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 15 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.
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?
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 works. 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.
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?
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 asepics such as 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.
What will you say if I ask you to talk directly to the Iranian audience and discuss your concerns and wishes with them?
“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.
Your new work There was a Country- A Personal History of Biafra is due from Penguin Books next month- September, 2012 – in the United Kingdom. Can you tell Iranian readers what it is about?
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 straight forward 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!
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?
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.
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?
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 ab out 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.
In many ways, the world is a much different place today than it was in 1958 when Things Fall Apart was published. Some may say a better place – women’s rights are improving around the world, race relations perhaps can be said to have improved as well. In other ways, many things can also be said to have either remained the same or become worse. So the struggle to make the world a better place must continue!
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?
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?
What are the most prominent features and attributes of the modern African literature?
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.”
So your choice of writing in English was as much a political choice as a practical one?
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.
There is, however, the problem of the disappearance of native or indigenous cultures and languages…
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.
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