cover image Home and Exile

Home and Exile

Chinua Achebe. Oxford University Press, $22 (128pp) ISBN 978-0-19-513506-0

Though it is labeled autobiographical by the publisher, this small book, which originated as three lectures given at Harvard University in December 1998, barely covers the rudiments of Achebe's long and productive life (he is now 70). But the great Nigerian novelist and poet, a master of compression, needs little more than 100 pages to tell the dramatic story of the emergence of a native African literature; in the 1950s, students at English-dominated universities started speaking out against the long European tradition of depicting Africans as ""a people of beastly living, without a God, laws, religion,"" which dates back to Captain John Lok's voyage to West Africa in 1561. ""Until the lions produce their own historian,"" says Achebe, quoting an African proverb of uncertain provenance, ""the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter."" With characteristic ease and economy, he traces the long African tradition of asserting the worth of the individual, born of Igbo myths that described each community as created separately with its own original ancestor. This notion of individuality, which made the Africans vulnerable to the Atlantic slave traders and to colonial occupation, is the same quality that defined the native African fiction and poetry that emerged in the 1950s, at the time of independence for many African nations. This slim volumeDtold in Achebe's subtle, witty and gracious styleDis one of those small gems of literary and historical analysis that readers will treasure and reread over the years. (June)