(A review of 'Hopes and Impediments'
a collection of essays by Chinua Achebe
First written on August 12, 2015)
This is an excellent collection of essays and journalism – most of them manage to look into African cultures in particular, while at time analyzing a theme fr humanity in general.
North and South
Achebe uses words ‘North’ and ‘South’ in same sense as we use ‘West’ and ‘East’. His North means Europe and also includes USA. He argues that Africa has so not been allowed to speak for itself – it has been assumed by west that it is incapable of doing so as if Africans were children or worse still animals; that even if Europeans (in Africa, Americans too are called Europeans) want to know about Africa, they will send their own expert to study it rather than listen to what Africans might have to say for themselves. To take a contemporary example, look at all those Discovery-Wildlife channels describing local cultures where all the hosts are Americans. Wouldn’t it be better if someone closer to those cultures was to describe them? There could be enough Africans who could explain their culture to world, even in European languages. But Achebe tells us about the European Prejudice which assumes any European must be cosmopolitan to be properly European; whereas a cosmopolitan African is a corrupted one and is incapable of representing his culture.
My favorites parts in these essays are those where he talk about African cultural art and story telling.The concept of ownership over art is absent in local African cultures. He said while an artist may demand privacy while working, once the work is finished it goes to public pool. The individualist idea of property over art – copyrights, patents etc is western and largely modern invention. Now you can see why Shakespeare didn’t become a billionaire despite all those successful plays.
Another observation that fascinated me was that most of artistic creations in these cultures would be left, ignored after using them at festival (or whatever use they may have) – and won’t be saved for reuse. The stress is on ‘processes rather than the ‘object’. It kind of reminds me of insistence of Rangolies Indians put in their verandas despite the fact they require a lot of handwork and are bound to be spoiled in a few days.
Heart of darkness
Perhaps the most discussed essay from the collection, it is about the racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s argument and anger are both justified and I believe he could have made even best of Conrad lovers to stop and think, but he begins it by making an ad hominem attack on author which must have pushed some of them to defense.
Role of Novelist
The role and importance of a novelist, especially in African context, is a recurring themes. It is duty of novelist to fight against the inferiority complex in African mind arising out Colonist brainwashing which made them believe that their own culture was somehow inferior to others
Achebe argues that West tells us things like novels are not suited for Africans, or that African novelists were still learning or how colonial mentality continues to show in western criticism of African novels. The novels which show the relative inferiority of culture of colonies (his example: Naipaul) are more likely to praised by western critics –as they suited their concise.
Universality and African Novels
A rather common criticism of African novel from Europe is that African novels are not universal, that they are always discussing local problems. Achebe argues that all novels are rationalized at least to some extent – and that lack of ‘universality’ is a very poor criteria for criticism. That what west calls ‘universal’ is the thing still centered on west – Africans can no better relate to those ‘universal’ novels than Western can do with African novels.
Language and Fiction
Achebe argues about importance of language and words – including but not limited to Orwellian concerns. He talks about myths across cultures talking about importance of words. There were time, according to some African myths, when everything you said would come true (somewhat similar belief is also seen in Hindu religious books.)