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CHINUA ACHEBE - WHAT THE IROKO SAID ABOUT WRITING

30 Mar 2013

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THE IROKO FELL DAYS AGO, BUT THE FOREST IS STILL QUAKING. AT THE AGE ACHEBE DIED, HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS FOR SELF AND THE WORLD, AND THE KIDS HE LEFT BEHIND – DR. THIS; DR. THAT; PROFESSOR THAT – HE WAS A FULFILLED MAN. RIGHTLY SO, EULOGIES HAVE ASSUMED AN UNCEASING FLOW OF A DELUGE. AND POLITICAL VULTURES ARE CASHING IN. THAT IS THE TURN-OFF. HOW MANY OF THE POLITICIANS REALLY TOOK THE IROKO’S IDEAS AND HIS INSISTENCE ON GOOD GOVERNANCE SERIOUSLY?

Well, let’s leave them to their conscience and talk about writing. The Prof said very beautiful things about his writing and the art generally. I sourced the excerpts below from his various interviews on the internet. Interesting stuff!

Germination of book ideas

It’s not the same with every book. Generally, I think I can say that the general idea is the first, followed almost immediately by the major characters. We live in a sea of general ideas, so that’s not a novel, since there are so many general ideas. But the moment a particular idea is linked to a character, it’s like an engine moves it. Then you have a novel underway. This is particularly so with novels that have distinct and overbearing characters like Ezeulu in Arrow of God. In novels like A Man of the People, or better still, No Longer at Ease, with characters who are not commanding personalities, there I think the general idea plays a stronger part at the initial stage. But once you pass that initial state, there’s really no difference between the general idea and the character; each has to work.

On plots

Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story. At some point it seems as if you are not as much in command, in control, of events as you thought you were. There are things the story must have or else look incomplete. And these will almost automatically present themselves. When they don’t, you are in trouble and then the novel stops.

Ease or difficulty of writing

The honest answer is, it’s difficult. But the word difficult doesn’t really express what I mean. It is like wrestling; you are wrestling with ideas and with the story. There is a lot of energy required. At the same time, it is exciting. So it is both difficult and easy. What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment--—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes. So it is both pleasurable and difficult.

Difference between telling a story and writing a story
Well, there must be. I remember that when our children were young, we used to read them stories at bedtime. Occasionally I would say to them, I want to tell you a story, and the way their eyes would light up was different from the way they would respond to hearing a story read. There’s no doubt at all that they preferred the story that was told to the one that was read. We live in a society that is in transition from oral to written. There are oral stories that are still there, not exactly in their full magnificence, but still strong in their differentness from written stories. Each mode has its ways and methods and rules. They can reinforce each other; this is the advantage my generation has—we can bring to the written story something of that energy of the story told by word of mouth. This is really one of the contributions our literature has made to contemporary literature.

Favourite time for writing
The time of day doesn’t matter, really. I am not an early-morning person; I don’t like to get out of bed, and so I don’t begin writing at 5.00 am, though some people, I hear, do. I write once my day has started. And I can work late into the night, also. Generally, I don’t attempt to produce a certain number of words a day. The discipline is to work whether you are producing a lot or not, because the day you produce a lot is not necessarily the day you do your best work. So it’s trying to do it as regularly as you can without making it—without imposing too rigid a timetable on yourself. That would be my ideal.

Writing audience:  Nigerian? Igbo? Or America?

All of those. I have tried to describe my position in terms of circles, standing there in the middle. These circles contain the audiences that get to hear my story. The closest circle is the one closest to my home in Igboland, because the material I am using is their material. But unless I’m writing in the Igbo language, I use a language developed elsewhere, which is English. That affects the way I write. It even affects to some extent the stories I write.

So there is, if you like, a kind of paradox there already. But then, if you can, visualize a large number of ever-widening circles, including all, like Yeats’s widening gyre. As more and more people are incorporated in this network, they will get different levels of meaning out of the story, depending on what they already know, or what they suspect. These circles go on indefinitely to include, ultimately, the whole world. I have become more aware of this as my books become more widely known

Vanity publishing and Nigeria

Well I am just hoping that things are better than they look. I must say I do not have any evidence to contradict this gloomy picture, I’m just saying that this is such a terrible time and the wilderness is so vast and perhaps in odd corners hidden away somewhere will be some great writers coming up. But I’m worried, I’m a little anxious, especially as I know that the people I sometimes hear from who are complaining that their work is not being projected, put the reason on the fact that people are still talking about me, talking about all these other old writers instead of a new generation. And they almost suggest that I should retire. There is a bit of that going on, that is just a part of the sad story. The inability to assess oneself rigorously that is there is part of the problem, as well

Teaching creative writing

No, I don’t teach it. I mean it. I really don’t know. The only thing I can say for it is that it provides work for writers. Don’t laugh! It’s very important. I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.

Advice to budding writers
A budding writer wants to be encouraged. But I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people.

They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice. I say, Keep at it. I grew up recognizing that there was nobody to give me any advice and that you do your best and if it’s not good enough, someday you will come to terms with that. I don’t want to be the one to tell somebody, You will not make it, even though I know that the majority of those who come to me with their manuscripts are not really good enough. But you don’t ever want to say to a young person, You can’t, or, You are no good. Some people might be able to do it, but I don’t think I am a policeman for literature. So I tell them, Sweat it out, do your best. Don’t publish it yourself—this is one tendency that is becoming more and more common in Nigeria. You go and find someone—a friend—to print your book.

Writers engagement in public issues

I don’t lay down the law for anybody else. But I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. They are generally adults. My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict. I don’t see how art can be called art if its purpose is to frustrate humanity. To make humanity uncomfortable, yes. But intrinsically to be against humanity, that I don’t take. This is why I find racism impossible, because this is against humanity. Some people think, Well, what he’s saying is we must praise his people. For God’s sake! Go and read my books. I don’t praise my people.

I am their greatest critic. Some people think my little pamphlet, The Trouble with Nigeria, went too far. I’ve got into all kinds of trouble for my writing. Art should be on the side of humanity. I think it was Yevtushenko talking about Rimbaud, the Frenchman who went to Ethiopia and came back with all kinds of diseases. Yevtushenko said of him that a poet cannot become a slave trader. When Rimbaud became a slave trader, he stopped writing poetry. Poetry and slave trading cannot be bedfellows. That’s where I stand.

Tags: Arts and Review, Chinua Achebe

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