When someone asked Chinua Achebe what he would have done if the manuscripts of Things Fall Apart had got lost, he replied: “I would have been discouraged; I would have given up all together. Even if I had forced myself to write another book, it would have been a different book.”
Some people who handle manuscripts in offices adopt cavalier attitudes. They think it is a kind of document that can be easily reproduced. For a work of fiction, it is impossible to replicate the theme, storyline and characters. Some of those who buy books hardly appreciate the labour that went behind that product.
That is said by the way.
In 1958, Achebe sent manuscripts to the literary agent of his admirer Gilbert Phelps and sat down to continue his work at the Nigerian Broadcasting Station (NBS). Meanwhile, the manuscripts were doing the rounds among London’s publishing houses. It was being rejected on the grounds that a novel by an African was unlikely to be a financial success.
Lastly, Things Fall Apart reached the office of William Heinemann and was placed in the hands of Allan Hill who was said to be a publishing innovator. After some hesitation, Hill showed the manuscript to Professor Donald MacRae, advisor to Heinemann school books. He was an expert on West Africa, and he had just come back from there. Incidentally, I remember attending his lecture on developments in West Africa that he delivered to students of economic and social administration studies at the London School of Economics in 1962. A chain smoker, one of the things he said was there were records of Ghanaian smokers at Cambridge University in the 18th century. He lamented that though Ghana had produced distinguished scholars, unlike Nigeria, it had not produced outstanding writers.
Professor MacRae read Achebe’s manuscript in the office. In his report he said: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”
That was a landmark verdict in the history of modern African literature. With a bit of caution Heinemann published Things Fall Apart on June 17 1958, a hardback issue of 2 000 copies. It is said that the publisher did not touch a word of the novel.
Achebe’s novel achieved instant acclaim thanks to enthusiastic reviews by such critics as Walter Allen and Angus Wilson. In the field of literature during colonialists, Africans had no greater friend than Margaret Wrong. An ex-missionary, she was editor in London of a non-denominational monthly magazine called Listen. This was the first magazine or newspaper to publish my essay.
Miss Wrong pointed to the colonial office after World War II the need to encourage African writing in east and central Africa. It was because of her initiative that the East African Literature Bureau and the Nyasaland and Northern Publications Bureau were published. They did wonderful work to nurture African literature in this part of Africa.
In November 1960, Achebe was given a travel grant by an American institution. He chose as his destination east and central Africa. Early in 1961, he arrived in Dar es Salaam. A friend of mine Bailey Yajunjumile took me to see him. When my colleague left, I remained, chatted alone with Achebe for at least an hour. We discussed various African writers, especially the Nigerians.
Apart from Tanzania, he visited Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar, Zambia and Zimbabwe—but not Malawi. His second visit was to Makerere University College in Uganda to attend a conference on African writers which was organised by the Mbari Writers and Artist Club. One of the people he met there was a student called James Ngugi who showed him a manuscript called Weep Not, Child. He recommended it to Heinemann. About that time his publishers had appointed him advisor in a series they were to start called African Writers Series (AWS). He remained the adviser for 10 years, having handled 100 manuscripts or books.
He published five novels. I have read only Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God. He received at least 23 honorary doctorates for his work but the Nobel Prize, which his compatriot Wole Soyinka got, eluded him.
Achebe was the most popular African novelist. But what is his real stature?
Catherine Drinker Bown in her book Biography says: “Lesser talent produce sparely though their production may be exquisite. But your true genius produces in shoals in barrelsful, shelvesful with the level of quality rising and falling as witness, Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Beethoven, I would add Shakespeare, Alexandra, Dumas and Voltaire.”
On this basis, I would say Achebe was Africa’s most talented writer, but Africans genius is still to come. He was not a prolific writer. After the publication of his fourth novel A Man of the People, he did not publish his fifth until 20 years later.