Chinua Achebe: An African Voice - An interview with The Atlantic from 2000

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe‘s emergence as "the founding father of African literature … in the English language," in the words of the Harvard University philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, could very well be traced to his encounter in the early fifties with Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson, set in Achebe’s native Nigeria. Achebe read it while studying at the University College in Idaban during the last years of British colonial rule, and in a curriculum full of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Mister Johnson stood out as one of the few books about Africa. Time magazine had recently declared Mister Johnson the "best book ever written about Africa," but Achebe and his classmates had quite a different reaction. The students saw the Nigerian hero as an "embarrassing nitwit," as Achebe writes in his new book, Home and Exile, and detected in the Irish author’s descriptions of Nigerians "an undertow of uncharitableness … a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery." Mister Johnson, Achebe writes, "open[ed] my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story."

In 1958, Achebe responded with his own novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart, which was one of the first books to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective. (It has since become a classic, published in fifty languages around the world.) Things Fall Apart marked a turning point for African authors, who in the fifties and sixties began to take back the narrative of the so-called “dark continent.”

Read more: Interview – 2000.08.02 | Atlantic Unbound | Interviews.

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