Bard College, in the Hudson Valley north of New York, is a classic American campus. It has carefully clipped lawns, sturdy brick buildings and a view across the Hudson River of the forested peaks of the Catskill Mountains.
But for Chinua Achebe, who now calls Bard home, the beautiful views are a mere distraction. His thoughts are always back across the Atlantic in Africa; in the villages, forests and savannahs of his native Nigeria.
“That is where my work is,” he said in a voice that is quiet and slow with old age but still undeniably strong.
Achebe, who has just won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, is the grandfather of African literature. In winning the prize he beat off competition from such illustrious figures as Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Ian McEwan. The award came for a lifetime’s work chronicling the woes of the modern African experience and conveying African themes into the Western medium of the novel. His most famous work, Things Fall Apart , has been translated into 50 languages and been a bestseller worldwide.
For Achebe, often snubbed for his staunch criticism of the Western treatment of Africa, the award has come as a final vindication. “Really it is difficult to put into words,” he said “I don’t know how to say what I feel now. It is a humble feeling that what I have done has not gone unnoticed.”
That is certainly true. It has been almost 50 years since Things Fall Apart was published. That book, which told of the downfall of a village ‘bigman’ in the face of British colonialism, was an immediate literary sensation. It has since sold 10 million copies. Achebe has followed it up with other bestselling novels, works of poetry, essays and literary criticism. He has waged a constant struggle to tell the African story from the perspective of its peoples, eschewing the idea of a “dark continent” unknown and unknowable. His unflinching attitude, especially in a critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, has perhaps explained why it is now — at the age of 76 — he has finally begun to win an overdue recognition as a literary titan.
Yet even now, Achebe is still convinced too many Western publishers still see Africa in racist terms, marginalising and dismissing African writers. “Those elements are still around. Though they are not as strong today as they were,” he said.
But it does seem as if African literature is at last getting its place in the sun. Achebe’s award followed hard on the heels of fellow Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie scooping the Orange award for fiction with Half of a Yellow Sun and the success of Ishmael Beah’s memoir of being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. For Achebe it is a long- overdue flowering of success for African works.
“There is a lot of latent energy for the creative arts in Africa and in Nigeria, especially for literature,” he said.
Achebe has been a lifelong advocate for Africa. He was born in Igbo country in 1930, growing up under British colonialism. It was a rule he chafed under. When he went to college he ditched the Western name — Albert — his Christian-convert parents gave him.
“It was a little gesture,” he laughed. “As a young man what else can you do? Names are important and why should I have a German name like Albert?”
But he was no less critical when dealing with the Nigerian government that followed British rule. During the Biafran war of 1967-70, which pitted Achebe’s Igbo people against the rest of the country, he was an ambassador for the doomed Biafran government. Since then he has been a thorn in the side of numerous Nigerian military governments. In 2004 he declined to accept Nigeria’s second highest honour, the Commander of the Federal Republic, in protest at Nigeria’s chronic state of misgovernment. Now, in the wake of recent elections condemned by the international community as fraudulent and amid violent economic collapse, Achebe confessed to having little optimism about his homeland. Politicians there, he said, do not really believe in democracy or good government.
“They should be transparent and really believe it, not just be saying it.
If you don’t have that then Nigeria is in serious trouble. I am still very uneasy about the country,” he said.
That has meant Achebe is in effect living his life in exile. Not only because of his outspokenness, but also because he is confined to a wheelchair. He broke his back in a 1990 car crash.
“I miss Nigeria very much. My injury means I need to know I am near a good hospital and close to my doctor. I need to know that if I went to a pharmacist the medicine there would be the drug that the bottle says it is,” he said.
It is easy to detect a sense of betrayal there. His career has risen as Nigerian has fallen. Achebe rose to prominence at the time of independence, when Nigerian universities were producing a generation of scholars eager to grasp the opportunities at the end of colonialism. Four decades later, Nigeria’s collapse has been dramatic. But, like all exiles, Achebe will always be connected first and foremost to his homeland. He eschews talk of America’s war in Iraq or President George W Bush, for the things that really matter to him: Nigeria.
“America has its frustrations for me, but I don’t feel about them the way that I do about Nigeria. I don’t feel the urge to get out there and take them on,” he said.
Achebe says his work pays vital testament to those who have gone before him, people who used to collect village stories and pass them on to the next generation so that they could live better lives. He has perhaps the same role. Just on a national scale.
“Our ancestors made stories intending them to be saying something to us, something of value that would help us as we pass through the world. Something that would make our passing easier,” he said.
So Achebe is still writing. He has numerous projects on the go and, though he has not published a novel since 1988, that silence is soon to be broken.
“A novel is not far away,” he said.
This storyteller is far from finishing his tale.