Chinua Achebe, the legendary Nigerian novelist, died on March 21, placing a bookend on a life that witnessed enormous political, cultural and social upheaval. As a writer who journeyed fluidly across boundaries of language, nation, ethnicity and culture, he inscribed revolution into the consciousness of generations of young people across Africa as they wrestled with the legacy of colonialism, war, and oppression. His voice became an emancipatory organ for his countrymen and his diaspora, and his literary perspective sweeping enough to capture a beautiful spectrum of human experience. And it happened on a continent that had historically been demonized, stereotyped and written off as hopeless by its colonial masters.
Achebe was also a fearless crosser of borders, with a dynamic grasp of the power of migration–of people as well as words. Things Fall Apart was translated into dozens of languages and broke through countless barriers in the literary world. The author himself spent much of his life in England and the United States, drawing richly from the social interfaces he encountered as an African writer and teacher in a cultural realm that would forever brand him as other.
Achebe’s landmark 1977 essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is best known for its trenchant criticism of a work many see as a “classic” of colonial-era literature. But toward the end of the piece, in which he assails Conrad as a virulent racist and “purveyor of comforting myths,” he illuminates contrasting aspects of the migratory experience. In a discussion of language and appropriation, he implies a stark contrast between two forms of border crossing. First there is the colonial invasion depicted in Conrad’s novel:
Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?
Achebe ends with a somewhat jarring reference to a recent news report that reflects the same colonial mentality, but in a context closer to our physical and mental habitats:
The Christian Science Monitor, a paper more enlightened than most, once carried an interesting article written by its Education Editor on the serious psychological and learning problems faced by little children who speak one language at home and then go to school where something else is spoken. It was a wide-ranging article taking in Spanish-speaking children in America, the children of migrant Italian workers in Germany, the quadrilingual phenomenon in Malaysia, and so on. And all this while the article speaks unequivocally about language. But then out of the blue sky comes this:
“In London there is an enormous immigration of children who speak Indian or Nigerian dialects, or some other native language.”
I believe that the introduction of dialects which is technically erroneous in the context is almost a reflex action caused by an instinctive desire of the writer to downgrade the discussion to the level of Africa and India. And this is quite comparable to Conrad’s withholding of language from his rudimentary souls. Language is too grand for these chaps; let’s give them dialects!
In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress. Look at the phrase native language in the Science Monitor excerpt. Surely the only native language possible in London is Cockney English. But our writer means something else — something appropriate to the sounds Indians and Africans make!
Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.
Conrad sought to rob a people of their voice; Achebe crafted stories that cultivated powerful new languages. At the end of a literary conversation that spanned over eight decades, he left behind a more globalized world, swirling with a flow of people and ideas, collectively extending the narrative threads that he spun from his people’s own words.