Armah vs Achebe
I refer to Ayi Kwei Armah’s commentary on his epic novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (NA June). With all due respect to the celebrated Ghanaian novelist, I consider his comments on Chinua Achebe’s alleged “attack” on his book an unprofessional breach of two important ethical principles in academic debate: proportionality and decency.
On proportionality, it suffices to say that constructive disagreement in academic seminars and publications is an accepted method for the pursuit and advancement of knowledge. Conventionally, verbal attacks in a seminar provoke a verbal response while published attacks in a specialised journal/book attract a corresponding response.
Armah stated that Achebe “built his condemnatory argument against his book” while speaking at Harvard University. That is a verbal attack expressed in the right forum – a university symposium or seminar.
Furious about Achebe’s attack, Armah said he eventually had a chance, on a Nigerian visit, to ask Achebe, before a small group of peer academics, where he got his allegation from (a quote implying that Armah said he was not an African writer in a bid to please the Western audience).
The Nigerian forum was a suitable place for Armah to challenge and indict Achebe. If he was not satisfied with a verbal exchange in an academic forum, Armah could have gone a step further to argue his case in a professional journal.
To have gone to a worldwide news magazine, New African, to cast aspersions on the “elder statesman” of African literature over a comment the latter allegedly made in an academic forum is a gross violation of the proportionality principle in academic debate. On the principle of decency, academic disagreements are expected to respect the fine line between academic space and personal integrity. Shockingly, Armah attributed Achebe’s attack to “the concern of an alpha male guard for African writers on the Heinemann publishing plantation eager to expel a potential intruder into his given territory.”
This is completely ridiculous. Achebe has never been a petty intellectual. He is a premier African writer who has spent a great part of his career encouraging younger African writers to publish in respectable places – e.g. through the African Writers Series (AWS) he co-founded and edited. Achebe deserves a public apology from Armah whose book was first published under the AWS.
Kenneth Omeje. Nairobi, Kenya