There Will Be a Memoir: Chinua Achebe and Biafra

Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country, will be published tomorrow, and I will buy it and read it. That’s just a given. Achebe is a very sparing writer, as careful a craftsman as you’ll find and he’s never prone to writing just for the sake of doing so. If there was ever a writer whose every word, sentence, paragraph, and book deserved to be written, I’m tempted to say it’s him. And so, a new piece of creative work from him is a celestial event, or at least as rare.

I can’t review his book, of course, because I don’t have it yet

I actually requested a review copy and Penguin sent me a copy of Zadie Smith’s NW instead. Make of that what you will.
. For that, try Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ike Anya or Chika Unigwe or Noo Saro-Wiwa or Uzodinma Iweala or until I’ve had a chance to write a proper review. In the meantime, let me comment on a book I haven’t read. And if that’s an odd suggestion, let’s think about why.

When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, after all, a lot of people who hadn’t read the book—and who categorically refused to read it—condemned both the novel and its author, as everyone knows. But what was the significance of such people having not actually read the book in question? Would it have been better if they had read the book and then murdered Rushdie? In fact, as Talal Asad pointed out a few years later, the question of whether one has “read” a book or not is more complicated than it might initially seem:

Many commentators have insisted that most protesting Muslims haven't read the book. Clearly most of them haven't. However, as pastiche, The Satanic Verses draws on a wide variety of literary texts, reproduces words and phrases from half a dozen languages, and alludes to as many national and religious settings In what sense precisely can Western readers who have little familiarity with these multiple references be said to have read the book?

One could easily read the book without really reading it, you know? And one could read the book without understanding what you had read. A book like The Satanic Verses will make no sense at all without reference to the socio-political context that makes it meaningful. And especially when different communities bring different understandings of that socio-political context and content to bear on the text, incompatible misreadings are both inevitable and, almost, more interesting than the book itself. For example, if you read The Satanic Verses as “free speech,” chances are good that you’re secular enough to see the attack on religion as something to be tolerated or protected; if you see it as no big deal, you are very likely endowed with the right kinds of ignorance to be able to downplay the extent to which an attack on Islam is an attack on Muslims. At the same time, if you read a book like The Satanic Verses as hate speech, it may be because you are knowledgeable enough to see “blasphemy” as continuous with histories of violence, or because you don’t hold “free speech” to be, in and of itself, a transcendent good, or because you are religious enough to feel implicated in an attack on religion.

These matters aren’t simple, and, of course, not reading The Satanic Verses is the best way to be satisfied with either of these approaches. And on the other hand, the more deeply you immerse yourself in the book itself, the more carefully and sympathetically you involve yourself in the complexities of the underlying issues, the less satisfying either narrative is likely to be. Yet does some of that social reality become less visible as you come to know the book itself better? After all, there’s a kind of bare ideological struggle that emerges when the text itself is out of the way; if nothing else, the controversy over The Satanic Verses brought to the surface a lot of pain and anger and rage that had nothing necessarily to do with the book itself, and which certainly weren’t caused by it. Sometimes the sharp edges of a conflict become most visible when they aren’t muffled by the book itself, when you aren’t talking about the actual words on the page but about the thing which you’ve projected onto them. I wonder if, at those moments, the consequences of a book become uniquely available, when we see the point where the rubber meets the road and where it begins to matter that words were put to paper and put into circulation.

I say all this because, of course, a book like Achebe’s memoir is alive even before it’s born, and we can find traces of that vitality in the things people say even before they’ve read it. It these moments, they tell us something about the eyes through which they’ll read it when they do, the preconceptions and perspective which will frame how they select and sort through the bag of stories they find between the covers. There is a social reality waiting to be evoked, and if we focus too much on the text itself, that social reality will disappear.

After all, there is a reason why Americans are still fighting the civil war, why stories about the dead are still taken so seriously by the living. A confederate battle flag means what it does, in part, because of the eyes people use to see it, and even if the wounds are long healed—or, at least, the dead are long buried—it isn’t difficult to see the injustices of the present mirrored in stories about the past, to use the past to air contemporary grievances, settle new scores, or make sense of old traumas that remain.

Biafra is Nigeria’s civil war, and just as it took the United States nearly a century to even begin to address the failures of reconstruction, it is now—forty years after the secession of Biafra from Nigeria was crushed by military force and a total-war economic blockade—that Nigerians are addressing the aftermath of Igbo secession and the total war waged to forcefully reintegrate them. In some ways, perhaps, Nigeria remains more a nation in theory than a nation in fact. Or at least that’s what all the Nigerians who see themselves as Igbo first, or Yoruba first, or Hausa, or any of the other hundreds of distinguishable ethnic and linguistic groups proclaim, when they quote Nnamdie Azikiwe and say that Nigeria is simply an “expression of geography.”

In Nigeria, for example, this is the problem that seems to be framing discussions of Achebe’s book, at least in some of the louder corners of the internet. As Olajumoke Verissimo noted—astutely asking who the book’s audience is supposed to be—the bits of the memoir that have so far surfaced seem to “encourage ethnocentricity,” and have “furthered ethnic cyber-war on social media and online pages of national newspapers.” People are particularly up in arms because of the op-ed that Achebe published in The Guardian, an uncharacteristically direct accusation of intentional genocide on the part of both the Federal state and revered (former) leaders like Obafemi Awolowo.

The op-ed begins: “Almost 30 years before Rwanda, before Darfur, more than 2 million people – mothers, children, babies, civilians – lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria.
It’s this charge that’s dominated the book’s Nigerian press, so far as I can see, the accusation, on the one hand, that Awolowo hatched “a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations,” and alleging that Awolowo did this because the Igbo’s dominance of the country was a threat to his power, a strategy which the Federal government continued to carry out after the war. Igbo persecution is “one of the main reasons for the country's continued backwardness,” Achebe argues, because

"mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war – ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery. Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants and other base elements of the society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political, or special-interest group. That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today.

It’s curious to me that national “mediocrity” should be the term used to decry national marginalization, and I wonder if such language can avoid indexing very old arguments over which tribes were more progressive, advanced, backwards, or barbaric. I wonder what kind of exceptionality is being claimed for the Igbo people here. I’ve also seen accusations online that Achebe is simply angry because Wole Soyinka got the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 and Achebe did not (and Soyinka is Yoruba). That last one is obviously silly, but even the existence of a ridiculous charge like that is not nothing, and indexes the same problem: by emphasizing the “mediocrity” and “backwardness” which the nation has sunk to (because of their exclusion), it’s hard not to feel a kind of Igbo chauvinism seeping through. Is it actually there? I have no idea, as I said. But the fact that a Yoruba political figure like Femi Fani-Kayode is accusing Achebe of historical revisionism, or that Chief Ayo Adebanjo charges him with a “pathological hatred for Awolowo and the Yoruba race” is worth at least noting. And if it's never so simple as any of this, it’s can also never completely be disassociated from this sort of thing. When you write about the Biafran war, and you’re Chinua Achebe, this is the prism your words get reflected through, the narratives you cannot help but be implicated in.

I bring all this up because if you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ike Anya or Chika Unigwe or Noo Saro-Wiwa or Uzodinma Iweala—all Nigerians reviewing the book in prominent American or British newspapers, for what it's worth—you will find almost none of the personalities, dirty laundry, and petty score-settling. Why is that? Is it that Americans and Britons can’t be bothered to learn about that stuff, so it got edited out or was never written? Maybe. Is it fair to observe that all of these writers hail, more or less, from the area of Nigeria that was briefly Biafra? That seems unkind; that seems like I’m calling them propagandists, and I’m not. Is it fair to observe that Achebe’s decades-long residence in the United States might be an important prism through which he remembers the past, or understands the utility of dredging it up? I don’t know, I have no idea. Are the bitter conversations going on in Nigeria about the book, and about Achebe’s Guardian polemic, being excluded from the Anglo-American media because we are blind to them or because they are ridiculous? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Finally, has the disillusioned anti-war stance that Achebe seemed to have in the 70’s, in his poetry and in his short story collection, Girls at War—in which, as Adichie once put it, he described “what happens when the shiny things we once believed in begin to rust before our eyes”—turned into a reassertion of the shininess of those very things? Who knows!

Luckily, I don’t have to pretend to know. I, you see, have not read the book. And so, everything I say about it now is not only speculation, but it’s utterly weightless, worthless. Since I haven’t read it, I can’t be talking about Achebe’s book, can I? Which is liberating. Why not speculate irresponsibly? I’m spending monopoly money. And if Achebe writes so rarely because he writes so carefully, I have the advantage of writing in a medium in which my words will swiftly pass away, especially after the book itself comes out, and renders them obsolete. Tomorrow I’ll start reading his book, and I’ll start to know what I’m talking about. But until then, I’m straining to see how much of the plot I can divine by examining the backdrop and props, before the players have come onto the stage.