Onyeka Nwelue is the king of African literary controversy. In the age of political correctness, Nwelue dishes out a steady stream of unfiltered comments about African writing and literary culture.
In a recent interview with Wealth Ominabo Dickson, Nwelue essentially dismisses Things Fall Apart as a not very intelligent piece of juvenilia—a work of questionable quality written in his youth. Whereas the rest of the world hold up Achebe’s debut novel as one of the greatest things ever written in the English language, Nwelue says it is inferior compared to Achebe’s later writings.
You really have to read the exchange between Nwelue and the interviewer to appreciate the unique flavor of Nwelue’s intellectual persona.
Wealth: Your profile speaks of a multivalent persona; how many other dimensions are there to Onyeka Nwelue, besides that of the writer, the filmmakers, the traveller, the professor, the artistic/cultural events organizer, the editor and the controversial critic?
Onyeka: I think I will take every other description apart from that of the “controversial critic.” I don’t see anything controversial in what I say; I try to air my opinion in every honest way. Maybe they stink?
Wealth: Not really, but you have made some controversial statements about Achebe and Soyinka.
Onyeka: I will still stand by what I said. I won’t change it. Achebe’s own even gets worse every day when people mention his name. I think Things Fall Apart should be buried and never made to resurrect. Yes, Anthills of the Savannah is a very beautiful book; it’s well written. But I don’t agree withThings Fall Apart being called the great African novel by everybody. There are better books.
Wealth: What are your reasons for saying this?
Onyeka: If you’ve read Things Fall Apart and have read what young people write these days – people like Helen Oyeyemi, Diekoye Oyeyinka and Chigozie Obioma – you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.
To some readers, this claims might appear outrageous. Is Nwelue being ignorant, they may wonder. The answer is no. Nwelue who has served as visiting professor of postcolonial literature in India knows his African literature. We can assume that he is speaking from the position of an expert. There is something to be said for taking a stand against tradition and critiquing the fact that we’ve privileged or, rather, deified Things Fall Apart in the history of modern African fiction. At the end of the day, he is simply asking that we re-evaluate Achebe’s body of work and come up with new ways of understanding what Achebe’s achievements are. Nothing wrong with that!
The only thing we would ask for is intellectual rigor. We would love to read a measured and well-articulated literary analyses. He should carry out a comparative analysis of Achebe’s novels to demonstrate the inferiority of Things Fall Apart. He should also explain exactly how Helen Oyeyemi and Chigozie’s writings prove that “Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart was not intelligent.”
His honesty is refreshing. But we would also like to have richer, more nuanced intellectual conversations about African literature.