Excerpt of The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors by Laura Miller
(Page 7 of 12)
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POETRY: Beware, Soul Brother (1971), Christmas in Biafra
Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, was a landmark of African
fiction and has justly remained a classic for more than forty years. Set in
the eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia in the late 1880s, it looks back at
the fierce collision of Nigeria's Ibo cultureinto which Achebe was
bornwith encroaching European power. Its tragic hero Okonkwo mounts a
doomed resistance to the white man that leaves him exiled and destroyed.
Achebe describes with marvelous clarityin the essays
of Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impedimentshow
he began to write partly in response to distorted Western views of Africa.
Contesting Europe's invention of the "dark continent," Achebe retold
the story of colonization from a Nigerian viewpoint, portraying a lost society
warmly without overidealizing it. He aimed to restore the humanity of
Africansboth in their own eyes and those of Western readers. While early
critics overemphasized the novel's anthropological aspects, with Things
Fall Apart Achebe also pioneered the fusion of Ibo folklore and idioms
with the Western novel, arriving at an African aesthetic in which the art of
storytelling is central to the tale. As he wrote: "Among the Ibo the art
of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with
which words are eaten."
Though Things Fall Apart has never been bettered
by its author, it was the first of a tetralogy spanning Nigerian history from
1880 to 1966. In Arrow of God, set during British rule in the 1920s,
the priest Ezeulu tests the power of his gods against those of his rivals and
the white government, while No Longer at Ease and A Man of the
People target corruption among the Nigerian inheritors of power in the
1960s with scourging and satirical wit.
Achebe stopped writing novels during the Nigerian civil
war in the late 1960s as he became involved with the defeated secessionist
Ibos. (In 1990, a car accident near Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist
down and the lack of adequate healthcare in his homeland has made a return
risky.) In this period the poetry of Beware, Soul Brother and Christmas
in Biafra, and the short stories of Girls at War, voiced his
disillusionment with bloodshed and nationalism. (More recent poems can be
found alongside Robert Lyons's photographs in Another Africa.) Anthills
of the Savannah, his first novel in more than twenty years, excitingly
pursues ideas he set out in his heartfelt polemic The Trouble With Nigeria.
Under a military regime in the fictional west African state of Kangan, three
boyhood friendsa journalist Ikem, a minister Chris, and the Sandhurst-trained
military dictator Samclash as Sam maneuvers to become president for life.
Highlighting corruption, Africa's leadership crises, and popular resistance to
tyranny, the novel brings women characters to the forepartly in response to
criticism of their backseat role in earlier works. With several narrators and
whole sections in pidgin, it is flawed and sometimes cumbersome, but never
dulltestament to Achebe's keen, mischievous independence in probing the
changing concerns of his society, and with an undeniable moral punch.
See Also: Other African writers whose fiction touches on colonization
and emerging nationhood include the Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri (whose
short stories also reflect the Nigerian civil war), the Kenyan Ngugi wa
Thiong'o, the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah and the Somali Nuruddin Farah. For
novels that illuminate the position of African women, see Changes by
the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, So Long a Letter by the Senegalese Mariama
Bâ, and Farah's political allegory about a circumcised Somali woman, From
a Crooked Rib.
Acker, Kathy 1947-1998 b. New York, New York
Reproduced with the
permission of the publisher, Viking Penguin. No part of this book may be
reproduced without written permission from the publisher.