First Person Singular

An African master recedes behind his own myth

In a letter to Chinua Achebe, John Updike once admired the swift and surprising ruin of the hero at the conclusion of Arrow of God. It was an ending, Updike ventured, that “few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.” The Nigerian novelist had to agree. “Of course,” he later wrote, “a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy ‘in a page or two’ the angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations.”

Those lamentations of the West, our tortured attachment to the individual, might help explain why we harbor such a chatter of anxiety around the notion of autobiography. Ever since the word entered the English language, the very concept has troubled critics of literature. In 1798, one year after the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of “autobiography,” the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel declared that such works were written by “neurotics,” authors plagued by “self-love,” and, most tellingly, “women who also coquette with history.”

Coincidentally or not, the term “autobiography” appeared during the ascendancy of the novel. And as the novel gradually became the locus of serious art, the autobiography and the memoir were increasingly accused of artlessness and narcissism. By 1997, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley was constructing a mythology of cultural collapse around the publication of Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss: “Thus we have a process of regression that marches steadily downhill from Ulysses to Portnoy’s Complaint to The Kiss.”

The idea that personal narrative is too small, too inward, too individual to reflect our grander collective concerns, is a variation on an attitude that Achebe once observed among critics of fiction. Because the drama in some African novels depended upon the fate of a group, not an individual, these works were dismissed as being too local in their reach. If this seems contradictory, the real problem, of course, was that the group in question was African. In his 1984 lecture, “The Writer and His Community,” Achebe remarked:

In the area of literature, I recall that we have sometimes been informed by the West and its local zealots that the African novels we write are not novels at all because they do not quite fit the specifications of that literary form which came into being at a particular time in specific response to the new spirit of individual freedom set off by the decay of feudal Europe and the rise of capitalism. This form, we were told, was designed to explore individual rather than social predicaments.

The African novel and the American memoir have both suffered from critiques fashioned around the word “universal,” a term so absurd in its scope and so vague in its meaning that it is all but useless for anything except reminding certain people that they do not matter. “I should like to see the word ‘universal’ banned altogether from discussions of African literature,” Achebe once declared, “until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include all the world.”

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.”

If the author treads over some of the same territory he covered twenty years ago, perhaps that is only testimony to how slowly we recover, and how awfully resilient the colonial legacy is. Then again, there is Achebe, the implied hero of the text, traveling on fellowships, attending conferences, receiving awards—all this serves as testimony to what Africa and its writers have salvaged from the wreckage of colonialism.

But Achebe does not seem quite as willing to undo himself in The Education as he might a fictional hero, and so his achievements begin to weigh rather heavily on the text. His essay “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration” begins, “Many years ago, I was one of a dozen or so foreign guests at a symposium,” and we often find Achebe like this in The Education, at a symposium, or attending a gathering held in his honor, or delivering an address. His essays rarely depend on these moments, or make much of them, with the exception of “Africa is People,” in which Achebe attends a meeting of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. He spends most of the proceedings wondering why he, an African novelist, was invited to a meeting in which Western bankers and economists are spinning fanciful stories out of the fate of Africa’s economy, until, in a “stab of insight,” he realizes that this is no more than a fiction workshop.

Achebe’s many personal anecdotes in The Education amount, in the end, to something like liner notes to the great songs of his novels. In this way, The Education invites a rather perverse comparison with Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. Perverse because where Hemingway is cruel, Achebe is humane; where Hemingway’s Africa is an empty setting, Achebe’s Africa is people; where Hemingway is prone to ugly displays of chauvinism, Achebe is empathic; and where Hemingway liked to fancy himself a great man, Achebe seems truly to be a great man. Nonetheless, fame and nostalgia trouble both The Education and Feast. Achebe’s laurels clutter his text like the empty oyster shells littering Hemingway’s bistro tables.

We are, as Americans, both African and European, and so we find ourselves, like Achebe, with a dual legacy. As Achebe puts it:

If the philosophical dictum of Descartes “I think, therefore I am” represents a European individualistic ideal, the Bantu declaration “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” represents an African communal aspiration: “A human is human because of other humans.”

An artful autobiography can bridge these concepts, opening a mind to us while offering up a self who serves as a map to our collective humanity. In resisting the autobiographical mode, Achebe forfeits his opportunity to inhabit that particular middle ground.

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Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays. Her work has appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as numerous magazines.