Saturday, March 23, 2013


Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian author who died this week, had a few things to say about telling stories.

In the final paragraph of his most famous novel, "Things Fall Apart" (1958), a British colonial commissioner in Nigeria imagines the book he'll write about how "he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa," and "every day brought him new material." The complex lives of the villagers get reduced to a mere obstacle for colonial progress, in the narrative conception of the commissioner, who has already thought of a title for his book: "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger." 

Years ago, I heard Achebe speak, and he cited a proverb he's fond of: "Until the lions tell their own story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." He told the lion's story. 

Elsewhere, as quoted in this New York Times obituary, he said, "There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like."


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