A great project of the first two generations of African writers was to establish continuities with the precolonial and ongoing oral tradition. This essay, however, asks what African writers thought of the act of writing itself. A key scene in Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God juxtaposes a mother's oral storytelling with a son reading the first page in his Igbo primer, the first book ever to enter the family compound. The novel narrates the coming of literacy to Igboland by focusing on three quite different images: the python in a box as an image for the book (and the Domestication of the Savage Mind); the road through the forest as a symbol of writing and its power; and the solitary man, shut up in a closet, who attends to a disembodied voice but is distracted by noises from outside as a metonym for the experience of reading. While Achebe expresses a deep ambivalence about literacy, he does establish that the nonliterate world has the same potential for meaning and artistic creation and knows the same dangers of solipsism and literal reading as literacy does. I also consider several related themes: the trope of the talking book and the orthography that missionaries invented to write down the Igbo language.

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