The Literary Corner: Introduction to African English Fiction/Prose with Brooks Robinson (side a)


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Brooks B. Robinson: The literary corner: Black writers of the world. A series of analyses and interpretations of Black world literature.

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I'm Brooks Robinson, and today you'll hear Eldred D. Jones discuss the works of one of Africa's most prominent contemporary African-English fiction or prose writers.

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He is Chinua Achebe. Eldred Jones is professor and principal at Fourah College in Sierra Leone, West Africa. As a critic, he's written analyses on Elizabethan images of Africa and on the writings of Chinua Achebe.

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Jones is also the editor of Africa Literature Today. In the interview, you'll hear Jones discuss the lives and works of Chinua Achebe. [[whistling and drumming volume increases]]

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Eldred Jones: Chinua Achebe first hit the literary world with his novel "Things Fall Apart",

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which was an examination of the breakup of an African traditional society, an Igbo traditional society, uh after the first impact of European missionary civilization.

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It's really focused on one of the traditional heroes of the village, one of the people who upheld the values of village life.

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But who did not have the weapons to fight against the new uh missionary impact, backed by the forces of imperialism.

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Brooks B. Robinson: mm-hmm. [[affirmative]]

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Eldred Jones: So he declared war on the new regime, total war, without any--

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Eldred Jones: Preferred compromise, compromise is the art of survival.
Brooks B. Robinson: mm-hmm.
Eldred Jones: And he could not compromise. So he hanged himself. So a man who started life triumphantly upholding the values of the society ends up totally defeated, dying a death, which was so abominated that he could not even be buried by his own countrymen. It's a complete change from the triumphant beginning to this defeated end.

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From that he wrote a novel, the hero which was the grandson of this hero of the earlier novel,
Brooks B. Robinson: Right.
Eldred Jones: Obi Okonkwo. He was somebody of much smaller stature, and the book is tended to be looked at from this point of view. People look at the hero of the new novel and say well, he certainly didn't have the stature of his grandfather.

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And therefore think that it's an unsuccessful novel because of this.

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In fact, Achebe's intention was to portray somebody who did not have the stature to carry through his ideals.

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As this grandson of Obi Okonkwo certainly had ideals, but he don't have the strength of character to go through with the consequences of following his ideas. So he also ends up defeated, but for different reasons from the reasons why his grandfather got defeated.

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Now, Achebe had moved from way back in history into the prelude to independence. And for his third novel he went back into history

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Brooks B. Robinson: mm-mm-mm.
Eldred Jones: with Arrow of God, which many critics feel is his best novel overall.

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And this was a very intriguing novel from many points of view. Because in Things Fall Apart one had seen an opposition between a traditional civilization and the new imperialistic missionary civilization. We had seen no longer at ease, a situation in which a young man had been plunged into the modern society.

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And again, he seemed to be confronted with different values than the traditional values. Now what the interesting thing about Arrow of God was that the major conflicts took place within the society itself.

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And you had almost schizophrenic situations, where the priest who was the spiritual leader of the community. And of course life was so integrated that even agriculture was tied to worship. And because he was priest, it was he who had to give the signal for the harvesting of the yam. And of course for the planting of new yam. So all life revolved --

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Eldred Jones: [[continuation from previous statement, inaudible]] Where a person, with this enormous power, came to confuse his instrumentality. You know, as an instrument of the god, with the absolute power of the god.

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Eldred Jones: and he got his roles confused [[laughter]]
Brooks B. Robinson: [[laughter]]

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Eldred Jones: And there again, one saw a good man, a man who upheld very high standards, broken within the society.

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Eldred Jones: That to me, was a much better, um, it had a greater impact, simply because he was able to show the operations of the human spirit. He was able to show human feelings really within the context of a society.

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Eldred Jones: The imperialistic society was almost on the periphery. The district commissioner was on the edge of society, he was a bit of a nuisance. But really, he showed the society itself, generating its own strengths and its own weaknesses.

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Brooks B. Robinson: And problem
Eldred Jones: Yes
Brooks B. Robinson: Yeah

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Eldred Jones: I think that, I think that was a very significant work. Now, continuing this progress of one foot in the modern era and one foot in history. He now comes back for his fourth novel, to the absolute contemporary situation, the independent society of Nigeria with A Man of the People.

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Eldred Jones: Which centered on a very plausible politician.

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Brooks B. Robinson: mh-hm [[Affirmative]]

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Eldred Jones: This was a man who had all of the charms for winning votes. He was, underneath, quite hard and unscrupulous,

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Brooks B. Robinson: [laughter] Yeah
Eldred Jones: But he was very charming. He won the votes, and the interesting thing is, that novel is narrated in the first person by a very idealistic young man. At least when we encounter him, all of his ideals were, seemingly, very idealistic. He comes into contact with this minister, who he recogni-- [[recognizes]]

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Eldred Jones: and by a lucky accident, he catches hold of himself.
Brooks B. Robinson: mmm hmmm [[affirmative]]

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Eldred Jones: and turns against the minister and goes into opposition as well to fight against the minister, but the important thing is that his Achilles' heel had been exposed only because he and the minister clashed over the possession of his girlfriend

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did he suddenly take himself in hand, and I think again there's a great moral lesson to be learned there

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and one sees the difference between mouthing slogans and taking idealistic positions.

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and really the contrast between that and the cost of holding on to such positions. So in these four novels, I think Achebe has examined the

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Igbo situation, the Nigerian situation, the African situation you might say,

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in quite a number of different perspectives and together they make quite a formidable literary output.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now you talk about in the first 3 novels in the end in the final analyses, the major characters are defeated

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And this final, the fourth novel, is the character in the final analysis successful?

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Eldred Jones: In the, in the -- no, he is not. He's not really successful in the sense that his party is defeated.

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and he himself comes out of the novel very badly

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because there's a coup, a military coup, and that novel -- the publication of that novel just predated the military -- the actual military coup in Nigeria by a matter of weeks.

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In fact, there was a time when people thought that Achebe must have known there was a coup coming.

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[[Brooke R. Robinson chuckles]]

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Eldred Jones: but in fact, it was a good way of rounding off the novel.

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And it happened also to be true to life. In fact, what one might

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Eldred Jones: I think when you look at, uh, Achebe's heroes,

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uh, one tends to see something of a lesson of tragedy. Which is that man, no matter how important, no matter how great,

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he's mere man and he has to be pretty careful in order to keep his balance through the hazards of life.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Now are there any other major themes? Besides the idea of struggle, of conflict,

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dealing with the society that Achebe projects in his writings?

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Eldred Jones: Well, you know that Achebe was involved of civil war, and the civil war changed the outlooks of a number of Nigerian writers.

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Wole Soyinka was never the same again after the civil war.

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Achebe came out of the civil war really chastened, I think, and he wrote a lot of poetry, he wrote short stories.

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"Beware Soul Brother" is the volume of poems which he wrote, and "Girls at War and other stories" is the title of a book of short stories.

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and really um, all of that covers, shows, the impact of the war upon him, the dark tragedy of the war, the terrible sufferings,

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not just of the people who are protagonists of the war but of women and children and portraits of children dying in the arms of their mothers.

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Brooks B. Robinson: Of course.

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Eldred Jones: Quite how--

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Brooks B. Robinson: This is the Biafran-Nigerian war?

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Eldred Jones: Yes. The--the Biafran-Nigerian civil war. So I think, so far, what has come out of Achebe's-- since the war,

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I think he's working out the trauma of the war. We're all looking for--

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Eldred Jones: But does not come out. But I think he's shaking--

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Brooks B. Robinson: Mm-hmm. [[affirmative]]

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Eldred Jones: --the nearness of his horrible experience out of him

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In order, perhaps, to distill something more out of him, because what one sees in the poems and the short stories

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is the immediacy of the horror and quite often to produce the distilled experience, one has to stand back from it a bit.

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And maybe that's the period he's going through now.

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[[drum and flute music fades in]]

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Brooks B. Robinson: You've been listening to Eldred Jones, professor and principal at Fourah College Sierra Leone West Africa,

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discuss the writings of Chinua Achebe on "The Literary Corner: Black Writers of the World."

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Technical assistance provided by Bob Chan.

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I'm Brooks Robinson. "The Literary Corner" was made possible by funds from WHA Radio Madison Wisconsin,

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a service of the University of Wisconsin extension.

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[[drum and flute music plays]] [[bird chirping]]

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[[music fades out]]