Africa's great storyteller, Chinua Achebe, on language

Storytelling for some reason is considered vital by every society on earth," says Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Mr. Achebe was honored at a ceremony earlier this month at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he has been teaching literature for the past decade. The ceremony became an opportunity for renowned writers from around the world to celebrate the power of storytelling.

Achebe is the author of the classic "Things Fall Apart," about a Nigerian village's encounter with colonialism. The novel has sold more than 10 million copies and established Achebe's reputation as one of Africa's most widely read authors.

His decision to write in English - as opposed to his native Igbo language - has drawn some criticism over the years, he says. But he chose it in part because, while there was no need to convince the Igbos that they had been oppressed, there was a great need to tell the story of that oppression to the rest of the world.

The choice was not just a practical consideration, he adds. "In using English all my life I also fell in love with it." Language ought not to be viewed as an enemy, he explains, "but as a tool."

Other speakers at the conference praised Achebe's precise use of the language. African-American writers Toni Morrison and John Wideman noted their own struggles to effectively write in English.

Ms. Morrison says as a young writer she longed to write "as though there were nothing to prove or disprove, as if a post-racist world already existed."

Achebe impressed her greatly, she says, because his use of language seemed to achieve that goal.

During the two-day conference, African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o spoke of Achebe's acute analysis of the struggles taking place within the continent, and of the example he set for them.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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