Brave new work as the empire writes back

From a speech given by Alistair Niven, the director of literature at the British Council, to the Royal Society of Literature

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It was 1966 and, about to leave Cambridge, I was casting around for what to do next. Joining the family solicitor's firm, where my uncle was the senior partner, seemed the most probable option. Then one day I found myself glancing at a notice board in a part of the college I seldom visited. It advertised Commonwealth Scholarships to West Africa and the closing date was the next day. I threw together an application, won the scholarship and later in the year flew to Ghana.

It was 1966 and, about to leave Cambridge, I was casting around for what to do next. Joining the family solicitor's firm, where my uncle was the senior partner, seemed the most probable option. Then one day I found myself glancing at a notice board in a part of the college I seldom visited. It advertised Commonwealth Scholarships to West Africa and the closing date was the next day. I threw together an application, won the scholarship and later in the year flew to Ghana.

I was proud to be awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship, unaware then that almost no one from Britain had ever applied for one to go to Africa. The traffic was all the other way. When I told Jeremy Prynne, my supervisor at Cambridge, that I was going to do postgraduate work in Ghana he told me that I was throwing away my career. I was registered for an MA in African literature. At my first meeting with my new supervisor I was asked what I thought about Things Fall Apart. "Do you mean the poem by Yeats?" I asked, not understanding that ignorance of Chinua Achebe's epoch-shaping novel was equivalent in a postgraduate student of African literature to someone on a Shakespeare course never having heard of Hamlet. Well, I read Things Fall Apart and I have continued to read it. I owe almost more to Chinua Achebe than to any other living writer.

Africans of Achebe's generation, as their British counterparts, were brought up to regard Africa as the Dark Continent, redeemed by the intervention of missionaries and district commissioners. It needed an Achebe to define African identity with confidence. It was happening everywhere. The languages of colonialism were being subverted by writers who had been introduced to them as vehicles of a civilising mission. Macaulay's Minute on Education in 1835 had laid down specifications for secondary education to be conducted in English, since the indigenous mother tongues of the continent were deemed to be incapable of higher thought.

No European author in the 19th century foresaw even in the vaguest way the possibility that the empire would one day "write back". Yet by 1968, the year I completed my MA, that process was well advanced in the English-speaking world. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, Achebe's masterpiece Arrow of God, novels in India by Mulk Raj Anand and RK Narayan.

When I started teaching what we then all called, "Commonwealth literature" (the term "post-colonial" is a misrepresenting invention of the 1980s), I frequently discovered students who were weak in most areas of Eng Lit, but who would shine when studying living authors from other cultures. They felt unencumbered by the weight of received opinion that made it well-nigh impossible for them to say anything new about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but which allowed them to read Wilson Harris or Bessie Head with a sense of freedom.

The past 20 years have brought to the fore authors who would have blushed unseen if it had not been for the university-based critics who have celebrated them. No one is any longer surprised when a Maori writer, Keri Hulme, wins the Booker Prize, as she did in 1986 with The Bone People, or when Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer or Derek Walcott win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Walcott could be seriously mooted for the Poet Laureateship. Young British writers of Asian origin such as Ayub Khan-Din, with his play and film East is East, and Meera Syal, with the television series Goodness Gracious Me or her novel Anita and Me, create hugely popular works.

The category of writing I have celebrated was, at the start of my career, regarded with disdain. Today it is almost lazily fashionable. I feel great good luck in that my interest in new writing from other places has matched the prevailing curiosity of the time. I threw away a career as a solicitor, which would have given me more money, but I gained a world. I would not have wanted it any other way.

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