The Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, died last week. Besides being, “one of the greatest writers of the 20th century,” he was also a publisher, professor, deputy vice-president of a Nigerian political party and a stalwart champion for third-world writers. I studied under Achebe in undergrad. In one class, he taught something invaluable for therapy practice.
This day, we asked Professor Achebe about his famous critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. First, we took deep breaths. The professor always spoke with quiet, measured dignity; so much so, it took courage once to tell him he was teaching next week’s book. Pulses calmed, we asked: was it fair to call Conrad’s masterwork racist? Didn’t Kurtz’s character show it was Europeans who disgusted the author?
Gently, he explained we had missed his point entirely.
Achebe told us about childhood in a Nigeria that was part of the British empire; where his schoolbooks taught the story of, “we Britons,” and the few Africans in storybooks were savages. To him, it wasn’t the spears or loincloths that made these fictional natives sub-human. He himself wrote a book in which tribesmen kill and eat a man, chatting casually over their meal. His point was speech. The only natives who speak aloud in Heart of Darkness, he said, are those under the ‘civilizing influence’ Conrad viewed with irony and despair. The professor, a master of many languages, opined Conrad dehumanizes his natives because he limits them to animalistic shrieks and war whoops. At least Achebe let his cannibals talk.
In our first counseling class, we’re taught we should speak 30% of the time and listen 70%. In session, we fight the urge to interrupt our clients and tell them how to fix their problems. A psychology professor told me in his years as a therapist, the lesson he’d re-learned the most was, “Shut up and listen.” Professor Achebe would have appreciated his effort. Clients often come to us because no one else will hear. Letting people talk can give back their humanity.
@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved