Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease

If you didn’t see it on twitter on facebook a few days ago, you may have seen it somewhere like BuzzfeedChinua Achebe has died again. First in 2013, and then again in 2015. First as tragedy and then as farce.

These sorts of things happen, a bit like forest fires. You can track down the place where it started if you want—as the novelist Porochista Khakpour did here—but to understand and predict a forest fire, you need to pay attention to why there was so much dry flammable material waiting for a spark. That spark is eventually going to come, but the fire only goes “viral” if there’s something there to burn.

With Achebe, there was something there to burn. While Facebook and Twitter are excellent vectors for this kind of misinformation, Chinua Achebe is the sort of writer who would die twice. For one thing, he's a hyper-canonized writer whose sainthood outstrips his actual literary currency: because he is more deeply revered than he is deeply read, one can fall easily into the orthodox reaction to news of his passing—gestures like #RIP—without the encumbrance of a personal relationship to the author himself getting in the way. To a great many people (particularly non-Nigerians), the idea of Chinua Achebe means a lot more than does the actual writer himself. Their experience of him is socially mediated, and socially mandated: his books are praised, assigned, and mythologized. Sometimes they are also read, but not as often as you’d expect.

There are two things I might seem to be saying, here, that I’m not actually saying. First, I am not saying that Achebe is overrated. No African writer is more widely known and revered, but if any writer deserves it, he does: it is hard to overstate how foundational and generative his work was, and has been, for generations of writers. It’s also just really good, to put it simply: teaching his novels for many years has taught me that they are genuinely great novels, deceptively simple. It is also worth saying that, as the general editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, he built an archive that filled the space where “African Literature” had never existed before. The literary foundation he produced, for better or for worse, is something that African writers in English find themselves standing on. Precisely because he did so much to define “The African Writer” as a thing (and “The African Novel”), his actual novels and the actual writer tend to disappear under the myth; when he had actually died, a lot of non-Africans who made a show of mourning him hadn’t actually read him: they knew the legend better than the writer.

However, I am also not condemning people for being bad readers, here; this is not a jeremiad that ignorant Americans don’t read African literature or know who Achebe is. This might be true, but it’s not the relevant point. If Achebe was more widely read than revered, his death wouldn’t have occurred twice, but his books do carry such a heavy burden of expectation and praise that it really is hard to read him outside the space of his canonization. Moreover, when people gestured in reverence towards the figure of the great African writer by tweeting his obituary and typing #RIP, they didn’t do it because they hadn’t read him, or because they didn’t know who he was. Such gestures emerge from the little that people do know, not what they don’t. Even if people don’t have much familiarity with his work, or only vaguely remember reading his book in college, or have a vague sense that they should have read him, or have heard he’s very important, it is in all cases precisely because people have a positive relationship to the idea of Chinua Achebe that news of his death would strike them as requiring a reaction. It’s too bad that people don’t know his work better, and it’s too bad that they didn’t remember him dying two years ago. But #RIP is the correct reaction to his death. And it doesn’t matter very much whether or not it’s genuine. Formulaic gestures of mourning obviate the necessity of having a direct relationship with the deceased; it’s a gesture of respect, a bit like an agnostic or Protestant bowing their head in Mass; you don’t have to believe, yourself, to respect those who do. Posting a link and a #RIP is a gesture, and a gesture of respect to a writer who deserves it is something I can only respect, in turn.

I’d like to suggest that the reason Chinua Achebe died a second time is that he hadn’t died in 2013. It is certainly true that the human being who carried that name—who was first christened Albert and who renamed himself, as so many African writers do—passed away in 2013, not 2015. But that person was also not, in one very particular sense, the same person as the person who wrote Things Fall Apart. Christopher Okigbo was not the only literary casualty of the Biafran war. The writer who had produced four remarkable novels in eight short years—what Wole Soyinka once called the burst of “unrelieved competence” that was Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966)—essentially ceased to exist after the Biafran war, which began in 1967 and came to a horrible end by 1971.

It was always hard to talk about the fact that Achebe stopped writing after Biafra, but in a way, he did. He had been working on a fifth novel in 1967, but he put it aside and instead became an important part of the Biafran Ministry of Information: he lobbied foreign presidents for diplomatic support, gave interviews to foreign magazines, cultivated the support of writers and artists in the West, and served on the committee that wrote the Ahiara Declaration, a document which describes “The Principles of the Biafran Revolution.” He wrote poetry. After the war, he left Nigeria, which he no longer recognized as home. We don’t tend to think of Achebe as a writer in exile, but he left Nigeria as a Biafran, and in a way, he never really returned. He would spend most of the rest of his life in the United States; after four novels in eight years, he would write one more in the subsequent forty-two.

Achebe’s literary career can be divided into before and after Biafra. The writer who is most broadly remembered is the Nigerian author who stopped writing after Biafra. Chinua Achebe the person kept busy, of course, and anyway, there are few writers in the world who have such laurels to rest upon; his four novels from the 1960s were enough, more than enough, to put him in whatever literary pantheon you want to imagine. But the writer who is canonized is that writer, and the author of Things Fall Apart didn’t really come back from Biafra. This is something I didn’t understand until he published his memoir in 2012, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. It could also have been called a Biafran History of Chinua Achebe, because it shows ad tells what happened to the writer who wrote four books in eight years, how he came to be a Biafran writer in exile.

Before the war, he had been an Igbo and a Nigerian, and this identities were in literary harmony. His novels about Nigeria are also novels about Igbo people, exclusively, but there is little or no dissonance at the time he wrote them, or at the times he wrote about. Igbo and Nigerian were not mutually exclusive. During the war, however, they became incompatible, and in his own mind at least, that stayed the case long after the war.

As he would bitterly write in There Was a Country:

“It was now clear to many of us that we, the Nigerian people, were not what we had thought we were. The Nigeria that meant so much to all of us was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not embraced us, the Igbo people and other Easterners, as full-fledged members of the Nigerian family.”

It isn’t just Biafra that he mourned; there had also been a country called “Nigeria” that he had belonged to, but which he would never quite return to: it had become clear to him that it had ever existed, and the way the passage above transforms “we, the Nigerian people” in the first sentence to the “us, the Igbo people and other Easterners” gives you There Was a Country in a nutshell. But it also shows why Biafra was such an abrupt halt to the first phase of Achebe’s career. Those four novels in eight years were built out of the boundless futurity that it was possible to imagine in and for Africa in the era of decolonization and independence, and for the Igbo people in Nigeria. For Achebe, Biafra was metonymic for something that was happening across the continent, as the optimistic phase of decolonization gave way to whatever you want to call what followed. And even though much of Achebe’s early work functions as warnings about what could happen, it is the fact that so much of it did happen that made him stumble: what happens to Cassandra when her warnings come true? What does she talk about then?

In a way, the literary project that he began with Things Fall Apart in 1958, had come to completion. He had told a story about the colonial past in his early novels and A Man of the People had predicted the future: the novel ends with military coup and its publication just barely preceded an actual military coup, in Nigeria. It was his last 1960’s novel, and it ended with the thing that also brought the optimistic era of the 1960’s to an end in Nigeria, and elsewhere on the continent.

After Biafra, Achebe left Nigeria, a man without a country, and he struggled to find a new way of writing. He wrote poetry and essays and children’s books and he taught African literature, instead of writing. In 1975, he returned to Nigeria, and spent the next decade editing Okike, “An African Journal of New Writing.” He re-engaged with Nigeria’s politics, and in 1986, he finally produced his long-awaited new novel, Anthills of the Savannah, his best or worst novel, depending on who you ask. But his political hopes for Nigeria would be dashed. The military dictatorship would ban the PRP, the party for which he served as deputy vice-president in 1984, but even by then Achebe had already thrown up his hands in disgust. Nigeria continued not to reciprocate his affection.

In 1990, after a serious car accident left him confined to a wheel-chair, Achebe was flown to Great Britain to recover. He once said that if he had not been taken to England, he would have died in a Nigerian hospital. You don’t have to read too much into his words to hear him describing the way he left Nigeria so as to keep from being killed by what Nigeria had become. He would spend the rest of his life in the United States, where he would teach at Bard College, and then Brown; he would read poetry, remember, and in 2013, he passed away.

If Chinua Achebe survived Biafra, but the author of Things Fall Apart (and the other three tragedies he wrote in the 1960’s) did not. This is not a fact to mourn; it just is. Achebe was a different person into his forties, and part of the reason is the tragedy of Biafra. But part of it is just the passage of time. After all, who isn’t a different person in middle age? Amidst the tragedy of death is the banality of life, and if there’s one thing the author of No Longer at Ease understood, it’s that time keeps moving on. In the sequel to Things Fall Apart, a novel that ends with Okonkwo’s suicide, Okonkwo’s grandson talks about how “Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever.” Arguing that “suicide ruins a tragedy,” Okonkwo’s grandson would argue that:

“It’s much too simple. Tragedy isn’t like that at all. I remember an old man in my village, a Christian convert, who suffered one calamity after another. He said life was like a bowl of wormwood which one sips a little at a time world without end. He understood the nature of tragedy.”

There are two things I want to say, then, about Achebe’s second death. One is that, as his own work reminds us, the real tragedy is not that life ends with death, but that it doesn’t. Funerals and obituaries are survivors’ stories, the ways we narrate the absence of loved ones so that we can keep going. But if we wish that the deceased should “rest in peace,” what we really mean is that their death unsettles us, disturbs us, and grieves us. We wish that they would rest in peace because our hearts are anything but peaceful. Achebe died in 2013, but his absent presence continues, in those who remember him. One does not stop saying #RIP, ever, while memory survives.

At the same time, though, if the body lives a set period of time, a writer’s body of work has a different kind of life. After it is contemporary, it becomes historical. Achebe’s great works stopped being contemporary a long time ago, and they survive because they are historical. History is another way of describing the fact that the past is never really passed; the past changes as we change, and so does art: because Achebe’s body of work became historical a long time ago, that’s precisely why it survives the death of his body, why it can feel like he didn’t die the first time. Either the author of Things Fall Apart died in 1971, or he’s still alive now and any occasion to remember the vitality of what he did—even in so modest a way as tweeting #RIP—is a good thing. If you didn’t realize that Achebe was already dead, you were right, even if you didn’t know it.