Listening to Achebe
Igbo Maiden Spirit Mask, early 20th century. Photograph via Brooklyn Museum
by David Palumbo-Liu
Many years ago, in an interview he did with Bill Moyers, Chinua Achebe was asked, “What would you want the West to do?” Achebe replied, “Listen, just listen.” I would like to add that there is listening, and there is listening.
By now we are all familiar with the values of diversity and multiculturalism. What used to be edgy new terms have settled comfortably into not only mainstream academic discourse, but also into the popular lexicon and popular practices. It is part of the ritual of just about every school child in the US to undergo the requisite Cultural Appreciation Day, often with her or his “culture” prominently put on display. It is that time of the year when grandparents get that rare phone call (or maybe these days, text message) from their otherwise errant grandchildren, enlisting them in an oral history project — what was is like, granddad, living that long ago, and that far away? I am old enough now myself to feel historical.
But we should make the distinction between that kind of pro forma listening and the attentive, and truly appreciative listening that works like those of Chinua Achebe demand and deserve.
What I call pro forma listening borders on mere tolerance — that which comes with being invited to the table in the first place. As my colleague Doris Sommer said to me once, “Tolerance means politely waiting for the other person to stop talking; respect means recognizing something marvelous they have done.”
It would be a common place to say that one of the signal accomplishments of Achebe was to create a realistic image of Africa, to replace the fantastic image projected upon it by the West. But we need to press further into that “realism” I think.
One of the most noticeable and noted features of his writing has been its blend of different written and oral registers, its employment of contemporary and ancient motifs, styles, myths. The surface of his writing seems at once variegated and of a piece, lapidary and organic at the same time. But for me, beneath this surface is a persistent tension — Achebe’s characters have reached one sort of equilibrium but it is always a balance that is teetering on the edge of things, and any number of forces or fateful incidents can tip the text off-balance and into a different and unprecedented historical flow.
This blend of narrative styles and elements to me reflects not simply an important fusion of the West and Africa (and I know these large rubrics are unwieldy and would need to be unpacked in a longer paper) — they persist in holding easily identified resolutions at distance. The power of Achebe’s writing is to force us to linger in the transit point between literary creation and knowledge. Rather than one leading to another, I believe we are productively engaged in a tension between their twin claims to aesthetic integrity and epistemological soundness. Importantly, the role of “tradition” (variously glossed) is at once both indispensable and problematic.
For example a paragraph from No Longer at Ease — a radically unsettled and unsettling text. The events take place as the protagonist Obi returns to his village after his education in England:
Obi knew the refrain, he tried to translate it into English, and for the first time its real meaning dawned on him…
On the face of it there was no kind of logic or meaning in the song. But as Obi turned it round and round in his mind, he was struck by the wealth of association that even such a mediocre song could have. First of all it was unheard of for a man to seize his in-law and kill him. To the Ibo mind it was the height of treachery. Did not the elders say that a man’s in-law was his ch’i, his personal god? Set against this was another great betrayal; a paddle that begins suddenly to talk in a language which its master, the fisherman, does not understand. In short, then, thought Obi. The burden of the song was “the world turned upside down.” He was pleased with his exegesis and began to search in his mind for other songs that could be given the same treatment. But the song of the traders was now so loud and spicy that he could not concentrate on this thinking.
What exactly has happened here? Well, a lot — the possibilities of language (between even a paddle and a fisherman), ethics, music, culture, knowledge. But let me concentrate on just a few things. First of all, this is a song Obi “knows.” That is, he has some pre-existing sense of what it means. But his very attempt to translate it, to bring that cultural knowledge into another cultural form, yields something completely different.
He puzzles this song out under a different sort of interpretive pressure to make a different sort of meaning, in another language, and of course it’s not just any other language. Recall that this novel is published in 1960, the beginning of that liminal period of quasi-independence that will stretch until 1963.
He puzzles it out and comes up with an economical “exegesis” that actually does not tell us a lot. The world is “turned upside down” but by whom and in what way, exactly? Yet Obi (as he often is) is pleased with himself, and wishes to add this newly translated song to his inventory of things now understood. Yet history intervenes in the form of the traders whose voices overcome his powers of concentration — this will be a unique instantiation of translated knowledge.
What Achebe has given us is on the one hand a very small and very common little event. And yet, Achebe has given us a glimpse into the complex relationship between literature, culture and knowledge in the postcolonial situation.
This small episode is one of the trademarks of Achebe’s literary art. Literature, here caught in between cultural and historical forms and periods, between languages, between regimes of power, moves us toward knowledge of something unprecedented in a rightfully halting and imperfect manner. The artwork is fused together from heretofore disparate elements to create something new, and with the purpose of approximating the knowledge of a world not exactly upside down, but ill at ease, for better or worse, either perched at a precipice or on the foundations of a new world.
Most important, as in this passage, Achebe’s literary art invites, indeed, requires, critical self-reflection. This may be lacking in Obi, but it should not and cannot be for us.
Achebe purposefully distances us from his characters so we can better diagnose when and why their interpretative acts stop short, when they are satisfied with their “exegeses,” and then we have the choice to accept those interpretations, or to press them further. And as we hopefully do so, what we have a glimpse into is a picture of humanity at the limits of knowledge, but not only that, the roots of that incomplete knowledge, and a challenge to us to know better, and in so doing, we are asked to demand more of not only the characters on the page, but also of ourselves — specifically: what do we ask when we ask for knowledge of others? And at this moment, as Gayatri Spivak has shown us, ethics must interrupt the transit from literature to epistemology, and we must take responsibility at that moment.
Chinua Achebe did much more than to get us to listen. He got us to pay attention in profound and lasting ways, and, even more, to care—and this involves more than teaching, it involves moral instruction. And, getting back to Doris Sommer’s formulation about the difference between tolerance and respect, that was part of the marvelous thing he did.
Piece adapted from a talk delivered at the Fifth Achebe Colloquium, “Achebe as Teacher,” Brown University, May 2014.
About the Author:
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature, at Stanford University.