Novelist and Photographer, in Conversation
Chinua Achebe is the author of five critically acclaimed novels. He has played an important role in establishing the field of modern African literature and in bringing recognition to the rich heritage of Africa, as well as portraying the complexity of its contemporary affairs. “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them,” say Achebe.
Achebe was born in 1930 in Ogidi, an Igbo village in eastern Nigeria. His parents were devout Christians who baptized him Albert Chinualumogo—a tribute to Victorian England, which he dropped when he became a university student. A portion of his community remained unconverted to Christianity, and thus he also grew up surrounded by the traditional tales, proverbs, and rituals of Igbo culture.
As a student in missionary and government schools and later at the University of Ibadan, Achebe came into contact with perplexing European renditions of Africa. Finding no place for himself in works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, he concluded that literary portrayals of Africa from within the culture were missing. “You can’t explain why you become a writer,” said Achebe, “but you can certainly show strands. . . . The moment I realized in reading Heart of Darkness that I was not supposed to be part of Marlow’s crew sailing down the Congo to a bend in the river, but I was one of those on the shore, jumping and clapping and making faces and so on, then I realized that was not me, and that that story had to be told again,” explained Achebe.
After graduating from the university in 1953, Achebe held various positions with the Nigerian Broadcast Corporation, serving as its director until 1966. During this period he began writing the novels he envisions as a retelling of African history in fictional terms. Unarguably a masterpiece, Things Fall Apart (1958) depicts precolonial Nigeria and the initial clash of European and Igbo cultures in the 1890s. The novel’s tragic hero, Okonkwo, embodies the mixed qualities of a tribesman who remains steadfast in his fidelity to traditional ways.
Over the next eight years, Achebe wrote three more novels, each taking place at a critical juncture of Nigerian history. No Longer at Ease (1960) occurs in Lagos in the late 1950s, just before Nigeria became an independent state. It centers on the efforts of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi Okonkwo, to reconcile his Igbo upbringing with his affluent European lifestyle. Set in an Igbo village in the 1920s, Arrow of God (1964) involves a spiritual leader, Ezeulu, caught in conflicting systems of power. A pessimistic yet prescient work, A Man of the People (1966) takes place during the troubled years of the mid-’60s, when the Nigerian Republic came under threat of military rule.
Following a series of coups (the first in 1966), Nigeria entered into civil war. Achebe allied himself with the Igbos who wanted to form the independent state of Biafra. When hopes for Biafra were dashed, Achebe left his homeland. Over the next two decades, he held various posts at universities in the United States, Nigeria, and Canada, and concentrated on writing short stories, essays, and poems. It was not until 1987 that he published his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, a work that explores the tragic circumstances of political corruption in an imaginary African state suggestive of contemporary parallels.
In 1990, Achebe was in an automobile accident in Lagos that left him confined to a wheelchair. Since 1991, he has taught at Bard College in New York. Says Bard’s president Leon Botstein, “Chinua Achebe. . . is one of the great intellectual and ethical figures of our times. . . . I thought it important for students to hear an Achebe, who combines multiculturalism with wisdom.”
Robert Lyons has never wavered from the decision he made as a high school student to pursue seriously the art of photography. Born in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1954, Lyons grew up at a time when photography was kept somewhat at arm’s length from the traditional arts and viewed largely as a tool for describing—despite brilliant work of the field’s forerunners proving otherwise. He studied photography both at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. (BA, 1976), and at Yale (MFA, 1979). Says Lyons of his singular emphasis: “I was drawn to photography for its unique ability to transcend the moment and one’s moment of viewing. A great photograph takes the viewer to another place, suspending disbelief so that you believe you’re in that moment.”
In 1981, Lyons began working on the African continent, taking the first of many photographic trips to Morocco and Egypt. Repeated visits to the same place have yielded a rich quarry. “More often than not, I go back. From that you develop a different way of looking. What was exotic at one time changes over a period of five or six years. Other issues inform your work, as opposed to just the stimulation of being in a new place.” Moreover, this approach allows Lyons to take pictures back with him when he returns, thereby deepening his relationships and understanding of the culture. In such a way, he developed a friendship with the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfooz, who contributed a story for Lyons’ engaging book of photos, Egyptian Time (1992).
During the 90s, Lyons photographed in African countries south of the Sahara Desert and north of the equator, including Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ethiopia. Attending to formal concerns of light, color, framing, and detail, Lyons creates a moment that captures ongoing life. He works almost exclusively in color, attracted to the complication it adds. Though many of his images are, indeed, posed, their air is natural and unaffected—an attitude in striking contrast to portrayals of Africa as a place of impoverishment and brutality. Avoiding the overtly political and the shocking, his is a view that lays open the humanity of his subjects. “My role is to convey something I feel,” explains Lyons. “There’s a lot in the African cultures that isn’t accessible to me, but if you work the way I do, which is intuitively, you sense things that become more fully revealed in the photographs.” Likewise, Lyons believes that the best works are those with continued resonance over time—images in which new meanings can be found with repeated viewing.
Lyons has lived in Seattle since 1987 and is represented here through the Grover/Thurston Gallery. His work is included in some of the most important photography collections in the country, including the Addison Gallery of American Art (Andover, Massachusetts), Microsoft Corporation (Redmond, Washington), The Joseph and Elaine Monsen Collection (Seattle, Washington), and the Seattle Art Museum. Recent solo exhibitions include “Africa: Above the Equator” at the Grover/Thurston Gallery (1996) and “Egyptian Time” at the International Center of Photography in New York City (1992).
Lyons’ book Another Africa (1997) was produced with Achebe. To this publication, Chinua Achebe has contributed an essay and poems never before published. Lyons first became acquainted with Achebe’s works while Lyons was a student at Hampshire College and Achebe was teaching nearby at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Though years would pass before they would meet, Achebe’s work influenced Lyons’ approach to photographing Africa.
Excerpt from Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
When we are young and without experience we all imagine that the story of the land is easy, that everyone of us can get up and tell it. But that is not so. True, we all have our little scraps of tale bubbling in us. But what we tell is like the middle of a mighty boa which a foolish forester mistakes for a tree trunk and settles upon to take his snuff . . . Yes, we lay into our little tale with wild eyes and a vigorous tongue. Then, one day Agwu comes along and knocks it out of our mouth and our jaw out of shape for our audacity and hands over the story to a man of his choice. . . Agwu does not call a meeting to choose his seers and diviners and artists; Agwu, the god of healers; Agwu, brother to Madness! But though born from the same womb he and Madness were not created by the same chi. Agwu is the right hand a man extends to his fellows; Madness, the forbidden hand. Madness unleashes and rides his man roughly into the wild savannah. Agwu possesses his own just as securely but has him corralled to serve the compound. Agwu picks his disciple, rings his eye with white chalk and dips his tongue, willing or not, in the brew of prophecy; and right away the man will speak and put head and tail back to the severed trunk of our tale. This miracle-man will amaze us because he may be a fellow of little account, not the bold warrior we all expect nor even the war-drummer. But in his new-found utterance our struggle will stand reincarnated before us. He is the liar who can sit under his thatch and see the moon hanging in the sky outside. Without stirring from his stool he will tell you how commodities are selling in the distant market-place. His chalked eye will see every blow in a battle he never fought. So fully is he owned by the retelling that sometimes—especially when he looks around him and finds no age-mate to challenge the claim—he will turn the marks left on him by the chicken-pox and yaws he suffered in childhood into bullet scars. . . yes, scars from that day our men pounded their men like palmfruit in the heavy mortar of iroko!”
The tense air was broken suddenly by loud laughter. The old man himself smiled with benign mischief.
“But in the lies of those possessed by Agwu are lies that do no harm to anyone. They float on the top of story like the white bubbling at the pot-mouth of new palm-wine. The true juice of the tree lies coiled up inside, waiting to strike . . . ”
Selected WorkChinua AchebeThe Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories (1992)Hopes and Impediments (1988)Anthills of the Savannah (1987)Beware, Soul-Brother and Other Poems (1971)A Man of the People (1966)Things Fall Apart (1958)Robert LyonsAnother Africa (1997)Egyptian Time (1992)Out of The Fire: Contemporary Glass Artists and Their Work (1991)LinksAtlantic Monthly interview with AchebeNew York Times article on AchebeSalon.com review of Another Africa