Since the advent in this country of what is sometimes called New Memoir, that upwelling of personal narratives in the past few decades, it has become fashionable to disparage the memoir for, among other things, being available to everyone—the young, the unknown, and the marginal. This stance betrays some nostalgia for the memoirs of great men. Yet the innovators of American memoir, those writers who have expanded the artistic bounds of autobiographical writing—Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Hilton Als, D. J. Waldie, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel—have not tended, lately, to be great men. Beyond their formal ingenuity, these writers have insisted on the literary potential of individual lives. But they have not made heroes of themselves. Because in a successful memoir the narrator, who we might think of as the hero, is not swiftly ruined as often as she is slowly disassembled. And so the hero, and by proxy the self, is broken open and laid out before us without lament.
The Education of a British-Protected Child is Chinua Achebe’s first new book in twenty years. Random House describes it as a collection of personal essays, but the essays in this collection are only occasionally personal, and they are not of the variety of meditative writing one might shelve next to Montaigne or Sei Shonagon. The book isn’t so much a memoir as it is a revisiting of the issues and arguments that have defined Achebe’s work. The hero Achebe has become is not disassembled before us in these essays. If anything, he is, as an individual hero, remade.
Achebe begins his title essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture at Cambridge, with the sly suggestion that it is because his application to Cambridge was rejected that he is now a novelist and not a scholar. The essay then meanders through Achebe’s education, formal and informal, from the Nwafo Festival in his village to Treasure Island in boarding school, with the true subject of the essay, the place where he begins and ends, being the concept of middle ground. “The middle ground,” he writes, “is neither the origin of things nor the last things; it is aware of a future to head into and a past to fall back on.” At the end of the essay he reminds us:
I could have dwelt on the harsh humiliations of colonial rule or the more dramatic protests against it. But I am also fascinated by that middle ground I spoke about where the human spirit resists an abridgement of its humanity. And this was to be found primarily in the camp of the colonized, but now and again in the ranks of the colonizer too.
Achebe is everywhere in this collection even-handed, and provocatively so. He resists polarities wherever they present themselves, embracing both a “precolonial inheritance” and a “colonial inheritance,” appreciating both Christianity and Igbo tradition, and insisting, again, that the literature of Africa can be written in English.
Anyone who has read Achebe’s earlier collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments, will hear echoes of that work throughout The Education of a British-Protected Child. Conrad is flogged again, and repeatedly; John Buchan’s unfortunate sentence, “That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility,” is revisited several times; and the sixteenth-century letters from the king of Bukongo to the king of Portugal complaining about the barbaric behavior of Portuguese missionaries in Africa become a kind of refrain.
In this new collection Achebe returns to the vast task of recovering Africa’s history. He reminds us that in order to proceed with the colonial project, it was essential first for the colonizers to establish that Africans were a people without a history, without culture, without religion, and without education. Part of the tragedy in this, for the colonizers as much as the colonized, was that “these reporters actually came to believe their own stories—such was the complex psychology of the imperial vocation.” And that tragedy continues to play out, now, in America, as those false stories have been “bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself.”