Thursday, September 21, 2006

Home and Exile

Book number 13: Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe
Country: Nigeria

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Home and Exile is based upon three lectures Achebe gave at Harvard in 1998. It's an excellent starting point from which to commence reading African fiction, providing brief explanations of why literature is important for Africa and of the battles African writers have been fighting through their works. Broadly speaking, Achebe's lectures focus on the impact imperialism has had on Africa, perceptions of Africa and African literature. It is widely claimed that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, his most famous work, to provide an accurate perspective on African culture in response to Conrad's depiction of Africa in Heart of Darkness. Conrad's dehumanisation of Africans in Heart of Darkness was representative of the prevalent Western attitudes towards African peoples and their lack of 'civilisation', and their supposeldly inferior culture, customs, even brain capacity. Elspeth Huxley, in White Man's Country, explicitly expounded the view of her contemporary medical men - that the black man's brain ceases development at ten years of age, leaving him with a far inferior brain capacity to that of the white man. That opinion sounds ridiculous now, but 'the use of imperialist literature to justify degradation of a continent' affected not only Western popular perceptions of Africa but also those of the African people themselves. Achebe writes of Amos Tutuola and the reception of his novels in London; Dylan Thomas 'recognised Tutuola's merit instantly', but most other Western reviewers and even some educated Africans living in London at the time of the novel's publication slammed his work without even having read it, believing his African mind to be incapable of producing anything worth reading.

Achebe's battle has been to assert the value of Africa. He, and many others since, have tried to paint a true picture of African people, culture, customs. African authors (not just authors) have had to fight not only white imperialist ideas of superiority but also concepts of inferiority planted in African minds by white imperialists. Society and attitudes have developed a lot since the 1950s, but nothing can diminish the significance of what Achebe and other African authors have been accomplishing through giving Africa a voice. Their literature was an entirely new creation, not just because of what they were trying to acheive but because African writers refused to follow Western conventions in composing novels.

(Incidentally, the African Writers Series I mentioned a couple of days ago was the first ever attempt by a Western publisher to find and publish African literature of merit; perhaps Heinemann was the first to even accept that African literature could have merit.)


Lotus Reads said...

What an interesting review of what seems to be a very important book for anyone who loves reading about Africa, like myself. I was at a book launch the other day, the author in question was young Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she mentioned "Home and Exile" being a better read (for her) than "When Things Fall Apart".
I will have to try and get my hands on the book.

The Traveller said...

How interesting! Have you read her new novel? I found Purple Hibiscus very thought provoking, so I'm really looking forward to her next offering.

Lotus Reads said...

I'm about halfway through her next novel and enjoying it thoroughly. Purple Hibiscus was a gem, too. I couldn't stop thinking about the book for days after I had read it.

Stefanie said...

This sounds like a great book. I read This Fall Apart several years ago and really liked it. I'm adding this one to my reading list so i don't forget to look for it.

Anonymous said...

I'm another who is reading Half of A Yellow Sun at the moment: so far, I am not convinced it is better than Purple Hibiscus. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I'm wondering why I am reading it, whether the only reason I am is that it is Nigerian: otherwise, well, it is a little soap opera like, albeit well written.