Balance of Stories
I asked the writers gathered in this section to choose a photograph and write a narrative based on it. How they defined “narrative” was up to them; they could borrow from any genre, including biography, history, memoir, and the news. I wanted to bring to fore the idea that a critic is, in the best sense, also a storyteller.
The photographs eschew uniformity and are eclectic in range: a group portrait of mostly unidentified people in the family album, gray-toned images from a colonial archive, the snapshot of a signpost pointing to a slave port, a delicate portrait of a body seen from the rear, careful shots of buildings, and so forth. The writers have found a balance between photographs and the tales or matters they consider urgent.
“What is Criticism, Now?” In December 2016, when he asked us to contribute to this journal, David Levi Strauss posed that question to me as well as a number of his former students. I responded in part by noting that I worked within traditions of literature and criticism amply described as “Nigerian.” The writers who took my prompt to task are all Nigerian by birth, and at least half of them live in the country. Chinua Achebe, from whose penultimate book the title of this section is adapted, was Nigerian, and he was clear that he would write fiction about nowhere else, even if he lived the last few decades of his life in America. “My reason is that America has enough novelists writing about her, and Nigeria too few,” he wrote in Home and Exile. “And so it is … a question of balance. You cannot balance one thing; you balance a diversity of things.”
A question of balance: For Achebe, it is not two things that are held in balance, but “a diversity of things.” This is instructive. The ten featured writers organize their responses around an event or protagonist. The events are mostly historical—there are no less than four pieces bearing on the Nigerian Civil War—and in others the past is examined from an autobiographical slant. Perhaps there are only two essays where the writers advance lines of argument. And yet, they have each uncovered the heart of photography. A medium that serves as an emissary between the personal and theoretical, between fact and imagination.