Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, now 78, is often called the father of modern African literature. His 1958 novel Things Fall Apart inspired post-Colonial fiction told in the voices of those who had experienced Colonialism first hand.
Achebe recently published a memoir, The Education of a British Protected Child, that addresses many of the same issues and the perilous state of modern Nigeria. It was the occasion for a wide-ranging talk between Achebe and Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose books include In My Father’s House and Cosmopolitanism at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y.
Achebe mused on the personal and professional imperatives that have shaped his work. The question “Why am I here?” is inevitable Achebe says, and from his answers, the political and social issues would emerge. In his memoir, Achebe talks about the divergent reactions to colonialism and imposed Christianity on the part of his family and how he navigated between them. He used a traditional story to illustrate the important of “the middle” in his Ibgo culture—the first child always meets the demons; it’s dangerous to bring up the rear; but “the one in the middle"—that’s the best place to be.
Appiah prompted Achebe to talk about his love/hate relationship with Nigeria, citing two contradictory observations in his book: first, that “only a tourist with a kinky addiction for self-flagellation would pick Nigeria for a holiday,” and “In my next life I want to be a Nigerian again,” because it is both frustrating and exciting.
The audience at the Y included college students, some of whom submitted prepared questions for Achebe to respond to. Appiah selected as the closing question of the night one that asked how people can look to Achebe’s life for inspiration. His modest response? “I really think your inspiration is in you.”