Renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe sat down with The Herald Tuesday before a welcome event to discuss his motivations for joining Brown’s Africana studies faculty, his past work and his thoughts on being referred to as the “father of modern African literature.”
The Herald: You were a professor at Bard College in New York for 19 years. What drew you to Brown?
Achebe: There were all these years at Bard which I enjoyed, but I recognized that there are other places — this is a big country (with) good variety — and that I should look at other parts of this nation. … Many people don’t know that Brown gave me an honorary degree in literature in 1998, so Brown is not foreign to me. I know a few people here.
Brown has begun a concerted effort to establish itself as a leader in African scholarship through different programs, including research projects in African countries and a proposed graduate program in the Africana Studies department. Where do you think Brown currently stands on that front?
I think (Brown) has got the resources — human particularly, but also, I suppose, material resources — to place itself wherever it desires in the African field. … I do know that there is strong interest from a group of academics who have the ability to bring to Brown a really exciting Africana Studies department. The more such schools you have, the better.
Could you tell us specifics about the main initiative you will be overseeing — the Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa?
(The United States) is the most powerful country in the world. It’s got a tradition of interest in Africa, which many of us don’t remember today. …The idea of the colloquium is, in fact, to take issues that come up. Today Africa is a continent of issues wherever you look, and so I thought the best thing to do now is not to limit ourselves to one or two or even three issues, but to look at Africa bursting with problems and find out what we can do in each case. For instance, the issue of governance, which is a major problem — presidents that do not want to retire when their terms are up, elections that are rigged, violence at elections. … Whatever we are doing, we’re not doing right. Nigeria has been independent for nearly 50 years and look where we are.
A lot of Brown students who have read your works, especially your first novel, “Things Fall Apart,” are very excited to have you on campus. How do you hope to engage with the undergraduate student community at Brown during your time here?
I hope I will find an entree into the lives and thoughts of undergraduates at Brown. I really do hope that we will find a way to work together, and I will bring all that I have thought and felt in this area into what we do — the disappointments of the past, the years of great expectations. … We’ve got a big agenda and the interest of young people, the interest of students I count upon very much.
Which one of your works is your personal favorite and why?
That’s the one question I don’t answer because you can make a serious mistake. I’ve just been told that my family has arrived (in Providence) — it’s like asking me which of the children you like most. (Laughs) I like them for different reasons. They do different things for me. “Things Fall Apart” taught me how to write. … The body of work that I have put together, it’s not huge. I like the praise that is heaped on (my works), especially “Things Fall Apart,” but each one of them has something, I hope, to tell us about the human condition.
You have been referred to as the father of modern African literature. How do you feel about that title?
I resisted that very, very strongly. It’s really a serious belief (of mine) that it’s risky for anyone to lay claim to something as huge and important as African literature … the contribution made down the ages. I don’t want to be singled out as the one behind it because there were many of us — many, many of us.
Is there anything else you would like to say to the Brown community?
Yes, I have heard encouraging news about what the community has done and I want to encourage them further to go on and make friends with the world. That’s really where our hope is — peace and harmony in the world, peace and harmony among thinkers. When I say harmony I don’t mean that people who disagree should stop disagreeing. If there’s a good reason to disagree then disagree as strongly as you can — that’s the only way we can straighten out our problems.