The Novelist As Teacher

March 22, 2013 at 9:15 PMMar (Activism, Literature, Musings, Poetry, Theater)

chinua achebeChinua Achebe- the father of modern African literature- is no more. He is important, to all of us, not just as an author but also as a voice. His works not just broadened the world of literature but also broadened the meaning- inclusive of role and responsibility- of a creative artist, viewing novelist as teacher.

In one of his essays on language he says that man in his long evolutionary history has scored few greater success than the creation of human society. He, in the same essay, later says that the key to formation of human society is language. Because he realized this power of language he could spot the reverse of it i.e. language creating hierarchies in the mind and thus dividing the world into highs and lows. He not just spotted them and critiqued them, like in his famous talk critiquing Joseph Cornard’s novel Heart of Darkness and its colonial view of Africa exposing the blindness of the west that calls Africa dark, but also used language as a counter force through his creative and critical works. His words were not just speaking for Africa but also to Africa and also the West, teaching it to view history from the below. Being the father of modern African literature he began the re-imagining of Africa and fighting the western image of Africa with and within the language of the colonizer i.e. English itself. He used the master’s language against the master, thus inviting liberation of both the colonizer and the colonized from the baggage of colonialism, colonial images and thus humanizing both.

Chinua-AchebeThis use of master’s language was criticized by Ngugi-Wa Thiango in his powerful work ‘Decolonizing The Mind‘ holding the opinion that the mind gets colonized also by the language as it  “is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” and hence suggesting abandoning of the English language, inviting authors to write in native language. Ngugi later wrote all his works in Gikuyu and gave up English as a medium of expression, completely. Though it is a highly valid argument by Ngugi the limitation came in terms of Ngugi not being able to reach- his creative works, his message, his image breaking and image making- to a larger world, while Achebe reached a larger mass and thus altered the dominant image to a large extent. Though he used the language of the colonizer, for Achebe it was necessary that in the usage of  English one did not forget the true expression and experience of the soil. He was of the opinion that, “The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” His view had a dream of decolonizing even the colonizer’s mind and the language of the colonizer too.

In the year 1984, Siddhi- a tribe of African origin (brought to India by the Portuguese), in Manchikere (Karnataka) performed a play titled Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu which was an adaptation of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. This play opened the communication between the Siddhi tribe and the world outside and made it possible for the Siddhis to fight the stigma attached. It, while liberating the Siddhis from the stigma, it also liberated the world outside from their bias and their misconception. The politics and creative power of Achebe reached to his long lost separated brothers too.

When he visited Mysore once the Dalit activists took him to the Dalit colonies. He was very disturbed seeing the condition of the Dalits which made him say, “In Africa it is considered sin if the blood of God’s children is spilled on the ground. Looks like here it is considered to be virtuous to spill the blood of Dalits on mother earth.” It is no mystery to understand how Achebe was able to understand the plight of Dalits in India and how the tribes in India could relate to the creative work of Achebe. As Faiz said, “Badaa Hai Dard Ka Rishtaa…” Hence when Wole Soyinka says the loss is “personal” it is personal for us too and when he says he has lost a brother, we also realize that we too have lost a brother.

Rest in peace Chinua Achebe.

[The title is borrowed from Chinua Achebe’s essay of the same title]

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