As a university student in the 1950s, in addition to reading Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Coleridge, Achebe also read Joyce Carey’s "Mister Johnson," a novel set in Nigeria, which Time magazine had named the "best book ever written about Africa." Achebe disagreed. Not only was the Nigerian character in the novel unrecognizable to him and his classmates but he also detected, in the description of Nigerians, "an undertow of uncharitableness ... a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery."
There has been much written about Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" as a response to Mister Johnson, and one likes to think that Achebe would have written his novel even if he had not read Cary’s. Still, the prejudiced representation of African characters in literature could not but have had an influence on Achebe’s development as a writer. He would, years later, write a famous essay about the portrayal of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s classic novel "Heart of Darkness," arguing not that Conrad should not have written honestly about the racism of the time, but that Conrad failed to hold an authorial rejection of that worldview.
The strangeness of seeing oneself distorted in literature – and indeed of not seeing oneself at all – was part of my own childhood. I grew up in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka in the 1980s, reading a lot of British children’s books. My early writing mimicked the books I was reading: all my characters were white and all my stories were set in England. Then I read "Things Fall Apart." It was a glorious shock of discovery, as was "Arrow of God," which I read shortly afterwards; I did not know in a concrete way until then that people like me could exist in literature. Here was a book that was unapologetically African, that was achingly familiar, but that was, also, exotic because it detailed the life of my people a hundred years before. Because I was educated in a Nigerian system that taught me little of my pre-colonial past, because I could not, for example, imagine with any accuracy how life had been organized in my part of the world in 1890, Achebe’s novels became strangely personal.
Adichie's assertions bug me. They do because she focuses on differences, which to her seem to be fundamental. Her use of the expression "unapologetically African" is problematic (it would have been less controversial is she had said used the word Nigerian even though the use of the word unapologetically would have remained a problem). Africanity doesn't exist. In fact, it has never existed. It wouldn't presumptuous to presume that Chinua Achebe is very different than his ancestors and that in fact, when he wrote Things Fall Apart he focused on his desire to be himself rather than on his Nigerianity or Africanity (although for him, being Achebe might have meant be a true Nigerian and African). What I'm trying to see is that people cleverly used Africanity to defend their individuality and unfortunately often to justify differences that reason and decency (due seldom to their lack of imagination and knowledge) cannot. The point is Achebe's greatest achievement wasn't the affirmation of an identity, but the creation of one, one, which was solely his. People who look like him or have commonalities with him don't have to embrace it, but solely to recognize and not to delegitimate. At the same time, those who do as Adichie shouldn't equate with Africanity as a way to argue that there is just the Chinua Achebe's way to show that one comes from Africa. Adichie conveniently ignores that issues of identity have plagued Africans precisely for the reason that because they is no agreement on a definition, the focus is placed on resentment, victimization, the colonizers, and the fact that Africanity means to "unapologically" be different than them and to confront their contradictions.
The reason why I have argued that there is not such a thing as "African literature" or even as "African writer" is simply those popular and narrow categories don't mean anything. I have the strong suspicion that writers from the continent have too many essential differences to be put in one narrow categories and that when they are not ideologues or marketers would acknowledge that neither their nationality nor the fact that they are from a vast and heterogeneous continent defines their writing.