The Education of a British-Protected Child, By Chinua Achebe

Conrad was racist says African literature's elder statesman, but the legacy of colonialism isn't all bad
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The Independent Culture

Now 79, Chinua Achebe lived the first 30 years of his life – until Nigerian independence in 1960 – as a "British-protected" person. A Christian by upbringing (his father was an evangelist) and Igbo by birth, the young Achebe was encouraged at school to read books such as Treasure Island, The Prisoner of Zenda, David Copperfield and most of John Buchan, in which "heroic white men battled and worsted repulsive natives". Later he found this background "a wonderful preparation for the day we would be old enough to read between the lines and ask questions..." And he asks a lot of questions in this collection of essays.

Achebe returns repeatedly to Heart of Darkness, for example, and Conrad's casual racism – some of which he describes as "poisonous writing, in full consonance with the tenets of the slave trade-inspired tradition of European portrayal of Africa". In contrast, he cites Shakespeare's humane and sensitive presentation of Caliban in The Tempest three centuries earlier, when huge international fortunes were not dependent on colonialism.

Achebe's measured directness is a delight. He describes in "Africa is People" attending by invitation an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) meeting in Paris in 1989. He suddenly realised that the discussion was, effectively, a fiction workshop in which international experts tried out new theories in imaginary laboratories. "I have news for you," he told them. "Africa is people, real people."

Some of these perfectly written, totally accessible essays are quite short and almost whimsical. "Recognitions", for example, draws links between the modern recognition of the writings of Olaudah Equiano, an 18th- century Nigerian, and Achebe's being recognised and revered by a Nigerian cab-driver in Washington DC in 1989. "My Daughters" is a 2009 account of how, in the 1970s, Achebe used in-car storytelling as an incentive to get his reluctant younger daughter to school.

On the other hand, "African Literature as Restoration of Celebration" discusses, in some depth, the role of celebration in Igbo culture and how it relates to what Achebe controversially calls his "colonial inheritance" and the language of African literature. He regards his own ability to write in both Igbo and English as a great advantage and "not a straightforward case of oppression" relating to a "historical fantasy" which presents "a happy monolingual African childhood brusquely disrupted by the imposition of a domineering foreign language".

Although some are previously unpublished, several of the essays in this collection began life as lectures which have been delivered around the world during the past 20 years or so. Obviously, the elder statesman of African literature has key themes to which he returns continually. He talks a lot, for example, about the genesis and reception, over more than half a century, of Things Fall Apart, and includes a thoughtful essay about teaching it in universities – which he has never done himself. He also frequently mentions James Baldwin, whom he admired deeply. His own education at a Nigerian imitation of a British public school comes up often, too.

To avoid being too aware of the unavoidable (given the format) repetitions, treat this as a dipping book and read one delicious essay at a time over a period of a few months, rather than gobbling it cover to cover in a few days as I did.