- Homage to a Modern Literary Father
This issue of Research in African Literatures is a special one that the journal is putting out in homage and tribute to Chinua Achebe. It features a cluster of essays and a commentary by leading and emerging critics of African literature on Achebe’s early novels, namely, Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964).
Pertinent questions for RAL might be: Why put the spotlight on Achebe? And why do so now? In answer, let us ponder the following: but for Achebe where would RAL be? Would this or any other literary journal have justified its existential self-representation as African if what Achebe represents for African literature had not occurred in (recent) history? It is thanks to the outstanding literary-creative interventions and managerial acumen of the man, beginning a half-century ago, that RAL is able continuously to draw its sustenance as a journal from, and contribute to the reproduction of, the institutional life of African literature.
As for African literature’s institutional life, let us recall that it has emerged in and out of the fortuitous historical conjuncture, as occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, of (a) determined literary creators on the African continent; (b) the promotional work of local and international publishing houses; (c) the birth and growth of Africanist traditions of literary criticism and exegesis; and (d) the pedagogical legitimizations of African studies in schools and universities both inside and outside Africa. And this is not to forget that the late 1950s was a period when decolonization in Africa was at its most intense, a period when pan-Africanist ideology and affect was widespread on the continent and made fertile ground for the cultivation of pan-African institutions of literary and scholarly culture.
If these conjunctural circumstances were auspicious for the birthing of a literature qua African, it would take Achebe’s special genius to write what would immediately be acknowledged both far and near as its seminal text, Things Fall Apart; consequently a text qualified to stand at the defining head of a new tradition emergent in world literature. It would be Achebe’s good fortune also—thoroughly well-deserved—to have been chosen by the publishing house Heinemann to preside inaugurally over its influential African Writers Series, a position he occupied for ten years (1962–1972). If the Series disproportionately influenced the course of African literary canon formation, this is a development it owes in significant part to Achebe’s authoritative, able, and long-lived editorial direction. Concerning the institutionalization of African literature, Achebe’s influence would not only be decisive as a seminal writer and canonizing editor; as a self-described “novelist as a teacher,” he would insinuate his writerly authority also into a determination of the literary-critical commonplaces, the exegetical unfolding, and the pedagogical framing of what was emergent in African institution as a new branch of (world) [End Page vi] literature. These are some of the outstanding reasons why, with African literature hitting its fiftieth institutional year, RAL (itself now in its forty-second year) has considered it apropos to honor an influential pioneer with the essays gathered herein.
Achebe’s Endowment: The Modern Literary “Author-Function” in African Institution
This is not the first occasion that RAL is paying exclusive tribute to Achebe in its pages. Ten years ago (2001), in “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture,” Simon Gikandi made the case for Achebe as African literature’s preeminent constitutional father by posing, and then proceeding to answer, the following question: “Why must Things Fall Apart always occupy the inaugural moment of African literary history?” (5). Achebe, Gikandi acknowledged then, was preceded by other writers from several parts of continental Africa, a number of them individuals of considerable creative talent who wrote outstanding literary works. And so the thrust of Gikandi’s question was comparative and evaluative: given that these early continental men and women of letters produced works of merit, what made it necessary to put Achebe’s novel ahead of theirs and award it the distinction of being the Ur-text of African literature?
In 2007, Nadine...