In the essay, Achebe makes an argument for writing as spiritual congruence with the other, and writers as being responsible to a community. He contrasts Western individualism with Igbo communality and smartly evades dichotomies by adding that none of these societies hold a monopoly on either. But the difference, he states, is in how individualism is balanced out in these societies. He argues that the Igbos have balanced “this extraordinary specialness, this unsurpassed individuality, by setting limits to its expression.”
The argument solidifies into one about craft when Achebe inserts a quote from a letter he received from John Updike about Arrow of God.
Here is what Updike had to say:
“The final developments of Arrow of God proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.”
Achebe responds, with delicious sarcasm:
“Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy “in a page or two” the very angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given the final limelight in which to speak a grand valedictory soliloquy.”
After reading this, I began to wonder about the many other possibilities of craft creation. If societies influence craft decisions, and how much of what we think of craft, of the structure of fiction, is inherited from Western literature, and in turn, the arrangement of Western societies, what about my own society and its rules can make my fiction truer?
What I bathed in while in the darkness were craft books written by White people, and the novels I read were, you guessed right, novels written by White people, and the people I looked to for constructive criticism were writers fluent only in Western literature. I came out of the darkness, armed with these tools, anxious in my implementation of them, and I fear, a tad bit soulless, having lost my own way of seeing the world.
And I did have my own way of seeing the world. I have always written. For as long as I can remember, I have strung words together in my imagination, on paper, and whether I knew it then or not, these stories were shaped by my immediate intimacies, what I was seeing around me, how that was absorbed and defined by the bewildering chemicals in my brain. It was, and I hope can still someday be, me, my soul, and what I was seeing, my world—nature and nurture.
So while you go through your own darkness, if you haven’t already, I want you to fiercely hold on to your own nature and nurture, and when you come out to the other side, I want you to still be as chaotic, as fearless, as raw (this word gets a bad rap and I would never understand why) as you were when you were free, unencumbered by the rules of the craft. I want you to see that, too, as craft, those decisions that come to you naturally. Maybe you don’t want to use dialogue in your stories because it messes with the natural flow of the world you are trying to create. Maybe like Achebe, you want to say f**k you to the idea of an individual hero because it doesn’t read true to your sensibility, to the world as you know it. Maybe you want the middle of the story at the beginning and the beginning at the end. Do what feels true to you. Then come tell us about it. Show us other ways of seeing the world.