Based on three lectures distinguished Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe gave at Harvard University in 1998, this short but trenchant work does not pretend to be a full-fledged autobiography. Instead, Achebe makes forceful use of his personal experiences to examine the political nature of culture. Born in 1930, the son of a Christian convert, young Achebe received a privileged colonial education and "was entranced by the far-away and long-ago worlds of the stories [in English books like Treasure Island
], so different from the stories of my home and childhood." Yet he and fellow university students indignantly rejected Anglo-Irishman Joyce Cary's highly praised novel Mister Johnson
, which bore no resemblance to their knowledge of Nigerian life. This encounter "call[ed] into question my childhood assumption of the innocence of stories," Achebe comments, using scathing assessments of white Kenyan writer Elspeth Huxley and Indian/Caribbean expatriate V.S. Naipaul to remind us that all literature reflects its creators' beliefs and prejudices. Achebe is not an enemy of Western culture; he merely asserts Africans' right to their own perspective and their own art, as exemplified in works like his groundbreaking 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart
. Though blunt, his argument is tempered by humor and a passionate belief in "the curative power of stories." --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Though it is labeled autobiographical by the publisher, this small book, which originated as three lectures given at Harvard University in December 1998, barely covers the rudiments of Achebe's long and productive life (he is now 70). But the great Nigerian novelist and poet, a master of compression, needs little more than 100 pages to tell the dramatic story of the emergence of a native African literature; in the 1950s, students at English-dominated universities started speaking out against the long European tradition of depicting Africans as "a people of beastly living, without a God, laws, religion," which dates back to Captain John Lok's voyage to West Africa in 1561. "Until the lions produce their own historian," says Achebe, quoting an African proverb of uncertain provenance, "the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter." With characteristic ease and economy, he traces the long African tradition of asserting the worth of the individual, born of Igbo myths that described each community as created separately with its own original ancestor. This notion of individuality, which made the Africans vulnerable to the Atlantic slave traders and to colonial occupation, is the same quality that defined the native African fiction and poetry that emerged in the 1950s, at the time of independence for many African nations. This slim volumeDtold in Achebe's subtle, witty and gracious styleDis one of those small gems of literary and historical analysis that readers will treasure and reread over the years. (June)
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