The three essays contained in this all too slim book are actually lectures that Achebe gave at Harvard University in 1998. The essays are interlinked and form a sustained argument from start to end. The theme of the argument is the book’s title Home and Exile and this collection, which contains glimpses of his childhood, motivations on becoming a writer, and of his home and people, is considered his first autobiographical work. The lectures, in order of presentation, are ‘My Home Under Imperial Fire’, ‘The Empire Fights Back’ and ‘Today, the Balance of Stories’. Due to the nature of this collection, it would not make much sense to talk about each section separately.
Achebe starts by introducing the audience to the Igbo people, his
tribe nation. He quotes the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of tribe as “group of (esp. primitive) families or communities linked by social, religious or blood ties and usually having a common culture and dialect and a recognized leader.” But Achebe explains that this definition with its categories does not apply to the Igbo. Instead, the dictionary’s definition of nation as “a community of people of mainly common descent, history or language, etc., forming a state or inhabiting a territory” is more adequate and preferable. And to seal this argument:
I like it because, unlike the word tribe, which was given to me, nation is not loaded or derogatory, and there is really no good reason to continue answering a derogatory name simply because somebody has given it to you.
And on Igbo culture and attitudes, especially towards land and foreign rule (British colonial rule), he sums up:
The Igbo have always lived in a world of continual struggle, motion and change – a feature conspicuous in the tautness, overreach and torsion of their art; it is like a tightrope walk, a hairbreadth brush with the boundaries of anarchy. This world does not produce easy-going people. Those who visit the Igbo in their home or run into them abroad or in literature are not always prepared for their tense and cocky temperament. The British called them argumentative.
With this quick cultural education placed in the context of his childhood experiences, Achebe moves on to his university days. His ideas of what constitute home and exile, interspersed with specific situations, help shed light on his views of literature – especially of the West’s acceptance of what constitutes legitimate African literature.
Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, published in 1952, which Time magazine quoted as “the best novel ever written about Africa” is the starting point of Achebe’s reasoning on how Europeans wrongly viewed African literature. When Achebe’s English professor introduced this novel in college, the reaction was not what he expected at all:
Here was a whole class of young Nigerian students, among the brightest of their generation, united in their view of a book of English fiction in complete opposition to their English teacher, who was moreover backed by the authority of metropolitan critical judgement.
What Achebe and his classmate disagree on, in principle, is the manner in which Africans are portrayed. He supports his argument further by citing from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and from a study by Hammond & Jablow, which analyzed literature about sub-Saharan Africa spanning four hundred years, and many of these basically contained the same kind of derogatory views of Africans. Achebe’s reasoning is that it served the European slave trade to portray African as savages and a backward civilization. With further reflection and some important digressions, Achebe concludes:
the strongest vote of confidence we can give our writers and their work – to put them on notice that we will go to their offering for wholesome pleasure and insight, and not for a rehash of old stereotypes which gained currency long ago in the slave trade and poisoned, perhaps forever, the wellsprings of our common humanity.
On writing and on his motivations:
For me, there are three reasons for becoming a writer. The first is that you have an overpowering urge to tell a story. The second, that you have intimations of a unique story waiting to come out. And third, which you learn in the process of becoming, is that you consider the whole project worth the considerable trouble.
Achebe often believed that writers could write better about their home country than foreigners could. Not that it was impossible the later, but such writers needed to shed their preconceptions first. He explains his viewpoint of this specifically regarding Joyce Cary as:
[Cary] was the product of a tradition of presenting Africa that he had absorbed at school and Sunday school, in magazines and in British society in general, at the end of the nineteenth century. In theory, a good writer might outgrow these influences, but Cary did not
And to drive the point further, Achebe criticizes Hamond & Jablow’s analysis on what they consider good writing on Africa:
I suppose we can all differ as to the exact point where good writing becomes overwhelmed by racial cliché. But overwhelmed or merely undermined, literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields place to stereotype and malice. And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story.
Publication of Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drunkard opened the doors for West African writing, including his own Things Fall Apart back in the 1950s. Due praise is given to the publishing house of William Heinemann, which had faith in African writers and, thus, published their work. In addition, praise is given to Alan Hill, a director at Heinemann, for taking risks and investing in African literature. But African publishing success was met with harsh criticism, mostly unfounded due to racial preconceptions. One of these critics was Elspeth Huxley, a white settler in Kenya who wrote about Africa. From an example cited by Achebe, one can see her colonial upbringing and attitude of white supremacy:
African art, if it is genuine, is never comfortable, noble or serene; perhaps for that reason it may never reach the heights – rather will it explore the depths of fear, torment and intimidation, with relish of humor. It is possessed by spirits and the spirits are malign.
Another sore point for Achebe is fellow Nigerian and contemporary writer, Buchi Emecheta’s view:
[On African writing] After reading the first page you tell yourself you are plodding. But when you are reading the same thing written by an English person or somebody who lives here you find you are enjoying it because the language is so academic, so perfect… But with some of my books you can’t tell that easily any more because, I think, using the language everyday and staying the culture my Africanness is, in a way, being diluted. My paperback publisher, Collins, has now stopped putting my books in the African section.
This is truly a frightening view. Emecheta is basically saying that the voice of the distinct ‘otherness’ should be diluted for the sake of both publication success and conformity to clarity of the host culture. So in the end, there should be one voice of world literature expressed in one identical way using one uniform language of perfected English… I think not. The ‘otherness’ factor is what makes literature alive and interesting, and a true artist writes for the sake of creating art and not for the commercial demands of publishers. And in the words of Achebe: “The psychology of the dispossessed can be truly frightening.”
Another author to receive a scolding here, and rightfully so, is Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul. Achebe talks about his ‘Our Universal Civilization’ lecture, whose thesis was:
the civilization that began in Europe and spread to America has earned the right to be accepted as the civilization for everyone because it has made “extraordinary attempt to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the current of that world’s thought.”
For those familiar with Naipaul’s writing, or from A Bend in the River, which Achebe talks about and is apparently modeled after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and the latter is now in Achebe’s graces compared to Naipaul), Naipaul is pompous, misogynistic and frankly, racist. The idea of having a universal civilization is so demeaning to all other non-European cultures and peoples that I can understand why Achebe felt compelled to wag his finger at Naipaul.
Achebe clearly believes in home and thinks writers need not relocate in pursuit of big dreams because ultimately, the only person who’s going to write as if he’s from some certain place is the person who calls that place home.
To any writer who is working in the remote provinces of the world and may now be contemplating giving up his room or selling his house and packing his baggage for London or New York I will say: Don’t trouble to bring your message in person. Write it where you are, take it down that little dusty road to the village post office and send it!