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Chinua Achebe: 'Heart Of Darkness' Is Inappropriate

Oct 15, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe redefined the way readers understood Africa in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, that book told the story of the English coming to Africa — from the perspective of Africans. It stands in stark contrast to Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness, which follows an Englishman named Marlow who embarks on a journey up the Congo.

Though Achebe was attracted to Conrad's book as a child, he excoriated it in the 1970s, and he continues to dismiss it today.

"Conrad was a seductive writer. He could pull his reader into the fray. And if it were not for what he said about me and my people, I would probably be thinking only of that seduction," Achebe tells Robert Siegel.

Achebe says that once he reached a certain age, he realized that he was "not on Marlow's ship" but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing. At one point, Conrad describes an African working on the ship as a "dog wearing trousers."

"The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate," says Achebe. "I realized how terribly terribly wrong it was to portray my people — any people — from that attitude."

Though Achebe dislikes Conrad's description of Africans, he does not feel that Heart of Darkness should be banned: "Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. ... I simply said, 'Read it this way,' and that's all I have done."

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