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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

Conversations with Chinua Achebe

ed. Bernth Lindfors

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Title: Conversations with Chinua Achebe
Editor: Bernth Lindfors
Genre: Interviews
Written: (1997)
Availability: Conversations with Chinua Achebe - US
Conversations with Chinua Achebe - UK
Conversations with Chinua Achebe - Canada
  • Interviews conducted between 1962 and 1995
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Bernth Lindfors
  • Includes a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B : good, fairly informative variety of interviews

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Research in African Literatures . Spring/2000 Craig McLuckie

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The complete review's Review:

       Conversations with Chinua Achebe collects, in chronological order, interviews with Chinua Achebe from nearly four decades. Editor Bernth Lindfors does an admirable job of avoiding too much overlap, and so the same questions are not found over and over and the collection does constantly offer new and different perspectives.
       The last interview (from 1995) actually is among the more useful, in providing some of Achebe's personal and family background in more detail than found elsewhere, but the sum of the interviews does offer a good, fairly rounded picture of Achebe as both man and writer.
       There are major omissions: only one interview really discusses the important magazine founded and headed by Achebe, Okike, for example. In addition, Achebe was editor of the ground-breaking Heinemann African Writers Series between 1962 and 1972 and there is almost no discussion of what his duties involved or to what extent he was able to shape that particular list -- something many readers likely would be very interested in.
       Jumping across the years, most of the major books are discussed in some depth in at least one interview -- though often (his children's books, his poetry, and especially his attempts at drama) too little is made of them and too little is said about them.
       There is some sense of Achebe's progression as a writer, and especially the difficulty he had in re-situating himself (especially as a fiction-writer) after the catastrophic Biafran war. He also emerges as the enthusiastic teacher he is, a true literary leader convinced of the significance of this art and trying to convince others of it.
       Throughout there are interesting insights and observations, from simple matters of craft to larger political issues.
       Some observations are not completely new or surprising, yet nevertheless carry additional weight coming from Achebe:

       This is why I do not paint white characters that are complete blackguards, because I don't think that is necessary for them to do the harm that they did. They were decent people with families, and that is the worst kind of danger: when it comes from a decent man. It does not really excite me that a monster causes trouble. When an ordinary man causes havoc, that is more ominous.
       The question of writing in English (or other colonial tongues) or native languages is broached several times. Of particular interest here is Achebe's recognition that writing for the stage requires "a different convention from the novel", and that part of its immediacy and its "direct, almost participatory form" requires that the characters speak in the language they would speak in real life (whereas in a novel "you accept the whole thing is make-believe" in a different way, filtering it already through the printed words on the page). Interestingly, Achebe mentions wanting to write a play (in Igbo) several times, but he apparently never did so (but unfortunately the reader is never told where or why he failed in this undertaking).
       As he writes in numerous of his essays (see, for example Morning Yet on Creation Day (and our review)), Achebe also recognizes the importance of the critic in maintaining a literary culture and fostering literary debate, and he often laments the lack of a widespread critical culture in Africa:
       I do think what you need is a fair number of indigenous critics who are on the ball because they see literature as a serious matter (our people do not take it seriously enough; I think we are too complacent). (...) And yet there is not enough dedication and diligence among our own critics. I'm looking forward to a change in this for it is absolutely important. If literature is important, then criticism of literature is also important, and we should get more and more people who are ready to read the books.
       By 1987 he also laments about the general state of even just the possibility of literary appreciation in Nigeria:
Students in Nigeria are having more and more trouble simply being literate, being able to read extensively. To many students, coming to the university, reading a novel is a huge chore. To plow through a novel is intimidating to many of them. (...) So you have to coax them into literature.
       At least Achebe is a towering figure who can make literature appear approachable -- if anyone can coax, then surely it is him (though for a long time now he has been teaching in the US and not in Africa). It is sad that despite successful authors (and forceful figures) such as Achebe and despite a relatively rich recent literary tradition, literary culture has not been able to establish itself more firmly in Nigeria.
       Achebe does discuss a few other authors and influences, but the drawback of the interview-form is that it does not lend itself to more in-depth examination of many of these interesting questions. Still, Christopher Okigbo is a prominent presence, and there are some interesting comments about authors such as Ayi Kwei Armah and V.S.Naipaul -- such as:
I do admire Mr. Naipaul, but I am rather sorry for him. He is too distant from a viable moral centre; he withholds his humanity; he seems to place himself under a self-denying ordinance, as it were, suppressing his genuine compassion for humanity. His style is all too perfect, steel-bright, metallic, and so forth.
       A few years later the judgement is more succinct: Naipaul's is "the case of a brilliant writer who sold himself to the West." Interestingly, Achebe presciently adds (this in 1985): "And one day he'll be 'rewarded' with maybe a Nobel Prize or something."

       In these Conversations with Chinua Achebe one wishes for more: more about his personal life, more about who and what he reads (and what he thinks about them), more about his creative turn after the Biafran war, -- and much more. Still, the conversations collected here do provide a good deal of information and some valuable new insight (especially into Achebe's novels). Given the absence of any true autobiography (or biography) this collection does help fill a void, and is surely of interest to those familiar with Achebe and his work. (Those who haven't read any of Achebe's fiction will find it of considerably less interest.)

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Conversations with Chinua Achebe: Chinua Achebe: Other books by Chinua Achebe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leading Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) lived 1930 to 2013.

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