Chinua Achebe and the Risky Business of Being an Ancestor

What to do with the world Achebe has left us.

Both Nadine Gordimer and Simon Gikandi have said that the publication of Things Fall Apart marks the invention of the African novel. True, there had been novels in Africa long before Chinua Achebe came on the scene. But the publication of Things Fall Apart is the event that inaugurated the African novel as a global literary project. It was essentially the global debut of the novel as an African form.

What this means is that Things Fall Apart set up a boundary between a time when African novels existed but did not circulate globally under that name—African novel—from a time when the African novel came into being as a name around which a set of uniquely African forms and aesthetic problems were mobilised. Perhaps, it is because Achebe was there at the beginning that we worry about what his passing means for the African novel and why some of are asking: what now? What becomes of the African novel at the close of an age signified by Achebe’s death? What is the future of the African novel from the standpoint of an African literary archive constituted by Achebe’s work? At bottom, we are really just anxious about what to do with the world Achebe has left us.

This anxiety comes from the fact that even though Achebe has passed on, something remains unfinished about his life and work. Gikandi describes it, in his tribute to Achebe, as the “paradox…of mourning.” Achebe lived a life that is considered full and successful by any standard; yet in our attempt to comprehend this life, something seems to elude us. We celebrate the fullness of his life but find it difficult consigning him to a closed and completed past.

The source of this melancholy comes from the fact that, in passing, Achebe is not entirely lost to the stark finality of death. He stands before us not as a dead person to the living but as an ancestor making demands on both our present and future. In becoming an ancestor, Achebe’s death is not so much the end as it is the start of a new relationship between him and those of us left behind. The nature of this ancestral relationship—its temporal structure and formal possibilities—is not as straightforward as we imagine. It is a relationship fraught with risks both for Achebe and for us.

During one of my many rereadings of Things Fall Apart, I stumbled upon a passage that throws light on the strange form of time linking ancestors and descendants. Okonkwo, as we know, loathes idleness. Throughout Things Fall Apart, he takes refuge in endless work against the inconveniences of contemplation. But there is a rare moment in the novel when he actually stops and takes the time to reflect on things. It is towards the end of the novel. Earlier that day he had heard the news of his eldest son, how he had deserted his family to join the Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is deeply hurt by this news. It made him “cry in his heart.” This loss, even of a son who he has always seen as accursed, gets him thinking about ancestors, the future, and abandonment. It is night time. Okonkwo is seated in his hut and “gazing into a log fire.” But instead of seeing flames, he sees a future time:

“[Okonkwo] saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god.”

A very touching picture—a crowd of abandoned fathers waiting for sacrifice but, instead, surrounded by ash. If we pay close attention to Okonkwo’s reasoning, we find that there is something unusual, almost science-fictional about the sense of time it assumes. Okonkwo looks into the future and sees not just his descendants for whom that future will be a present. He also sees himself. In the future Okonkwo sees, he has died, so he is in the past.

Yet, he finds himself drawn into the present of his descendants. How is that possible? How is it possible that Okonkwo who is, by that time, dead is waiting for a future time when his children will bring him sacrifice? The answer is quite simple really: Okonkwo is an ancestor. Poets, anthropologists, and historians have made much of the African belief in ancestors. But few have cared to think about it as brilliantly as Okonkwo does in the passage above. Okonkwo knows that what it means to be an ancestor is to be ceaselessly drawn into the present of ones descendants by simultaneously inhabiting their past and their future.

This idea of ancestral time makes it cool to be an ancestor. Who wouldn’t want to outlive their death? But there are risks involved. “Suppose when he died,” Okonkwo wonders, “all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation.” What, though, is so terrible about the prospect of being an abandoned ancestor?

Ancestral time is a past that opens out into the future. It is an incomplete past that still has to be fulfilled. Ancestral time is a strange order of time where someone who is supposed to be dead and buried in the past continues to make demands on the future. There are enormous risks involved in such a temporal order. Notice that Okonkwo is not worried about death itself. He is also not worried about being forgotten. Forgetting is not the worst kind of crime a descendant can commit. Good descendants are not the ones who remember their forefathers. Remembrance is a relationship to the past that presupposes the loss of some essential connection. Remembering is necessary where death is understood as an event of irredeemable loss. In contrast, ancestors, as Senghor points out in “In Memoriam,” are “forefathers who…refused to die.” In refusing death, an ancestor gives himself over to the living, and, in so doing, asserts himself as a contemporary of the living. Through sacrifice, worship, and the sharing of gifts and communion, the descendant testifies to the fact that the ancestor is a contemporary.

Bad descendants, therefore, are bad not because they exile their ancestors to the past. There is something comforting about being tucked away in the still darkness of a dead and completed past. A bad descendant is one who excludes the living ancestor from a present with which he or she is contemporaneous and from a future in which he or she continues to be implicated. What an ancestor fears most—this is why Okonkwo “shudders”—is being trapped in a future that has no content and having to wait perpetually, being caught between “the ashes of by gone days” and sacrifices that are yet to come, hemmed in between the “no more” and the “not yet.” To abandon an ancestor is to cast him or her off to some temporal limbo where he or she is trapped in a state of perpetual longing. The ancestor outlives his or her death. However, the capacity to share a future with the living depends on the descendants. What is the point in outliving ones death if what awaits one is loneliness?

To see Achebe as our literary ancestor, we must take seriously the fact that Achebe is not someone who now dwells in a chronological past that we can only access through dusty archives but as someone who continues to be implicated in a future, which he still shares with us. Since Achebe is not simply buried in a closed past, it is not enough for us to remember him. Staying in touch with Achebe requires that we see him as a contemporary and not as a monument of a lost generation. It requires that the African literary archive Achebe helped establish continues to be, for us, a living repository of future forms.

Staying in touch with Achebe involves an intellectual and aesthetic project driven by the notion that what will become the African avant-garde will emerge by means of an excavation of the African literary archive.

This article was originally published in Brittle Paper

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