Chinua Achebe on How Storytelling Helps Us Survive History’s Rough Patches
By Maria Popova
“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” beloved Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) observed in his forgotten 1980 conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” By that point, Achebe had already been busy upsetting the system for more than two decades, beginning with his iconic debut novel Things Fall Apart, which remains the most widely read book in African literature.
Eight years after his conversation with Baldwin, 58-year-old Achebe sat down to discuss the storyteller’s task in both upsetting the system and stabilizing the spirit of the people with another exceptional interlocutor — Bill Moyers, who so poetically describes Achebe as “a storyteller who hears the music of history, weaves the fabric of memory, and sometimes offends the Emperor.” The conversation was later included in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library) — the indispensable 1989 tome that gave us Isaac Asimov on the role of science fiction in advancing society and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility.
Reflecting on a famous Ibo proverb — “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” — Achebe considers the complementarity at the heart of existence:
There is no one way to anything. The Ibo people who made that proverb are very insistent on this — there is no absolute anything. They are against excess — their world is a world of dualities… If there is one God, fine. There will be others as well. If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view.
When Achebe reflects on the damage done by missionaries and colonial administrators who had come to Africa with a single idea of truth — an ideology that promised those dissatisfied with the status quo a new world order — his words radiate tremendous relevance to the political situation in America today:
Those people who found themselves out of things embraced the new way, because it promised them an easy escape from whatever constraints they were suffering under.
But it was not necessary to throw overboard so much that was thrown overboard… It was not necessary. I think of the damage, not only to the material culture, but to the mind of the people.
In another passage of sobering prescience as we face a world in which the despot of Kremlin has “a friend in the White House,” Achebe remarks:
It seems to me that something happened in that period between Roosevelt and perhaps the period of McCarthy that made it possible for the South African regime, for example, to say they have a friend in the White House. I think what happened is that America became a power in the world and, after the Second World War, forgot its revolutionary origin.
In a sentiment that affirms Toni Morrison’s conviction that troubled times are precisely when artists must go to work, Achebe considers the different types of power that the storyteller and the political ruler have over the people:
A storyteller has a different agenda from the emperor. [And yet] there’s a limit to what storytelling can achieve. We’re not saying that a poet can stop a battalion with a couple of lines of his poetry. But there are other forms of power. The storyteller appeals to the mind, and appeals ultimately to generations and generations and generations.
If you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have, first of all, the man who agitates, the man who drums up the people — I call him the drummer. Then you have the warrior, who goes forward an fights. But you also have the storyteller who recounts the event — and this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that survivors must have — otherwise surviving would have no meaning… This is very, very important… Memory is necessary if surviving is going to be more than just a technical thing.
In yet another passage of piercing relevance to American politics today, Achebe considers the then-common Western perception that Africa’s path to independence has resulted in chaos, violence, and despair:
If you look at this very small segment of history, then you can talk about it in those terms. If you are frozen in time, you can say yes, it’s awful. And it is really awful. But I think if you take the wide view of things, then you begin to see it as history, as human history over a long period of time, and that we are passing through a bad patch. It’s not death. We are passing through a bad patch, and if we succeed, then even this experience of the bad patch will turn out to be an enrichment.
History’s hindsight has proven Achebe right: The African cultural renaissance in the decades since, with its incredible groundswell of literature, art, and entrepreneurship, offers, perhaps, some assurance that our present “bad patch” might lead, not without pain and exasperation, to similar enrichment.
Achebe considers the most difficult yet important path to ensuring that chaos results in something constructive:
Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education. We lack imagination. If we had enough imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we oppress, things would begin to happen. So it is important that we develop the ability to listen to the weak.
Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas remains a ceaselessly rewarding read in its hefty totality, featuring wisdom from such luminaries as physicist Steven Weinberg, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, poet Derek Walcott, management legend Peter Drucker, geneticist Maxine Singer, linguist Noam Chomsky, and novelist E.L. Doctorow. Complement this particular fragment with Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility to the world, then revisit Moyers’s poignant conversation with Maya Angelou about courage and facing evil.
Published November 16, 2016