Achebes first attempt to address the balance in Things Fall Apart, in which a Nigerian community is portrayed with deep emotion and fully developed characters.
An understanding of African culture is almost completely absent in the west, although most westerners would claim to know exactly what Africans are like: after all, they see war and famine on the television every day. As novelist Camara Laye pointed out in 1972 while being interviewed about her own work,
In showing the beauty of this culture, my novel testifies to its greatness. People who had not
been aware that Africa had its own culture were able to grasp the significance of our past and
our civilization. I believe that this understanding is the most meaningful contribution of African literature.
The situation of the African writer therefore, differs greatly from the traditional, socially isolated, detached modern novelist in the west. Novelists, Achebe claims, go out of their way in the west to avoid society and isolate themselves from the society in which they are living in order to create art. This option, desirable though it may be to some African writers, is unavailable for the writer taking his place in the war of truth about Africa. Instead of aiming to impress western critics with artistic brilliance and invention, for the African writer, there is still the inescapable grammar of values to straighten out, the confused vocabulary of uncertain fledgling polities. Ease and carelessness in our circumstance will only cause a total break-down of communications. In other words, African literature needs to learn to walk before it tries to run, and writing in a down-to-earth manner will benefit the movement to a much greater extent than any purely artistic achievement.
Furthermore, in Achebes opinion, it is extremely advantageous to use the English language as the vehicle by which to tell ones story. Once again, art for arts sake would seem to imply in the African case, the use of the indigenous African languages, however Achebe, stressing the importance of being down-to-earth and useful to the general movement, prefers to use English as his medium of expression due to its position as the accepted global language.
Achebe is certainly not praising the English language in any way; he openly criticizes its imperialistic aspect and its inability to reflect his own personal experiences as an African. However, once again in Achebes writing, we see the practical side of the man taking precedence over the idealistic African revolutionary. In his 1964 essay, The African Writer and the English Language, Achebe explains that,
I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But
it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with it ancestral home but altered to suit
its new African surroundings.
It is almost as if Achebe is searching for a middle ground between his desire to represent the poor people of Africa, and his aim to globalize his and his peoples story. Africanizing the English language, as awful as such a plan would seem to the majority of English people, is a nice, practical compromise in this instance. Strangely enough though, Achebes idea is actually no different to that of the majority of post-modern western writers: remaining within the traditional, structural rules of writing has long since been abandoned, and writers of all backgrounds feel free to manipulate the English language, or any other language for that matter, to their own use.
The African writer must therefore be an educator first, aiming to reach as wide an audience as possible; even if he is unable to find the answers that the oppressed are looking for, he must be able to open the minds of his followers (and critics) and enable them to find their own particular answers. Writing back aims to re-address the storytelling past, which has been dominated by European and western writers in general, most of whom have an extremely limited understanding of African people and culture. As Achebe claims in his essay, The Novelist as Teacher, I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past with all its imperfections was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on Gods behalf delivered them.
Achebes novels, focusing on the history and problems of his native Nigeria, have at least made a start in opening the minds of western readers concerning images of Africa. The task is in fact, incredibly large due to the fact that prejudice and racism have become entrenched in the western psyche, and from time to time are still encouraged by politicians aiming to incite hatred between groups. Until the works of African writers are able to find a readership outside universities in the west, traditional opinions of Africans and African culture will still remain under the domination of centuries of western colonial success, and the belief in western and white superiority will unfortunately remain.
The following sources were consulted during the writing of this essay:
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. (Heinemann: London, Ibadan, Nairobi, 1975)
Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah (Heinemann: Kenya, 1988)
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Printed in its complete form in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Norton: London, 2000)
Said, Edward. Orientalism. (Penguin: London, 1985)
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge (Pantheon Books: New York, 1977)
Farah, Nuruddin. Bastards of Empire: (Duke University Press, 1995)) Internet Source
Interview with Chinua Achebe, 2nd August 2000: Internet Source
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of Ones Own. Printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Norton: London, 2000)
Lawrence, D.H. What is a Novel? Printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Norton: London, 2000)