ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Our next item might be called if you must read this, okay, but please read it in a different way. That's what Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, says about Joseph Conrad's classic "Heart of Darkness." Achebe, who's now 78, has just published a collection of essays and we spoke recently at his home in Upstate New York. In 1958, Achebe published his first novel, "Things Fall Apart," which stood fiction writing about Africa on its head. In it, the world read about the coming of the British to Africa as Africans experienced it. Achebe first excoriated Conrad's novella about Africa back in the 1970s. In "Heart of Darkness," the English sailor Marlow steams up the Congo in search of Kurtz, the European gone native. Chinua Achebe says he grew up identifying with Marlow.
Mr. CHINUA ACHEBE (Author): Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction. And as a child growing up, one was the subject of Conrad's seduction. As you're grow old, you suddenly realized, as I think I have said somewhere, that you were not on Marlow's ship.
SIEGEL: Yes, I found the essay in which you write - you said: A time came when I reached the appropriate age and realized that these writers had pulled a fast one on me. I was not on Marlow's boat steaming up the Congo in "Heart of Darkness." Rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the river bank making hard faces.
Mr. ACHEBE: Okay. All right. I'm glad you got that so well. That's a point where you understand that two humanities. We are not all the same. And then I realized how terribly, terribly wrong it was to portray my people, any people, from that attitude, from that point of view.
SIEGEL: The point of I am the civilized person…
Mr. ACHEBE: Yes.
SIEGEL: …exploring and encountering the uncivilized, the people who are elemental and live the…
Mr. ACHEBE: Yes, yes.
SIEGEL: …primeval existence here.
Mr. ACHEBE: That's right. And he would give them names that are really unmentionable. They are describing an African working on the ship as a dog wearing trousers and attempting, obviously without success, to make something of the meter he was supposed to be watching. The language of description of the people in "Heart of Darkness" is inappropriate.
SIEGEL: Of course, when you first made this criticism many years ago, Conrad defenders rose up and said, no, he was really an anti-imperialist. This is the description of the people of empire made of the imperial subjects. But Conrad wasn't sympathetic to them. You don't buy it.
Mr. ACHEBE: No, I don't buy that at all. It's an issue that, for me, is finished and closed. Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way, they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. I didn't carry it away, I simply said, read it this way and that's all I have done.
SIEGEL: That's Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe speaking about Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness." Achebe's new collection of essay's is called "The Education of a British Protected Child."