Phi Beta Cons

More on Post-Colonial Literature

I think it would be a mistake to think Achebe is condemning traditional culture, if only because it would seem out of character for Achebe. Describing the disappearing late-19th century culture of the Igbo (Nigeria’s largest ethnic group) was one of the main reasons he wrote Things Fall Apart: It offered not only a sharp contrast to the drudgery of the ‘schemes’ dreamt up during colonial times, but it also contrasted the mimicry he perceived in the Africans being reared for leadership positions in the soon-to-be-independent Nigeria. (I suppose I’m going to have to re-read it now, since people seem to have different impressions about the book’s plain meaning.)
But his sympathy and desire to return to something of a properly traditional Africa is really what makes Achebe (and other prominent African authors from Ngugi wa Thiong’o to Ayi Kwei Armah) very different from, say, Kazuo Ishiguro or V.S. Naipaul, both of whom pride themselves on being not Japanese or Trinidadian/Indian novelists, but novelists of the British mode. Naipaul—an ‘Indian’ who hadn’t been to India until his 30s—is a personal testament to what empires have the power to do to cultures and peoples.
To Naipaul, British colonialism irrevocably changed the world, and possibly (on balance) for the better. ‘Why try to go back to the way things were?’ his work always seems to wonder. Achebe, a self-described “cultural nationalist” as I noted earlier, cannot reasonably be said to possess this sympathy. As Anthony says, neither offers any easy solutions to reconcile that “chasm between the traditional and the modern,” but Achebe does harbor a fondness — I think he’d be the first to agree — for the former.
 These revivalist sentiments have now swept across African literature – I think it’s telling a witch-doctor is the protagonist of Ngugi’s new epic novel, The Wizard of the Crow (first published, like all of his work nowadays is, in Kikuyu). I wouldn’t give too much credit to the notion that all of this is just wishful thinking and remembrance, rather than political manifesto, on the authors’ parts.
To really get away from the neo-traditionalism, you’d need to go to the younger African authors, who have no memory of colonial, much less precolonial, times: I suppose the ‘in’ examples (setting aside the autobiographical child-soldier accounts) are the Nigerian authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Uzodinma Iweala. 

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.