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Lingering Issues In Achebe’s Female Characterisation

Recently, (Saturday April 12, 2008), I was at the National Theatre, Lagos, because of Prof Chinua Achebe, Africa’s best known and most widely read author, who many regard as the indisputable father and rallying point of African Literature.  The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) had organized a forum to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, published in London by William Heinemann in June 1958.

I was held back at the office by some engagements, and by the time I arrived at the venue, I had missed a substantial part of the ‘Interactive Session’. I came in while Segun Olusola, former ambassador and arts enthusiast, was concluding his speech. As I sat down, I heard him paying glowing tributes to Achebe and his novel and saying how happy he was to be at the event. He then announced that he would also grace the Awka event in honour of Achebe and Things Fall Apart, coming up more than a week later.

Achebe evokes a very special kind of pleasant, soothing feelings in most people that have   read either his novels or essays. And this was evident in the emotion-laden speeches made by various speakers at the National Theatre that weekend.

The literary patriarch and icon was absent at the ceremony, but his image loomed large everywhere, and this, mind you, was not because of those large posters and billboards bearing his photograph (and, of course, the emblem of the main sponsors, Fidelity Bank Plc) displayed at strategic points by the organizers.

There is something profoundly unique about Achebe and his work that confers dignity and awe on any event organized around him. The spirit of the man breathes through the pages of his works, giving you the very palpable feeling that the gifted story teller and meticulous teacher himself is by your very side, as you read, physically telling you his most enchanting tales in the very unique way that only him can tell them. His wit, deep insights, the overpowering wisdom he conveys with such sagely precision, simple and subtle diction and disarming style, the impressive imageries he effortlessly conjures, and the pleasant local colour he so generously splashes on his narratives, never cease to overwhelm. Achebe is one writer whose reputation and looming image was neither built nor enhanced by any prize. What further glamour can occasional decorations add to an already very colourful and big masquerade? The man rather dignifies any prize he decides to accept, and not the other way round. For instance, as Achebe and Things Fall Apart are celebrated across the world this season, only an insignificant few consider it necessary to recall that a few months ago, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize – a very important no doubt.  Such information, though great in its own right, makes little or no difference to the man’s already solidly established stature.

It is impossible to read Things Fall Apart without visualizing the village of Umuofia in its alluring freshness in the warm embrace of rich nature in its most exciting vivacity and purity.  This is the only novel I know written by an African that has acquired such a stature and influence, as to be so celebrated in such a grand fashion.

No, doubt, Chinua Achebe is Africa’s rare gift to the world, and Nigeria should never cease to be glad and grateful that this giant emerged from its loins. A focused and consistent writer, the views expressed by Achebe in the sixties and seventies, as the nature and boundaries of what is today known as African literature were being meticulously defined, have remained valid and timeless. They now constitute an invaluable reference material for anyone seeking a better and reliable understanding of Africa, its literature and culture.

With his novels, superb lectures and rich essays, Achebe has been able to compel the world out there to significantly alter their entrenched warped views about Africa. After a particularly brilliant speaking engagement in Canberra, Australia, in the summer of 1973, Professor Manning Clark, a distinguished Australian historian wrote to Achebe and pleaded: “I hope you come back and speak again here, because we need to lose the blinkers of our past. So come and help the young to grow up without the prejudices of their forefathers…” I find this display of sincerity very touching.

It is interesting that Things Fall Apart enjoys significant readership across cultures and races, and its message continues to register lasting impacts that are simply rare and peculiar. Not a few Nigerians can recall the instant celebrity status they had suddenly assumed or even some favours that had come their way, in one remote part of the world or the other, just because they had let it be known that they were from Chinua Achebe’s country. Achebe has also remarkably excelled as a critic and essayist. His 1975 Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled, “An Image Of Africa: Racism In Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness,” which I am never of tired of re-reading, has not only significantly altered the nature and direction of Conrad criticism, but is now widely regarded as one of the most influential essays in the criticism of literature in English.

As I listened to several speeches at the National Theatre on that Saturday, I could feel the depth of admiration displayed by the various speakers towards Achebe and his work.  The whole thing was moving on well until one lady came up with elaborate praise for Achebe for the significant “improvement” his female characters achieved in Anthills Of the Savannah, unlike what obtained in Things Fall Apart, which we had all gathered to celebrate that afternoon.

 Now, I would easily have ignored and quickly forgotten this comment as “one of those things” one was bound to hear in a “mixed crowd” if I had not also heard such thoughts brazenly expressed by some female scholars whom I thought should be better informed. For instance, I was at a literary event in Port Harcourt some years ago when a female Professor of Literature announced with the excitement of someone who had just discovered another earth: When Achebe created his earlier female characters, we complained; then he responded by giving us Clara (in No Longer At Ease), and we still complained; then he gave us Eunice (in A Man Of The People) and we still asked for more; and then he gave us Beatrice (in Anthills Of The Savannah). Unfortunately, I have encountered thoughts even more pedestrian than this boldly flaunted in several literary essays by women and some men.

Honestly, I had thought that this matter had long been resolved and forgotten. It should be clear (and I should think that this has been sufficiently stressed) that whatever perceived differences in the various female characters created by Achebe are a function of the prevailing realities in the different settings and periods that produced them, and Achebe’s ability to record those realties so accurately should not be construed to mean that he also “celebrates” them (as some fellows have wrongly imputed) or advocates their sustenance.

In his lecture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, specially slated to precede the very memorable Eagle On Iroko Symposium, organized to mark Achebe’s sixtieth birthday in 1990, Prof Dan Izevbaye described Achebe as “history’s eyewitness.”  Today Achebe is being widely hailed for using his first novel, Things Fall Apart, to change the distorted images of Africa celebrated in the heaps of mostly concocted historical and literary accounts about the continent and its people by Western writers. But Achebe did not see any wisdom in countering these distortions with greater distortions. He merely presented reality with both its glowing and unedifying sides with exceptional insight, penetration and grasp of the real picture which the foreigner, whose impressions were mostly coloured by many years of deep-seated prejudices, was incapable of capturing.

It is a credit to Achebe’s mastery of his art that even though his readers may be shocked, for instance, at the bloodcurdling murder of Ikemefuna, they would still find it nearly impossible to categorize the incident as one more evidence of savage pleasure in wanton bloodletting. The reader is able to see an Okonkwo with genuine human feelings that are even more appealing than those of the whitman who was attempting to “civilize” him, but who would have no qualms wiping out an entire community, as happened in Abame community! Indeed, no sane person would endorse any religious observances that prescribe human sacrifices, but the reader would most likely catch himself empathizing with a highly traumatized and sorrowful Okonkwo who had killed the boy as a national duty prescribed by the deity he and his people worshipped at that time. Our dilemma is compounded when we see that the same community that sacrificed Ikemefuna would later banish Okonkwo for accidentally killing a man with his gun during a ceremony in honour of dead great man. That is the reality of that era. And so, when Achebe also records reality as it pertained to gender placement in Okonkwo’s time, he is only playing effectively his role as “history’s eye-witness.” Maybe, the feminists would have been happier if he had recreated Okonkwo’s community to suit their notions and expectations, and in effect fall guilty of the same charges of distortions that have trailed colonialist portrayals of Africa in many works. We seem to forget, at times, that Achebe was writing like someone who was part of that society and not some foreign observer desperate to ‘confirm’ some preconceived notion. Umuofia was a society in transition, and the author was able to capture the prevailing mood of the time, instead of imposing on it  his own idea of how the society should be.

I agree with Prof. Ian Watts in his book, The Rise Of The Novel, that there must be “a correspondence between the literary work and the reality which it imitates.” I wonder what kind of novel Achebe would have produced if he had made a couple of women sit with the elders of Umuofia to deliberate on the banishment of Okonkwo, or even the killing of Ikemefuna. Granted, that would have earned him the boundless admiration of certain feminists, but the novel would have been unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the subsisting features in the Igbo traditional environment in the period Things Fall Apart or Arrow Of God was set.

But despite the “emancipation and empowerment” Chinua Achebe’s later female characters were said to have achieved, some faint murmur of dissatisfaction could still be heard in some feminized critical circles. In a review of Anthills Of The Savannah in the journal, OKIKE (No 30: 1990), for instance , Prof Ifi Amadiume blames Achebe and his novel for failing or refusing to give “women power” insisting that the female characters in the book are still existing to “service” the  men. But she appears to overstate her case when she alleges that Ikem, one of the principal characters in the novel, despite being a “great poet, great journalist and nationalist” could “at a personal level” still stoop so low to “sexually exploit a grassroots girl.”

Now, what my reading of the novel showed, however (that is, if we read the same book – Achebe’s Anthills Of The Savannah), is that Ikem was very proud of Elewa, taking her to social meetings with his highly placed and educated friends, including an expatriate administrator of the nation’s General Hospital and a visiting British Editor of a poetry journal. In fact, during a lecture he gave at the University of Bassa, Ikem proudly announced Elewa’s mother as his future mother-in-law. He also did not forget to inform his audience that his fiancée’s mother was a market woman, a petty trader at Gelegele Market.

Now, while not endorsing Ikem’s lifestyle (since I detest pre-marital sex), I fail to see a case of sexual exploitation here – Ikem was genuinely in a flourishing relationship with a lady he wanted to settle down with. How they eventually choose to spend the night — in the same room or in different rooms — should not be the concern of any nosey feminist. From all indications, Elewa and Ikem were happy in that relationship, and that was all that mattered. There is never ever a perfect union, but people have been able, by sacrifices, forbearance and accommodations of each other’s faults and weaknesses, where love is alive and well, to make the best of many relationships, and live happily ever after. So, the little matter of Ikem insisting that they would not spend the night together (which was the only point of conflict) is something that can be resolved in the life of the relationship, and I wonder why that should be the headache of any third party?

And, by the way, what is all this noise about “servicing the men” in actions that were purely consensual and mutually pleasurable to both parties who are also adults? Even if His Excellency was removed from office and replaced with a Beatrice (BB) as President of the Republic of Kangan, would that have automatically elevated her above whatever obligations she had discharged towards Chris (and vice-versa) before her status changed? Can it be said in all honesty that BB was subjugated in the novel? Is her character not real?  Assuming the nation was not under military rule, which was an aberration, were there any impediments before BB, barring her from aspiring to very high political offices?

Again, wasn’t a strong point also made by the fact that Elewa, despite her poor background and almost no education had no complexes whatsoever socializing with the society’s elite, whether she was able to follow in the discussions or not? No doubt,  Achebe could have just changed his story and made Elewa possess a doctorate degree, but can anyone say that the status the author gave her in the novel made her less than real? Certainly, the creative enterprise would yield only boring works if all novels and plays are stampeded into adopting one predictable, feminized pattern.

Now, it is all this insistence by feminists on prescribing strict codes of conducts to govern couples in the privacy of their homes that most people find very revolting. Many women who had uncritically swallowed those ‘great rules and regulations’, and had attempted to implement them in their homes, mainly to underline the fact that they have now been “liberated and empowered,” even when there were no situations in their homes that called for such brazen show of ‘girl-power,’ are today without even any stable homes from where to flaunt their wonderful empowerment.  Their marriages have since crashed, leaving them out in the cold, sad and lonely. Only the truthful among them (like the ‘liberated’ Nigerian actress who has been screaming all over the place since her husband left her) would confess that their daily menu ever since have remained regrets and more regrets. This is the point late Professor Zulu Sofola most brilliantly underlined in her play, Sweet Trap.  If Ikem was battering Elewa or sneaking her into his house only when his friends would not observe, then Ms. Amadiume would have had a point. But instead of praising Ikem, a nationally celebrated journalist and upper drawer writer and poet, for proposing to marry a barely literate girl like Elewa, Prof Amadiume, would rather ‘batter’ him, having found him guilty of an offence he did not even dream of committing. Men then do not hold the monopoly on battering, after all!

Now, we return to the issue of “giving women power”. I doubt if any novel, or indeed, any book, can boast of the capacity to just take hold of power — political, social or economic — and hand it over to women? That seems to be what female critics are asking for, but as would be seen later, their attempts to compel their own books to do this with indecent haste have unleashed on all of us disastrous and grotesque creative works, with characters, settings and incidents that are so gratuitously padded with several outlandish details and extreme exaggerations, that their stories simply lost their abilities to be true. As a result, many of them have served us with excellent demonstrations of how fiction should not be written.

But a writer can choose to make some projections, depending on his thrust, and point the way forward. In Anthills Of The Savannah, Beatrice was the only character who was able to look the dreaded His Excellency, the very maximum ruler to whom all the men cringed, in the face and tell him some home truth. We may not endorse what she did to get His Excellency to listen to her, but she has set an example by daring the tiger. Others can now improve on her effort and tactics.

So, whatever power women would acquire (assuming they lack any now) would largely be the outcome of their own conscious effort. And this would clearly be reflected in the literary works that would appear in that period. But care must be taken to ensure that art is not sacrificed on the altar of advocacy. Propaganda is important, but so also is art.  And like Chinua Achebe has warned, virtually all art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.

 In this vein, therefore, Ms. Katherine Frank has raised very important questions in her article, “Women Without Men: Feminist Novel in Africa,” published in the journal, African Literature Today No 15: “How are we to judge a work which we find politically admirable and true but aesthetically simplistic, empty or boring? What do we make of characters whose credos and pronouncements we endorse but whose human reality we find negligible? … If the writing is inferior, the book becomes a tract and there are far more efficient and effective ways of spreading an ideology than by novels…”

As the first published female novelist from Nigeria, late Flora Nwapa’s objective was to hurriedly “empower” her female characters and place them above the male ones. But in doing this, as evident in her novel, Efuru and the others, she featured ‘liberated’, empowered and highly assertive female characters in a society peopled by mostly weak, grossly irresponsible, non-innovative, non-enterprising, in fact, emasculated men. Art and realism suffered so that ideology and advocacy may thrive. Is Nwapa saying in effect that women are incapable of competing with men that are equally endowed and so can only excel and attain some prominence in an environment inhabited by mostly emasculated men or, in fact, outright imbeciles? How then can success be celebrated when the supposed winner was spared any form of competition? Or like, she demonstrated in One Is Enough, must women become morally irresponsible and hawk their bodies (to the same men they intend to demonstrate the are superior to) to make it in society?  There is a huge irony here which neither Nwapa nor the majority of female writers that she inspired saw the need to resolve. Certainly, no decent person would embrace a “liberated” character like Amaka in Nwapa’s One Is Enough, who after a misunderstanding with her husband, abandoned her home, and relocated to Lagos to “fully realize herself” by  excelling as a public piss pot in the city of Lagos.

Mybe, Nwapa wanted to use the character of Amaka to give full expression to the overly pernicious doctrine so eloquently promoted by the Egyptian feminist writer, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, in her book, Woman At Point Zero. Said Saadawi: “A woman’s life is always miserable.  A prostitute, however, is a little better off….  All women are prostitutes of one kind or another… the lowest paid body is that of a wife….  A successful prostitute (is) better than a misled saint…. Marriage (is) the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” (Woman At Point Zero, London &New York: Zed Books, 1983, pp.114, 117,111)

Although some female scholars have made the case that feminism is not monolithic, I keep thinking that they have a responsibility to help us draw a clear boundary between female assertiveness and female extremism, because from what I can see out there,  definitions of feminism are mostly situational, and most of the time is solely dependent on the mood and peculiar cravings or experiences of the particular woman defining it at any given time. Indeed, today, whether as a struggle, ideology or movement, feminism is an amorphous and an unnecessarily ambiguous phenomenon. The lesbian, for instance, announces herself as a feminist. The prostitute claims she is “making some kind of protest.”  The never-married, unmarriageable single mother is “driving home some point.”  The ever-wild nympho-maniac (who ought to have sought help) is “advancing the struggle.”  The lady out there with revolting obsession for luring small boys to her nest and cruelly deflowering them is “getting back at the oppressor—man.” The habitually unfaithful wife is “sending out some message.” Now, in the midst of this cacophony of voices, how can we know who is sane? Must otherwise sane women continue to endorse all these ruinous absurdities just to get back at men?

Many critics are agreed that the   societies she created in Nwapa’s novels are unrecognizable. But because of her popularity with women empowerment diehards, most other female writers that came after her were easily seduced into adopting her art-murdering style. In my article in The Guardian (Lagos), Sunday, June 1, 1997, p.B4, entitled, “Zainab Akali And Feminist Writers,” which provoked a year-long debate  and even name-calling by some female contributors, I was frank about my observation that the works of those female writers “are united by their possession of the same maladies:  they are blessed with all the features  of fairy tales and myth; they unabashedly distort with indecency and uncanny bravado, sociology and gender images just to make some shallow feminist point; their heroines  are spared healthy competitions as they only thrive in outlandish communities peopled by only weak, emasculated, lazy, foolish and insane men.”

Indeed, the “unliberated” Beatrice in Anthills Of The Savannah, achieved all she had by dint of hard work in the midst of equally intelligent and hardworking men, not by “conquering” the men by sleeping around. Her only offence, may be, would be that she was not anti-men, but favoured an environment that promoted equal opportunities for both the male and female to excel. Maybe, she also sinned because she did her best to ensure her proposed marriage to Chris worked.

All I am saying really is that when viewed within the particular environment and period in which they were set, Achebe’s female characters are very real. They are easily recognizable, and I would prefer them any day than the outlandish caricatures offered us as alternatives in many feminist novels.

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye is on the Editorial Board of the Independent, a national newspaper published in Lagos, Nigeria. He writes a highly regarded column, (SCRUPLES) on the back page of the paper every Wednesday. eMail. Blog.

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