Paris Review: Chinua Achebe

Interviewer: When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Is it Nigerian? Is it Igbo? Is it American?

Achebe: All of those. I have tried to describe my position in terms of circles, standing there in the middle. These circles contain audiences that get to hear my story. The closest circle is the one closest to my home in Igboland, because the material I am using is their material. But unless I’m writing in the Igbo language, I use a language developed elsewhere, which is English. That affects the way I write. It even effects to some extent the stories that I write. So there is, if you like, a kind of paradox there already. But then, if you can, visualize a large number of ever-widening circles, including all, like Yeats’s widening gyre. As more and more people are incorporated in this network, they will get different levels of meaning out of the story, depending on what they already know, or what they suspect. These circles go on indefinitely to include, ultimately, the whole world. I have become more aware of this as my books become more widely known. At this particular time, mostly the news I hear is of translations of my books, especially Things Fall Apart…in Indonesia, in Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, and so on. Fortunately you don’t think of all those people when you are writing. At least, I don’t. When I’m writing, I really want to satisfy myself. I’ve got a story that I am working on and struggling with, and I want to tell it the most effective way I can. That’s really what I struggle with. And the thought of who may be reading it may be there somewhere in the back of my mind–I’ll never say it’s not there because I don’t know–but it’s not really what I’m thinking about. After all, some people will say, Why does he put in all these Nigerian-English words? Some critics say that in frustration. And I feel like saying to them, Go to hell! That’s the way the story was given to me. And if you don’t want to make this amount of effort, the kind of effort that my people have always made to understand Europe and the rest of the world, if you won’t make this little leap, then leave it alone!

*from The Paris Review Interviews, vol. III

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4 comments

  1. Lua, I also found this very interesting. There’s been a lot of discussion about translation on the book blogs lately, so I thought this quote would be interesting to show, also, how writing in a language other than one’s native tongue might change the story.

  2. Rebecca, I still have my copy from high school, which was the first time I read it. We do see a lot of talk about translation, but often don’t think how a writer writing in his or her non-native tongue actually affects the narrative.

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