Achebe was born in Eastern Nigeria in 1930. He went to the local
public schools and was among the first students to graduate from
the University of lbadan. After graduation, he worked for the
Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer and Director
of External Broadcasting, and it was during this period that he
began his writing career.
He is the author, co-author, or editor of some seventeen books,
among them five novels: Things Fall
Apart, 1958; No Longer at
Ease, 1960; Arrow of God,
1964; A Man of the People,
1966; and Anthills of the Savannah,
1987. He is the editor of several anthologies, including the essay
collections Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments,
and the collection of poetry Beware
Soul Brother. He is the editor of the magazine, Okike,
and founding editor of the Heinemann series on African literature,
a list which now has more than three hundred titles. He is often
called the father of modern African literature. He is the recipient,
at last count, of some twenty-five honorary doctorates from universities
throughout the world and is currently the Charles P. Stevenson
Jr. Professor of English at Bard College.
The interview took place on two very different occasions. The
first meeting was before a live audience at the Unterberg Poetry
Center of the Ninety-second Street Y on a bitterly cold and rainy
January evening; the weather made the sidewalks and roads treacherous.
We were all the more surprised at the very large and enthusiastic
audience. The theater was almost packed. It was Martin Luther
King Jr.'s birthday; Achebe paid gracious tribute to him and then
answered questions from the interviewer and audience. The interviewer
and Achebe sat on a stage with a table and a bouquet of flowers
between them. Achebe was at ease and captured the audience with
stories of his childhood and youth.
The second session took place on an early fall day at Achebe's
house on the beautiful grounds where he lives in upstate New York.
He answered the door in his wheelchair and graciously ushered
his guest through his large, neat living room to his study, a
long, narrow room lined with many books on history, religion and
literature. There is a small, slightly cluttered desk where he
Achebe favors traditional Nigerian clothes and reminds one more
of the priest in Arrow of God than Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart.
His appearance is peaceful and his eyes wise. His demeanor is
modest, but when he begins to talk about literature and Nigeria,
he is transformed. His eyes light up; he is an assured, elegant
and witty story teller.
The year 1990 marked Achebe's sixtieth birthday. His colleagues
at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, where he is a professor
of English and chairman emeritus of the department, sponsored
an international conference entitled Eagle on Iroko in his honor.
Participants came from around the world to appraise the significance
of his work for African and world literature. The conference opened
on the day Nelson Mandela was liberated from prison, and the day
was declared a national holiday. There was a festive mood
during the week-long activities of scholarly papers, traditional
drama, dancing and banquets. The iroko is the tallest tree in
that part of Africa and the eagle soars to its height.
a month later, while on his way to the airport in Lagos to resume
a teaching post at Dartmouth, Achebe was severely injured in a
car accident. He was flown to a London hospital where he underwent
surgery and spent many months in painful recuperation. Although
confined to a wheelchair, he has made a remarkable recovery in
the past three years and, to the surprise of his family and many
friends throughout the world, is beginning to look and sound like
his old self.
Would you tell us something about the Achebe family and growing
up in an Igbo village, your early education, and whether there
was anything there that pointed you that early in the direction
I think the thing that
clearly pointed me there was my interest in stories. Not necessarily
writing stories, because at that point, writing stories was not
really viable. So you didn't think of it. But I knew I loved stories,
stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder
sister -- such as the story of the tortoise -- whatever scraps
of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging
around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began
going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different,
but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity
in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father
was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled
for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading
the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time
I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with
his family to his ancestral village.
When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered
stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays,
I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things,
even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to
find a lamp . . . fascinating to me because they were about things
remote, and almost ethereal. Then I grew older and began to read
about adventures in which I didn't know that I was supposed to
be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good
white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They
were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others
were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was
introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There
is that great proverb, that until the lions have their own historians,
the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did
not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to
be a writer. I had to be that historian. It's not one man's job.
It's not one person's job. But it is something we have to do,
so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony,
the travail, the bravery, even, of the lions.
You were among the first graduates of the great University of
Ibadan. What was it like in the early years of that university,
and what did you study there? Has it stuck with you in your writing?
Ibadan was, in retrospect, a great institution. In a way, it revealed
the paradox of the colonial situation, because this university
college was founded towards the end of British colonial rule in
Nigeria. If they did any good things, Ibadan was one of them.
It began as a college of London University, because under the
British, you don't rush into doing any of those things like universities
just like that. You start off as an appendage of somebody else.
You go through a period of tutelage. We were the University College
of Ibadan of London. So I took a degree from London University.
That was the way it was organized in those days. One of the signs
of independence, when it came, was for Ibadan to become a full-fledged
university. I began with science, then English, history and religion.
I found these subjects exciting and very useful. Studying religion
was new to me and interesting because it wasn't only Christian
theology; we also studied West African religions.
My teacher there, Dr. Parrinder, now an
emeritus professor of London University, was a
pioneer in the area. He had done extensive research in West Africa,
in Dahomey. For the first time, I was able to see the systems
-- including my own -- compared and placed side by side, which
was really exciting. I also encountered a professor, James Welch,
in that department, an extraordinary man, who had been chaplain
to King George VI, chaplain to the BBC, and all kinds of high
powered things before he came to us. He was a very eloquent preacher.
On one occasion, he said to me, "We may not be able to teach
you what you need, or what you want. We can only teach you what
we know." I thought that was wonderful. That was really the
best education I had. I didn't learn anything there that I really
needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on
my own. The English department was a very good example of what
I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any
of us would become a writer. That didn't really cross their minds.
I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They
put up a notice: Write a short story over the long vacation for
the departmental prize. I'd never written a short story before,
but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one
and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was
a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize
was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named
me and said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days
was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance
you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved
mention, that was very high praise.
I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, "You
said my story wasn't really good enough, but it was interesting.
Now what was wrong with it?" She said, "Well, it's the
form. It's the wrong form." So I said, "Ah. Can you
tell me about this?" She said, "Yes, but not now. I'm
going to play tennis; we'll talk about it. Remind me later, and
I'll tell you." This went on for a whole term. Every day
when I saw her, I'd say, "Can we talk about form?" She'd
say, "No, not now. We'll talk about it later." Then
at the very end she saw me and said, "You know, I looked
at your story again, and actually there's nothing wrong with it."
So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department
about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your
own and do it.
When you finished university, one of the first careers you embarked
upon was broadcasting with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
I got into it through the intervention of Professor Welch. He
had tried to get me a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge,
and it didn't work out. So the next thing was the broadcasting
department, which was newly started in Nigeria, with a lot of
BBC people. So that's how I got into it. It wasn't because I was
thinking of broadcasting. I really had no idea what I was going
to do when I left college. I'm amazed when I think about students
today. They know from day one what they are going to be. We didn't.
We just coasted. We just knew that things would work out. Fortunately,
things did work out. There were not too many of us. You couldn't
do that today and survive. So I got into broadcasting and then
discovered that the section of it where I worked, the Spoken Word
department, the Talks department, as it's called, was really congenial.
It was just the thing I wanted. You edited scripts. People's speeches.
Then short stories. I really got into editing and commissioning
short stories. Things were happening very fast in our newly independent
country, and I was soon promoted out of this excitement into management.
Note: First published in The Paris Review,
Issue no. 133 in 1995.]