Literature as a weapon against colonialism
Tej N. Dhar
Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe.
Anchor Books, 2001. Pages 115.
Chinua Achebe has already established his rightful place in
the world of letters. Apart from writing influential novels, poems, and short
stories, Achebe has also written ground-breaking essays. Without being unduly
loud, flashy, modish, or controversial, he has emerged as a critic of seminal
importance, and has exercised considerable influence in shaping our response to
Home and Exile is his most recent
book of essays, a published version of three lectures he delivered at
University in 1998. They have a strong autobiographical flavour, because Achebe
looks back on the significant moments of his literary journey right from his
childhood days in his home in
to his present state of exile in the USA.
The volume begins with Achebe’s
life with his parents in their village, where his father returned after doing
missionary work at several places. Since the home was under "imperial fire," his
reflective gaze provides a clear picture of what it meant to live in a colonial
setting. He contests misconceptions about Igbo people by calling them a nation
and not a tribe. In pre-colonial times, Igbo villages and towns obeyed no king
and no central authority; they were uniquely positioned to enjoy perfect
autonomy, which was lost to them only after colonial powers imposed their ways
on them - a clear rebuff to historians who wrote about their barbaric and
Achebe’s encounter with Joyce
Carey’s work is well known by now. His re-telling of the incident, however,
makes us understand that the likes of Carey exercised power over the minds of
Africans because of their "absolute power over narrative." Basing their work on
the "tools of try scholarly fantasies and pseudo-sciences," even the best of
them created a shattering image of the inferiority of the African race, for
which they deserve to be censured. This helped Achebe to understand that the
innocence of literature is a myth, and one has to see its political implications
with adult, mature eyes. However, he does not plead for any special theory of
reading, certainly not the try post-colonial variety, though some of its
proponents have used his writings in support of their views.
Achebe asserts that writers have
not merely to write back to the Empire but also to fight it with spirit and
conviction. He says that writers have to combat the "stereotypes of malice"
contained in the writings of Europeans about
which left people with a "badly damaged sense of the self." The process of
colonisation did not stop at exercising political control over people; it aimed
at damaging their psyche by colonising their stories. The job of the
post-colonial writer is to rescue narratives from the pernicious control of the
colonials, by writing their versions, and thus asserting "the curative power of
stories." With loving care and a sense of satisfaction Achebe traces the rise of
the new African writing, and expresses his warm appreciation of the writers’
attempt to use their skill and imagination for erasing the misrepresentation of
their people and infusing a sense of pride and a spirit of confidence in them.
greatest strength lies in his being firmly rooted in his soil and with his
people, even though he is not always among them. He disparages writers who
uphold the idea of universalism in art, because it virtually implies accepting
and imitating western culture and civilisation.
does not need "copycats but those able to bring hitherto untold stories, along
with new ways of telling."
Because of his concern for one’s
place and clime, of pride in one’s cultural moorings, Achebe is critical of
writers, even the ones with firm reputations, who do not respect this: of Buchi
Emecheta, who self-avowedly minimises her "Africanness" to do well in the global
market; of V. S. Naipaul, for writing dark and unwholesome books on India and
Africa, which Achebe considers "pompous rubbish"; of Salman Rushdie, for saying
that "literature has nothing to do with a writer’s home address." Quite
understandably, Achebe writes warmly and approvingly about R. K. Narayan,
because he "invested in
did not take himself out."
For the same reasons, Achebe does
not approve of "expatriation and exile as intrinsically desirable goals." These
may be fashionable, but may not produce good writing. Implicitly, he also
suggests that the Empire has not to be fought with mere words, with verbal
pyrotechnics or flourishes of style, but with one’s strength, which derives from
one’s place and culture.
To sum up, Home and Exile is a very
readable, wise, and fruitful account of Achebe’s growth as a writer of uncommon
sanity and exceptional clarity, which sets him apart from both European and
non-European writers. He affirms the importance of the narrative as a powerful
weapon of defiance, but stresses that it has to bear the imprint of a writer’s
social and cultural bearings and not of spurious and fashionable ideologies of
western supermarkets. He is particularly hard on deracinated intellectuals whose
espousal of universal culture and values does not augur well for the future of
less privileged societies, because it threatens them with new and subtler kinds