TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen to an interview with the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who became one of the most widely read and influential African writers. He died Thursday at the age of 82. In 1968, he wrote: It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being irrelevant, like the absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.
Achebe tackled those big issues in his fiction. His first and best-known novel, "Things Fall Apart," published in 1958, is about his country's early encounters with Christianity and colonialism. He was born in East Nigeria in 1930 at the crossroads of traditional Igbo culture and Christianity. He spent many years teaching at universities in America, away from Nigeria's civil war and military dictatorships, but his country remained his subject.
In 1990, two years after I spoke with him, he was in a car accident in Nigeria that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Here's an excerpt of our 1988 interview.
When you started reading, and you wanted to read fiction that was set in your country, was it usually fiction written by English authors?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Yes, yes, yes. Yes. That was - the revolution was gradual, but I think the key moment, perhaps - and this was the moment when perhaps the decision was taken instinctively that I must write - was the moment I realized that those stories which I read, like Rider Haggard, like John Buchan's "Prester John," those colonial novels in which the good white explorer or the good white missionary went and lived among the savages, you know, at great danger to himself, that these stories were not as simple or as innocent as I had assumed.
As a child, you see, you automatically identified with the good people, with the missionaries, with the explorers, because that's the way the story was arranged. Now, the moment you realize that you were not really of the party of the white man, but of the party of the savages, the moment you realize that, if you read "Heart of Darkness," you were not on that steamer with Marlow and his crew, but you were one of those jumping on the shore, that's the moment when you knew that a new story had to be written.
GROSS: One of the characters in your new novel says that writers shouldn't stop at documenting social problems. They should give prescriptions. And another character, who is a writer, says in response: Writers don't give prescriptions. They give headaches. Is that how you feel, too?
ACHEBE: Yes. Yes. I think that's one of the few instances in the novel where you can identify what the characters are saying with the way I feel. And that comes from the pressure which is mounting on us, on...
GROSS: On writers?
ACHEBE: ...creative writers, yes - especially in post-colonial areas of the world - to tell their people what they should do to be saved and to tell them not in the way that great stories have told, but in specific detailed, almost ideological ways. And I think it is the duty of artists to resist. This is why the artist and the poet in the novel is resisting, and, of course, exaggerating, because this is part of the whole business of teaching.
The whole business of prophecy is, in fact, to exaggerate. And so when he says it's my duty to give headaches, you know, this fixes it in the mind, which is why we use extreme images like that.
GROSS: Now, your novel's really told from the perspective of two people who work closely with the leader of this fictional African country. Now, after your country, Nigeria, got its independence from England in 1960, you became one of the heads of Nigerian radio...
GROSS: ...which was a government-sponsored radio. So that put you into a position of being close to the government. Did you have much freedom in that position, and was that a disillusioning experience for you? Or was that a positive experience for you?
ACHEBE: Well, it was both. It was both. Yeah. Initially, there was this heady atmosphere, the feeling that we had arrived, that a new history was being made, that we were part of it, which had come with the last stages of the nationalist protest. And we were put in positions of authority. And I was under 30, you know, and head of our external broadcasting service.
And to begin with, we didn't have too many problems. But within a few years, you know, power - power does this. You know, you were now dealing with the local controllers of power, the ministers of information and the prime minister, who wanted to get more and more input into what was said. And the idea of a free, autonomous corporation admittedly began to seem very, very difficult to maintain.
I did, of course, struggle very hard to maintain my sense of independence - not necessarily because I was anything special, but I think I understood some of the dangers, and I avoided them. I knew, for instance, that I must not get too close to the politicians. It was very attractive to be hanging around them, to be eating in their homes. And once you got into that position, the minister then didn't need to put anything on paper. He would simply hint at it, and you would go and do it.
GROSS: There's a parable that you tell in your novel about the turtle and the - the tortoise and the leopard.
ACHEBE: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to tell that parable and see how it relates to you.
ACHEBE: Well, it's a very striking, very short story. The leopard meets the tortoise on a lonely stretch of road. The leopard has been trying to catch the tortoise for a long time. The tortoise is a trickster, and so obviously has been escaping. And then on this day the leopard finally catches up with him and says, ah-ha. You know, now I've got you. Prepare to die.
And tortoise says to leopard: Can I ask you one last favor? And the leopard says, yes, why not? And tortoise says: Give me a short time to prepare myself for death. And the leopard looked around, said: I don't see why not. Yes, go ahead. But then instead of standing still and thinking, as the leopard had expected, the tortoise began to dig and scatter sand all over the road, you know, throwing sand in all directions with his hands and feet.
And the leopard says: What's going on? Why are you doing that? And the tortoise says: I'm doing this because after I am dead, I want anyone passing by this spot and seeing all this sign of struggle on the road to say: A man and his match struggled here.
And the moral of this is the importance of struggle, that we cannot - no one is going to guarantee us the outcome. Nobody's going to say if you struggle, you will succeed. It would be too simple. But even if we are not sure how it is going to end, what success will attend our enterprise, we still have this obligation to struggle.
GROSS: Chinua Achebe, recorded in 1988 after the publication of his novel "Anthills of the Savannah." The Nigerian writer died Thursday at the age of 82. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.