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Elaine Showalter discusses the work of Chinua Achebe at the Man Booker International prize in Fiction, June 28, 2007

Elaine Showalter discusses the work of Chinua Achebe at the Man Booker International prize in Fiction, June 28, 2007

The Balance of Stories

Elaine Showalter discusses the work of Chinua Achebe at the Man Booker International prize in Fiction, June 28, 2007

            As the designated speaker of a relatively new, wide-ranging, and still evolving literary prize, I’ve paid careful attention to the words of my distinguished predecessors. In June 2005, awarding the first Man Booker International Fiction Prize to Ismail Kadare, John Carey said that he and his fellow judges, called upon to “size up the literary giants and arrange them in order of merit,” had felt like Swift’s presumptuous Lilliputians. I share Professor Carey’s awe of the hubris or chutzpah of our task, but my fellow judges were literary giants themselves—the Nobel-Prize winning South African novelist and older master Nadine Gordimer, and the IMPAC Prize-winning Irish novelist and younger master, Colm Tóibín—as well as prodigious readers. Then, at the awards dinner for the annual Man Booker fiction prize in October 2006, the chair Hermione Lee said the judges wished they could have read the novels submitted that year without knowing the names of the authors, as if each came wrapped in a plain brown paper cover. Relieved of all the burdens of authorial publicity and reputation, they could have concentrated on the art of the novels themselves.

            Like Professor Lee, our committee of judges felt that this prize honors the art, vitality, and importance of the novel as a genre. But we could not have worked with unsigned texts, or what academics, Miltonically, call blind submission. We needed to know the identity of the novelist, because we were rewarding an entire body of work bearing the indelible stamp of a particular writer’s personality, intellect, style, and world view. We needed to acknowledge that such a body of work is accompanied by its own history of reception, controversy, dissent, imitation, and influence. The fifteen colossi  of  world literature on our short list in April  had some themes in common, but their books could not have been anonymous or  mistaken for each other’s, however opaque their covers. All had moved beyond the regions of anonymity into the empires of the classic. Indeed, one of our initial criteria was that the writer should be an originator, not a national version of another classic writer, —not even a regional Kafka, Faulkner, Dickens, or Dostoevsky--but an individual voice, possibly a founding figure, to whom subsequent novelists would be indebted and compared.

            Furthermore, while the annual Man Booker prize novels can be nominated from outside, the Man Booker International candidates (I will call it the MBI for short), are nominated by the judges. We started our process almost a year ago, in July 2006, with what Alberto Manguel, one of the 2005 MBI judges, had called their “archival list” passed on “for the edification and profit of future jurors.” But for literary judges, an archival list is not a stone tablet handed down from Olympus but a provisional guide. Unlike mathematicians or physicists, who always astonished me at Princeton with their unanimous certainty about the rankings of their professional colleagues around the world, we are not scientists who can agree on an absolute order of merit, but passionate readers with our own priorities, enthusiasms, values and dislikes. We argued and voted, subtracted some names, and added many others. We established no quotas, avoided any discussion of geographical or geopolitical distribution, gave no extra points for the neediest, most obscure, or most persecuted among the writers, and imposed no penalties on the most garlanded, acclaimed, or American. The quality of the writing was always our chief consideration, as it should be.

But we were pleased that list of seventy writers with which we commenced our reading last fall included men and women from 29 countries, writing in twenty languages, and ranging from Nobel Prize, Commonwealth Prize, and National Book Award winners to novelists more locally known. For each of us, some of the names on the list were new discoveries, while others we had been reading all our lives, each book an emotional milestone or personal landmark. They were all as prolific as they were challenging; to give you an idea, the fifteen writers who made it to our short list alone had produced over 250 books between them. So we had plenty to keep us busy throughout the year. Now we will add our starting list to the Man Booker archives for the edification, profit, and, undoubtedly, disagreement and revision, of the jurors for the next prize, in 2009.

             One of the stipulations of the MBI is that the judges should meet each time in a different country; we had hoped to go to Johannesburg but as it turned out, the indefatigable Nadine Gordimer was the frequent flyer among us, fitting our meetings in Washington, Toronto, and Dublin between her trips to festivals and conferences in Egypt, Mexico, Paris, and Brazil. Colm Tóibín was travelling at various times during the year from Texas, California, and New York; with Ion Trewin and Fiammetta Rocco, our stalwart Man Booker leaders, joining us from London. At each meeting, we attempted to define and refine our criteria. Nadine stressed the way a writer reacts to the cages—family, school, religion, race, law—that impinge on private lives in every society. Colm emphasized first the excitement of reading and the urge to share a wonderful novel with other readers; and then the wish to enlarge the boundaries of taste by rewarding styles and techniques that might be experimental, difficult, and strange. I was looking for a rendering of the personal and the local so intensely realized that it became universal, and for a writer who showed both development over a career, and also a determination to pursue his or her imaginative obsessions to their extremes. As you can see, we were beginning to move towards clarity but we were not precisely on the same page.

Then at a press conference in Toronto, asked by a journalist what we were seeking in our prize-winner, Nadine Gordimer spontaneously replied “Illumination.” Not a scientific term or a term of art from arcane literary theory, but for me a crystallizing moment in our discussions. Illumination means that a writer changes our perceptions so completely that having read their novels and stories we can never see things the same way again. It means that we are not only intellectually enlightened but also emotionally transformed. Our angle on the world, our point of view, our awareness of the breadth and mystery of human experience, and the limitations of the social and political cages we ourselves inhabit, is permanently altered.

When we convened on June 8 for our final meeting in Dublin, I thought that the city itself seemed full of signs, portents and illuminations. Around the corner from our hotel, the National Library of Ireland was launching a birthday celebration for William .Butler Yeats. We had come  to choose a great story-teller, but I reflected that we were also being reminded of the most important poem, or at least the most quoted, poem of the 20th century-- Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” It had provided the title of Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart in 1958, and the titles of dozens of books and songs thereafter, most recently for Woody Allen, whose new book is called Mere Anarchy. Even a character in the final TV episode of The Sopranos earlier this month quoted “The Second Coming,” although he pronounced the author's name as “Yeets.”

 Dublin was also illuminated by the spirit of James Joyce, whose portrait of Stephen Dedalus had been important to Achebe as a young African artist. Among Joyce’s contributions to the global novel, Achebe has said in an interview, was his foregrounding of the way that all “colonials and ex-colonials come to the English language with a whole baggage of peculiar experiences which the English person doesn’t have. This is what has made the English language, in our time, such a powerful force in literature.” Joyce’s example was one source of Achebe’s important decision to write his books in English, rather than Ibo. “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience,” he wrote in 1965. "But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

I had not expected an Irish literary capital to cast so light on an African writer. But Chinua Achebe, who dedicated himself (as he declared in his introduction to the journal African Commentary), “to reclaiming the rich heritage of Africa, every inch of it,” and “redrawing the contours of African history,” has at the same time been a novelist on the world stage, who has reclaimed the rich heritage of Western literature, redrawn the contours of the novel Joyce recreated for the twentieth century, and brightened the path for other writers seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies. He has given readers the illumination we sought—changed imperishably the way we see and understand the world.

Over fifty years, Chinua Achebe’s career as a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, diplomat, activist, professor, and critic, has been devoted to the circumstances of the African continent. In the words of Nadine Gordimer, he has dedicated himself to representing “the political upheavals, the embattled end of colonialism, the fight for freedom including freedom of expression by which the personal lives of the people of Africa have been shaped.” He has also been a fierce and courageous critic of the continent’s failures of vision and leadership.

At the same time, as a citizen of the international artistic community, and of the global kingdom of the library, he also shares some characteristics and themes with other contemporary novelists, including those of our list of contenders. Like Amos Oz, who dropped his European surname and chose one in Hebrew when he defined himself as an Israeli writer, Achebe dropped his British and Christian name Albert to signal his rebirth as a Nigerian writer. Like Michel Tournier and Harry Mulisch, he has used myth, legend, and folklore to illuminate the present. Like Alice Munro, John Banville, and Ian McEwan, he has created rich three-dimensional characters with whom we share a haunting intimacy before we see them as representative of their culture. Like Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing, he has been uncannily prescient about coming developments in the world. His fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), so accurately predicted a military coup in Nigeria that he was suspected of plotting it and forced into exile. Shelley called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but novelists should certainly be given credit as its most accurate intelligence officers.

But we can’t simply read Achebe as a reporter, historian, or ethnologist; he is above all an artist whose novels also create a language, outline a cosmology, and shape a legend. The Australian novelist Peter Carey has described his fictional project as “the invention or discovery of my own country.” Like Carey, or like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, and Carlos Fuentes, Achebe invents and constructs his country in language as well as discovering and revealing it. In the United States, Philip Roth has meditated on “the difficulties of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?” Achebe prefigured this creative problem of the writer outside the mainstream in his insistence on telling an African story with all its difficulties of choosing narrative, voice, audience, and purpose. Defining the serious writer’s mission as one of education, Achebe played a significant role in the development of the novel as a medium and genre in the second half of the twentieth century.

Coming of age in the 1950s during a significant moment between the waning of the traditional and stable Ibo culture, and Nigeria’s independence, modernization, fracture and fragmentation, Achebe has endured the disruption of his own life by exile, and witnessed the imprisonment and even death of his friends. But without self-pity or bitterness, he has said that artists “who live at the crossroads are lucky.” They inhabit the “crossroads hour,” as he calls it in a poem, which “manifests… great creative potential.”  The crossroads hour is the space “where stories are created,” the time when, in African tradition, the spirits appear; a time of “tension and conflict” but also of “power and possibility.” In the West too, the 1950s and 1960s were a crossroads for the novel, as David Lodge has put it, but primarily decades of self-doubt and decline during which the Death of the Novel was regularly proclaimed.

In contrast, Achebe has described his coming to fiction as an empowering moment of creative opportunity, and an invigoration of a limited European form which had marginalized African experience. He has said that when he read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he realized that he did not figure as the sophisticated narrator Marlow, but as “one of those savages jumping up and down on the beach. Once that kind of Enlightenment comes to you, you realize that someone has to write a different story.” In Things Fall Apart, he rewrote that story of Christian and European intervention in the Nigeria in the 1890s from an African point of view. Through his hero Okonkwo, he portrayed the dignity, coherence, wisdom, and beauty of Ibo civilization, inventing a heightened and stately English to represent its language, quoting its proverbs and retelling its parables, and leading us to see tragedy in its dissolution; but also showing its cruelties and flaws. "Of all the things I remember,” he told interviewer Maya Jaggi, “that was the clearest: I must not make this story look nicer than it was. I went out of my way to gather all the negative things, to describe them as I think they were—good and bad—and ordinary human beings as neither demons nor angels. I dare anybody to say ‘these people are not human.’”

Achebe’s next three novels continued to explore the story of modern Africa from different angles and perspectives. No Longer at Ease, set in the 1950s in Lagos, followed the story of Okonkwo’s grandson in modern colonialist society, and took its title from T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” signaling again his intention to locate the African novel within Western literature.:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

Arrow of Gold, in a flashback to the 1920s, focused on the spiritual dilemma of an African priest defending his faith against the new dispensation. The Man of the People, set in the 1960s after liberation, was a biting and hilarious satire of the vanity and greed of the new regime, in which, the critic Boyd Tonkin writes, Achebe "seems sometimes more like an African Kingsley Amis than the solemn prophet-philosopher you meet in the critical encomiums.”

Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, and, in the opinion of all three judges, Achebe’s masterpiece, continues the story in the 1980s, in a fictional country called Kangan. Through the alternating narrative voices of a group of young intellectuals, journalists, and writers, Achebe brilliantly  tells the terrible story of power and the cycles of idealism, corruption, disillusion, chaos, murder and retaliation that come with the aftermath of colonialism. Yet in the metaphor of his title, he also suggests that there is still reason to struggle and to hope. The anthills of the savannahs are the “structures of indestructable earth” that survive the fires of the dry season. In the novel, women, and especially Beatrice Okoh, the London-educated intellectual, take over leadership when the men have failed, and become the mothers of the new generation being born. “Fundamentally,” Achebe has written, “art is on the side of life.”

Early in his career, Achebe had argued that “universality” was a Eurocentric term, and referred only to western notions of values, customs, and aesthetic norms. In a controversial and much-reprinted lecture in 1975, “The Image of Africa,” he charged Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with racism. But Achebe’s protest against narrow colonialism did not cut him off aesthetically from the literature he studied as a young man. In the unforgettable conclusion to Things Fall Apart, the British District Commissioner, walking away from Okonkwo’s body, meditates on the book he hopes to write about bringing civilization to Africa: “Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him…. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” Simple, devastating in its irony, the conclusion is clearly inspired by Conrad. And by 1998, in Home and Exile, the series of lectures he delivered at Harvard University, Achebe could foresee the “genuine universality of the future.”

If the novel is indeed moving towards a genuine universality, it must expand to take in the diverse voices of writers, and to stimulate the curiosity, empathy, and recognition of readers. Achebe’s work has played a major role in that expansion and change. In 1974, a naïve American high school student wrote to thank him for the interesting introduction to the “customs and superstitions of an African tribe.” Of course, as Achebe reflected in his Conrad lecture, “the life of [this boy’s] own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is also full of odd customs and superstitions” which he might have considered. But by 1987, Achebe was telling an interviewer that he had been approached by “a white American boy who came to me very tense after reading Things Fall Apart… saying ‘This Okonkwo is my father!' Now I’d never in my wildest dreams thought of Okonkwo as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant! But this is what literature is about and why it’s worth doing.”

            In his Harvard lectures, Achebe declared that “My hope for the twenty-first [century] is that it will see the first fruits of the balance of stories among the world’s people.” The balance of stories among the world’s people—not the censorship or silencing of some, and the hyping or monopoly of others—this phrase could be the motto of the Man Booker International Prize. We are proud this evening to celebrate the great storyteller who has so brightly illuminated our future, Chinua Achebe.