Literary Great Chinua Achebe on Prose and Politics
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Now on to some news from the literary world. Nigerian writer and poet Chinua Achebe was recently awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. It's only given once every two years to a living author in honor of his or her body of work. Winners get 60,000 British pounds or about U.S.$119,000. Most importantly Achebe's win raises Africa's profile in the literary world and beyond.
His debut novel "Things Fall Apart," published in 1958, won him global acclaim and is widely considered a masterpiece. The book has been translated into 50 languages and sold more than 10 million copies. Since then he has written other novels, poetry, children's books and criticism. He's currently a professor at Bard College in New York State.
I recently spoke with Chinua Achebe by phone from his home. He described the story behind the protagonist in "Things Fall Apart." Okonkwo is a prosperous farmer, husband and father in Nigeria during the colonial era, and he's not a kind man.
Mr. CHINUA ACHEBE (Author, "Things Fall Apart"): The reason he's a strong man or he thinks he's a strong man is that his father had been the opposite, had been a man of peace, had been a man of few words, and he was not a success. He was not prosperous. And it is this fact — the fact of a man who didn't satisfy the expectations of his son — that is the crux of this story. And so we have a fun within rebellion against his father and want to be the opposite of what his father was. And so you immediately have a one family succeeding another and being the opposite. This is one of the things that I play with in my writing.
CHIDEYA: Achebe didn't write any novels between 1966 and 1988. Instead, he focused on the struggle for independence in Nigeria's Biafra region. During our conversation, he was quick to point out that descriptions of him as the Biafran Minister of Information are incorrect.
Mr. ACHEBE: I was never a minister of anything anywhere. And I was a supporter, ultimately I was a supporter of the desire of my section of Nigeria to leave the federation because it was treated very, very badly with something that was called genocide in those days. And went into hear a response of the government to say something like we can't - you can't do this. We are one country. That didn't come.
And so the mission slid into a civil to a very, very bitter at civil war. And all this time I was just depressed. I was not involved in any agitation to create this state of the Biafra. I think the state of Biafra had created itself because of the atrocity. It was in this situation that I became a spokesman of sort. And so I came to this country. I went to parts of Europe on a number of trips, and I did this because I was persuaded that the nation of Nigeria, the federation, was doomed - had doomed itself by its action.
CHIDEYA: Nigeria has spawned a series of world-renowned novelists, including the recent winner of the Orange Prize, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for "Half of a Yellow Sun." But Achebe is the forerunner of them all, and his experiences with Nigeria's fractured political past still shape the way he envisions Africa's future.
Mr. ACHEBE: What needs to be done is to recognize how difficult the task will be, but beyond that there is nothing - there's no magic. What we need to do is to be fair to - for a country, for a nations for instance, to be fair to all its citizens. Whether people are of a different ethnicity or gender - we haven't talk about women at all on this. And this is something we need to practice.
The news is not all that in Africa. It's not as good as it should be. And the one concept - I am my brother's keeper. Leader is appointed to lead a people and he should see these as my people. That's not happening yet. It's not happening in Nigeria, for example. I've had trouble now and again in Nigeria because I have spoken up against the mistreatment of factions of the county because of difference of religion. These are things that we should have put behind us.
CHIDEYA: Chinua Achebe is 76 years old. The Nigerian novelist and poet recently won the Man Booker International Prize for his literary career.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.