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.
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
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.