ALL ARTS Vault Selects

FULL EPISODE

Chinua Achebe

Take a peek into the archive and explore this engaging 1964 conversation with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe; his 1958 debut novel Things Fall Apart is now widely considered to be one of the major works of 20th century literature. This program features a discussion with Achebe, poet Wole Soyinka, and author and host Lewis Nkosi.

AIRED: February 05, 2019 | 0:30:52
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

Welcome to the "All Arts Vault."

I'm Maddie Orton.

The Vault is the place to go for special access

to all things arts.

So we're going into the archives to uncover some of our greatest

gems from over 50 years of archival content

and share these programs with you as they would have

been seen decades ago when they first aired.

On this episode, we're pleased to present a 1964 program called

"African Writers of Today: Chinua Achebe."

This program, hosted by writer Lewis Nkosi,

features a discussion with poet Wole Soyinka

and Nigerian author Chinua Achebe,

writer of the acclaimed novel "Things Fall Apart."

Set in the late 1800s, "Things Fall Apart"

tells the story of Okonkwo,

an outwardly strong leader in a fictional Nigerian clan.

At the center of the novel is family, masculinity,

tradition, and faith

at a time when White European missionaries

are establishing a presence in Africa.

Since its publication in 1958, "Things Fall Apart"

has been translated into more than 50 languages,

and with good reason.

It's an incredible work of art.

Here's "African Writers of Today: Chinua Achebe."

Narrator: National Educational Television presents

"African Writers of Today," a series of programs

surveying the literary scene in contemporary Africa.

Today we feature an interview

with the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.

Mr. Achebe is author

of the novels "Things Fall Apart"

and "No Longer at Ease."

His third novel "Arrow of God" is soon to be published.

Chinua Achebe will be interviewed

by two fellow African writers --

Mr. Wole Soyinka,

Nigerian poet and dramatist,

and program host Lewis Nkosi,

South African author, journalist, and broadcaster.

This program was recorded

in the Nigerian National Museum Lagos.

Now, these little horned things are very interesting.

Every adult Igbo man had one, and when he died,

it was split in two, and one half is buried with him

and the other half is thrown away.

It's called Ikenga.

Oh, yes, this is the call to strength.

That's right. Of sort of virility, manhood.

That's right. Yes.

Well, gentlemen, maybe we can sit down now

and start with the interview.

♪♪

Are you more comfortable?

Yes, thank you.

Here at the Museum of Nigeria in Lagos,

we are sitting with Chinua Achebe,

a man possessed of a startlingly original talent in writing.

Chinua Achebe, though young,

has given the world two novels --

"Things Fall Apart," "No Longer at Ease,"

and all critics seem to agree that Chinua Achebe

combines a simplicity in technique

and a very complex technical talent, indeed.

But maybe Wole Soyinka would like to add

a few words of introduction.

I don't think I have much more to add

to what you said about Chinua Achebe

on the personal level and all the other aspects.

I'd just like to go straight into your work.

And I'd like to take as my point of reference,

for a start, this last carving you showed me --

the carving of Ikenga.

Now, this represents, as you said,

the spirit of manhood, of strength,

of real masculine energy in Igbo society.

Now, in "Things Fall Apart,"

Okonkwo seems to me to represent the kind of figure in society

who is acted upon from within

by this kind of strong spiritual quality.

Now, I'd like to know from you whether this is

a conscious derivative,

I mean, the creation of this character,

or whether -- is the sense of the character in society --

his religion, his beliefs.

Well, not consciously, but Okonkwo, as you said,

symbolizes, if you like, strength and aggressiveness.

Now, these are some of the qualities

that his people admired, you see,

and I wanted a character who could be called

representative of this particular group of people.

And they admired a man of strength, a man of wealth,

a man who had a... big compound with wives

and who had many farms --

that sort of thing. -Yes.

Now, this is a dangerous question, I know,

but does it imply anything in your own personal attitude

towards this society,

which places so much premium on what, after all,

may be a kind of exhibitionist side of the masculine ego?

Does it imply something of your own attitude,

the fact that Okonkwo does,

by this very personal immersion in this...

kind of value,

that he has performed?

Yes, yes, yes, yes.

I think there is a point there.

There is the weakness of this particular society,

and I think he's a lack of adaptations --

not being able to bend.

I can't say that this now represents

the Igbo people today, but I think in his time,

these strong men were those who did not bend,

and I think this was a fault in the culture itself.

Yes, Chinua, I'm more interested in what some people

have described as your deliberate attempt

to avoid passing moral judgment on your characters.

For instance, in the first novel that you wrote,

called "Things Fall Apart,"

there is this absolute cruelty in which,

because the troubles are the sanctions of the killing of

a proper ward by his protector,

that this man carries this act,

although he seems to have some kind of doubts.

He doesn't avoid doing so.

And the way you wrote that -- that passage --

seemed to imply that you were not able to make

any particular judgment on that action.

Is this true? No, I don't think -- I don't think --

I don't think this is a fair assessment at all.

You have to see the story as a whole.

This is what I was saying to Wole earlier on,

that this particular society has believed too much in manliness.

And this is part of it, and perhaps this is the reason

why it crashed at the end, you see.

And I don't think a writer should point

a moral lesson on every page.

I think the total effect at the end of the story

is that this is the way that things went.

I like my moral to be as obvious as --

What I was getting at

was whether you had some kind of moral point of view.

-Yes, well, yes. -Taking the book as a whole.

Yes, I did.

You see, I think that this particular society

had its good side.

This is the poetry of the life, the simplicity, if you like,

the communal way of sharing in happiness and in sorrow

and in work and all that, you see?

It had all that, but also, it had art and beauty.

But it had this cruel side to it, you see?

And it is this that I think helped to bring down my hero.

For a moment, I was going to -- when you began explaining,

when you began sort of expatiating

on the values of this society,

I was going to say that this sounded dangerously

like the philosophy of Négritude,

or shall I say, almost the myth of Négritude -- a simple,

but I was relieved you mentioned an extra dimension to it.

But if I may pick up something which Lewis was saying,

the whole question of style --

Do you accept the evaluation

which has been placed on your style by some critics

that there is a kind of almost precise...

workmanship about it?

It's almost a kind of un-relieved competence,

as opposed to general artistic inspiration, if you like.

How do you react to this sort of...?

Don't expect me to accept that.

But, no, as a matter of fact,

I don't think one could call my method --

describe my method in those terms

because I don't particularly spend a lot of time

on polishing.

As a matter of fact, "Things Fall Apart"

was written straight, without any kind of draft.

So I wouldn't say that, yes, no.

If I may be permitted to ask you another question,

Chinua, as a South African,

I'm very much conscious of the fact

that there seems to be some kind of continuity

between the modern-day society in Nigeria,

from which is where you spring, and the old traditional society.

What were the quality of influences upon your life?

How were you able to draw such an accurate picture

of old traditional society?

How are these influences passed on?

Yes, well, I think I belong to a very fortunate generation

in this respect,

that the old hadn't been completely disorganized

when I was growing up.

I think the disorganization has stayed further now,

but when I was growing up, it was easy,

especially if you lived in a village,

to see, if not in whole, at least in part,

these old ways of life, you see.

I was particularly interested in listening

to the way old people talked, you see,

and this is the kind of background, you see.

And the festivals, of course, were still observed,

maybe not in the same force, but they were still there.

So this didn't really entail a deliberate kind of research

of the adult artist into this life.

No, no, no.

No, no, no, didn't do any research at all.

Soyinka: Chinua, when you were going to

the University College of Ibadan,

and you switched up from a course

in medicine to literature,

did you find any precursors

in the West African novel --

English people have written a novel about your society

which you could use as a model,

or did you find nothing at all that was useful to you?

Well, there wasn't very much when I was at college.

Joyce Cary had written some of his books.

If I may say so,

perhaps he helped to inspire me,

but not in the usual way.

I was really angry with his book "Mr. Johnson,"

which was set in Nigeria.

I happened to read this I think in my second year,

and I said to myself, "This is absurd.

And if somebody without knowledge --

without any inside knowledge of the people

that he's trying to describe -- can get away with it,

perhaps I ought to try my hand at it."

To mention "Mr. Johnson"...

...this is the second book now, "No Longer at Ease."

The hero of that book, he struck me as,

in some way,

rather effete kind of character.

You do not see any kind of equation at all between him --

between his particular weaknesses --

I refer especially to his kind of relationship

with his European boss.

You do not see any similarity at all

between this and Mr. Johnson?

No, I don't.

Because I think to me, Mr. Johnson doesn't live at all.

I mean, he's a caricature. -Precisely.

I know Mr. Johnson is a caricature,

but then caricature really is something you exaggerate.

You do exaggerate some kind of positive factual elements.

Now, you do not think that this hero --

he does demonstrate some of these

exaggerated qualities of Mr. Johnson?

Again, I go back to his relationship

with his boss in the office --

the kind of...

peculiar deference which he had towards him,

this kind of tolerance of his boss,

which is exaggerated many -- Do you...?

Yes, well, I don't think --

If you go back to that book, you will see

that he actually didn't have much respect for his boss,

but his nature was such that he was able to dismiss him

as an example of this or that, you see?

There was, in fact, a passage

where he was thinking of the Greens --

this is his boss -- the Greens of this generation.

No, no, I think his problem was that he was perhaps

too civilized to shout.

And this might be what you're referring to.

But I don't think it's the same thing as Mr. Johnson.

Perhaps even a caricature is not a correct way.

He's simply a puppet.

A complete travesty of a situation.

Chinua, Professor Abraham,

in his book "The Mind of Africa,"

selects you as one of the most original,

or the more African of all the African novelists

that he has read in English-speaking Africa.

I was just wondering whether -- if you found

that there was something to be done with this alien form,

as I suspect the novel is,

whether you found that you could experiment with a form,

not just with the content.

Is there room to turn around in this alien form at all?

Yes, I think the novel form

suits me extremely well just now.

I haven't read Dr. Abraham's book,

but I think I can regard myself,

I think, just as very much an African writer.

I think I'm basically

an ancestor worshipper, if you like.

But in the same sense, as my grandfather

would probably do it --

you know, pouring out wine on the floor for the ancestors.

But with me, it takes the form of celebration.

And I feel a certain compulsion to do this.

It's not because I think this would appeal to listeners --

to my readers.

I feel that this is something that has to be done

before I move on to the contemporary scene.

And the reason why my third book

goes back again to the past --

[indistinct] at first --

is that I have come to think that my first book

is no longer adequate.

I've learned a lot more about these particular people --

you know, my ancestors.

But sorry to move to a more general topic,

do you agree with what Lewis said about the novel

being an alien form?

I have in mind when I say this the kind of idiom

of storytelling, which is very prevalent in the East,

even much more than the West,

whereby a story can be recited with action,

with demonstration with dances, with all the --

even with makeup, for days, night after night.

Now, I mean, isn't this really a difference of material?

You are right. I agree with you.

I don't think the art of the story is the same, really.

It's not any more alien than telling the story as you say.

But this question of writing it down --

Soyinka: Using a different language, also.

-Yes, yes. -Yes, well,

I don't want to make too tight a distinction

between the storytelling tradition in Africa

and the European form of novel,

but I do feel that the European novel

has a certain background, a bourgeois background,

and the individual authorship is another prominent feature of it.

Of course, the fact that it can be enjoyed

by a single person by himself without being gathered

together with lots of other people.

But, no matter.

I want to pass on to another question

I would like to put to you,

and it's a more sociological question.

I am interested in just how much social power

a novelist in Nigeria has --

how much influence he has with his society.

Or is the society completely indifferent to him?

The novel is comparatively young here.

It's only about 10 years old.

And it will be impossible to say

precisely what kind of influence we are going to have.

All I can say is it is growing.

I think my books, for instance,

have done extremely well in Nigeria

and in other parts of Africa.

And I think the same goes with the other novelists here.

Whether you can call this social influence,

I think probably we ought to wait some years to see.

Yes, but I'm interested

because there has already been a definite reaction from,

say, the federal government of Nigeria

to Cyprian Ekwensi's novel,

which was about [indistinct], and they banned this.

And they said it shouldn't be done

because it doesn't accurately reflect the life of Nigeria.

Are the politicians beginning to react

to some kind of social criticism

contained in the younger literature of Nigeria?

Well, I can only quote from my own experience,

and I haven't come up against any obstructions

like the example you've given.

Maybe I have not --

Maybe when I move into the present

and sort of write a political novel,

that will be the time to test.

But all I can say is that I haven't yet come up

against any kind of opposition.

In any case, I think politicians behave

pretty much the same all over the world.

The basic suspicions, even.

Cyprian Ekwensi's book, which you referred to,

for instance, is not really a piece of social criticism.

I think it's just this problem of politicians

getting nervous about a false image being presented

without ever understanding the whole business

of creative writing, and cannot understand it

if a prostitute is written about in a book.

It isn't a kind of treatise on sociology.

But I would like to make an abrupt transition here.

I know you were in the States very recently,

and I'd like to know if you met any of the American novelists,

particularly the Negro novelists and writers.

Maybe there's something you'd like to say about this.

Yes, yes, I did, indeed.

In fact, that was the very purpose of my visit.

I did meet with the Harlem group of writers --

Langston Hughes and John Killens and a whole lot of younger ones.

I didn't meet Baldwin, unfortunately,

because he was tied up with other duties.

I also met quite a few White writers, not just novelists.

I met Arthur Miller, the dramatist.

But perhaps what I got most was a kind of closer relationship

with the literary pulse in America.

I think I'm now a lot more interested

in what is being written there than I was before.

Did you notice any similarity of problems?

For instance, I would like to know if you felt

that the Negro writers

were particularly interested in your work

because of this interest of yours and your orientation

around the traditional...

African way of life and philosophies?

Yes, yes, very much so.

In fact, I remember now one Negro writer

who autographed a book of hers with the words --

something to this effect --

"To Achebe, who depicted so beautifully the culture

that might have been mine."

This is the kind of feeling I think they have.

Chinua, the European critics, if I may say,

have been most kind to your novels,

at least in their appreciation and their acceptance of them.

But you have been the most vicious critic

of the European critics.

Why is this so?

What do you find so objectionable

in their approach to literature?

I'm surprised to hear you say

I am the most vicious critic of the critics.

No, I don't object to critics at all.

What I do object to is people

preaching from a position of ignorance.

And this you'll find quite a lot in the criticisms

that are made of our work.

Even, as I said before -- even when they are praising you,

you find that this is not really for the right reasons at all.

Of course, I'm not saying that they should shut up,

but I hate any kind of cultural or literary popes,

you see, being set up --

people who can pontificate on the real African literature,

the real this, you see?

You find a lot about words like "real"

or "true" or "valued."

-"Authentic." -Yes, and these words, I think,

are almost meaningless in the context.

How do you react to the critic who...

lumped you, Cyprian Ekwensi,

and Onuora Nzekwu together

as an unbeatable treble choice? [ Laughter ]

How do you react personally to this as a writer?

Well, that particular critic --

I think I know who you mean by --

I don't care particularly for him.

Of course, he's welcome to his opinion

about our being unbeatable.

I couldn't quarrel with that.

But I don't care for him as a critic.

If I may just pursue this a bit further,

he also makes a statement on which you might like to comment,

talking I think about --

I forget whose book now -- he says,

"And he also writes the kind of books which his readers --

his African -- his people like to read --

a novel with a moral at the end."

Now, you talked earlier about one of your novels

possessing some kind of moral, but do you make a distinction

between the way he used this and --

Yes, I'm sure what he means is a kind of moral

which you have in stories for children, you see?

And the moral of this story is that the man

who behaves this way has this kind of reward.

That, obviously, is not the right approach for a novelist.

Chinua, you have said something about the latest novel

you have written having progressed beyond the two books

that you worked on the first time.

Could you indicate, perhaps, in what direction you think

you've made this advance, technically or otherwise?

Well, it will be difficult to describe

the technical superiorities.

Is there a difference in subject matter?

Yes, yes, there is, definitely.

I'm handling a whole lot of more complex themes,

you see, like the relationship between a god and his priest.

My chief character in this novel

is a village priest -- not a Christian.

A priest in the traditional African religion.

And I'm interested in this whole question

of who decides what shall be the wish of the gods,

and that kind of situation.

And I've also tried to develop

my treatment of character.

Whether I've succeeded or not is still to be seen, you see,

but I think that I have progressed in that direction.

Yes, and the other question, of course,

is the more general one, which bothers a lot of people,

and it has to do with the audience.

Do you find that you're beginning to develop

an indigenous audience in Nigeria

so that you can rely less on metropolitan audiences?

Or to put it another form, so that you can become

less conscious of the demands of European audiences?

Yes, yes, I think you're right.

Although I must say that I don't think I was consciously working

with an audience in mind in my first book.

In fact, I remember being surprised

when the first person who read it said,

"Who did you have in mind?" you see.

Now, that doesn't mean that I didn't have somebody in mind,

but I wasn't thinking of it primarily.

The second time this thought had been put into my mind,

I found myself thinking about it.

But now I feel I don't have to worry over much about

who understands what I'm saying or who doesn't.

I think there will always

be enough people interested in a good story.

Well, perhaps this is just as good a time

to stop this, gentlemen.

We're greatly privileged to have met Chinua Achebe

at the Museum of Nigeria, surrounded, as we are,

by the masks and the body and spirit,

which is about the same kind of thing

that broods in the novels by Chinua Achebe.

The past is very much there.

Chinua Achebe, all critics agree,

has great promise and promises

to give us some of the best things

that have been produced in African literature.

Narrator: You have just seen and heard another broadcast

in the series "African Writers of Today."

This series is devoted to the literary scene

in contemporary Africa.

The personality on today's program, Chinua Achebe,

Nigerian novelist, author of "Things Fall Apart,"

"No Longer at Ease."

His third novel "Arrow of God" is soon to be published.

Chinua Achebe was interviewed by Wole Soyinka,

Nigerian poet and dramatist,

and series host Lewis Nkosi,

South African author, journalist, and broadcaster.

"African Writers of Today"is

produced by National Educational Television

in collaboration with the Transcription Center, London.

♪♪

♪♪

This is NET -- National Educational Television.

As host Lewis Nkosi mentions,

this program was filmed inside the Nigerian National Museum,

and just as Chinua Achebe is surrounded by objects

that evoke Nigeria's past, so are his novels,

crafted to evoke echoes of Nigerian history.

To this day, "Things Fall Apart"

remains a crucial work of 20th century literature

for its beautifully rendered presentation of Nigerian culture

and for its critical perspective on European colonization.

We hope you've enjoyed this look into the "All Arts Vault."

I'm Maddie Orton. See you next time.

♪♪

♪♪

STREAM ALL ARTS VAULT SELECTS ON

  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv

FEATURED PROGRAMS

Young Stars of Ballet
You Are Cordially Invited
Wyld Ryce
Write Around the Corner
WQED Sessions
World Channel
WLIW21 Specials
WLIW Arts Beat
When The World Answered
We Sing
Walk, Turn, Walk
VOCES
Vienna Blood
Variety Studio: Actors on Actors
Under a Minute