As we struggle with the loss of Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

Goretti Kyomuhendo

[quote style=”boxed”]Hence, my journey and inspiration as a writer started the day I read Things Fall Apart, though I did not know it then.   — Goretti Kyomuhendo, 2012.  [/quote]

African Writers Trust would like to hear your thoughts on and tributes to his influence and accomplishments.  Below, some remarks made in 2012 by Goretti Kyomuhendo on Chinua Achebe’s importance to her:

Reading Things Fall Apart opened up a whole different imaginary world for me, which I did not know existed beyond the Famous Five series and romances that I had become addicted to.After I finished reading Things Fall Apart, it did not occur to me that it was as fictional as the books by the English writers that I had become used to reading. I could not imagine that all the characters and events in the book were a work of Achebe’s magnificent imagination. I was used to fiction as being unfamiliar, as being from another world, set in exotic places that I would never dream of inhabiting and talking about foreign things that I would never identify with.I sincerely believed that in a remote village called Umuofia, in Nigeria, there was a little girl about my age, named Eznima and a cruel father called Okonkwo. Looking back now, I think it was because I readily identified with these characters and events and that is why I easily believed in their existence. I could see myself in Eznima and I could see many Okonkwos in my village.I was so touched and moved by the story in Things Fall Apart that I decided to write Achebe a letter, asking him a few questions about the characters and events in his book. I struggled to find a way of addressing him. In the community in which I was raised, every person I knew had a Christian name or a name that was given at baptism; yet Achebe did not seem to have one.So I wrote, Dear Achebe. No, that did not sound right. Dear Chinua? Not right either. Finally, I wrote, Dear Mr Sir Chinua Achebe and I used the address given inside the preliminary page of the book, most likely the publisher’s, and posted the letter. I waited for years but I did not get a response. You can imagine my disappointment.Many years later, in 1998, I was privileged to meet Chinua Achebe on my maiden visit to London, where I had been invited to participate in a literature conference of writers of the Commonwealth. Achebe was there too, and was scheduled to read from Things Fall Apart. I was so thrilled! During tea break, I walked up to where Achebe was seated in his wheelchair – he has been confined to a wheelchair since 1990 due to a car accident.When he saw me approaching, he raised his head and smiled at me. My heart literally melted and for a split second, I imagined he had recognised me from that letter I had written to him as a young teenager.

“Hello,” he said to me before I could speak. “Are you from Africa?”

I answered in the affirmative and went on to tell him how I had thoroughly enjoyed his novel and how I had written him a letter but he never responded.

“When was this,” he asked me.
About twenty years ago.”

He laughed merrily and asked, “What were the contents of the letter?”

“First, I wanted to know your Christian name and…”
“Albert,” he interrupted me, “but like most of my contemporaries, like Ngugi and Soyinka, I dropped it long ago.”

In 2008 I was to meet Achebe, again in London, where he had come to celebrate the golden jubilee of the publication of his remarkable novel, Things Fall Apart. This was at an academic conference organised by The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of university of London. Throughout the world, events such as the one in London were being organised to commemorate this momentous, historic event: “Things Fall Apart at 50”. Participants at this particular conference were drawn from a cross-section of academics around the world, involved in the teaching and reading of Things Fall Apart.

Listening to the participants speak about the relevance and impact of Things Fall Apart, fifty years after it was first published, brought back my own memories of how the book had inspired my young mind to start writing. The story in Things Fall Apart liberated the way I perceived Africa. It made Africa look familiar, and created in me a sublime feeling of what it means to be an African; but more crucially, it showed me that I could also write stories based in my village, stories that had been passed on to me by my grandmother and stories that we told in our classes in primary school during the ‘storytelling sessions’.

Things Fall Apart made me realise that these stories were equally important, and Achebe had given me the license to write them. I did not have to struggle to invent a world like the one created by the English writers, such as Blyton and Chase in their novels. I could draw from my own simple, ordinary, unpretentious epistemology, and still craft a story that would be published and read outside Uganda. To enrich my narratives, I could include songs, folktales, and proverbs taught to me by my grandmother, and which came to me so naturally.

Hence, my journey and inspiration as a writer started the day I read Things Fall Apart, though I did not know it then.

(From Goretti’s The Essential Handbook for African Creative Writers).

Please add your thoughts below. We also welcome guest blogs on the same.

Mildred K Barya

I remember I was in Ghana in 2008 during the Pan African Literary Forum when one of my new friends, Paula, said, “Chinua Achebe is a cutie.” We–Parul, Jodie and me exclaimed, what? and Paula repeated, “Oh, yes, I find Chinua Achebe a real cutie.” We just laughed. I had heard a lot about Chinua Achebe as a brilliant person, a natural story teller, a gifted wordsmith, a smart man, a trailblazer…but nowhere had I been told or made aware that he was a cutie. Imagine what came to my mind the moment i heard he had sailed off to the next world. I saw a cutie, a wonderful writer leaving us with great loss and legacy. I happened to be in Las Vegas and one of my new friends, Criselda, a marvelous writer from the Philippines said, “Chinua Achebe is very very handsome.” I said, really? And she nodded and cooed, remembering to add that Wole Soyinka was equally handsome. What would have been a sad moment mourning Achebe turned out to be, eh, thinking of Chinua Achebe in other perspectives I may have missed out previously.

The newspapers everywhere are pouring tribute after tribute, in Igbo, English, French, Chinese, Luganda, Wolof, and several other languages it makes me feel almost content that our Achebe is wonderfully acknowledged, celebrated, and while his death is affecting us intensely, it’s not going to touch him. As long as we continue to respect him and everything that he stood for, he’ll continue to live. I’ve been asking, where is he going to be buried? Most people assume he will be taken to rest in Nigeria. I’m curious. I’ve come to believe that home is where one wants to be buried. Sail on safely, sail on home, Achebe.

I’ll add here some tributes and statements I’ve come across on line; facebook, emails, and blogs. Let’s observe a moment of silence as we pay homage to our godfather in African and World Lit.

An Igbo Elegy on Hearing of the Passing Away of Professor Chinua Achebe by Chimamanda Adichie

Ife mee.
Nnukwu ife mee.
Chinua Achebe anabago.

Onye edemede nke di egwu,
onye nnukwu uche,
onye obi oma.

Keduzi onye anyi ga-eji eme onu?
Keduzi onye anyi ga-eji jee mba?
Keduzi onye ga-akwado anyi?

Ebenebe egbu o!
Anya mmili julu m anya.
Chinua Achebe, naba no ndokwa.
O ga-adili gi mma.
Naba na ndokwa.

Translation by Mazi Nnamdi Nwigwe
A tree has fallen.
A mighty tree has fallen!
Chinua Achebe is gone.

The inimitable wordsmith,
the sage,
the kind man.

Now who is there for us to boast about?
Who will be our rampart?
How are the mighty fallen!

My eyes are in flood with tears.
Chinua Achebe may your soul rest in peace.
It is well with you.
Rest in peace.

Give Us This Day Our Private Grief, Nii Ayikwei Parkes

I was at the Salon du Livre in Paris, meeting my wonderful new French publishers, +Editions Zulma, speaking of the importance of integrity and consistency in the building of a literary career, when I missed a phone call from my agent’s office in London. I called back to find that Chinua Achebe had died. I was incredibly sad to hear of the passing of Chinua, and – for a brief period – I regretted not being available in the UK to contribute to various news items covering his death. An hour later, having thought it through, I realised that it was a blessing that I was unavailable for comment.

The loss of a literary and political giant – especially one who embodied the very integrity and consistency I was discussing when I heard of his passing – is upsetting to us in ways that are hard to put into words, yet it also heralds a festival of agendas. The same public officials that Chinua Achebe lambasted in Nigeria will seek to claim him, taking out adverts in the national press to mourn his passing; the critics that defended Joseph Conrad when Achebe labelled him racist will seek to rehash the old argument, confident that he will not be around to rebut; news outlets will seek the most compelling way to extrapolate the significance of his death to embrace African issues of the day – whether it’s corruption in Nigeria, religious killings, the current generation of writers from the continent or secession movements; various publishers will be quietly awaiting the post-death sales spike.

The one thing we the currently-domiciled-in-the-West can be certain of, when we lose such a giant, from a continent considered to be peripheral in the literary world, is that our authors – African writers – will suddenly be in demand by news outlets – for comment, for public display of their grief, to reinforce the accepted narrative of the greatness of the fallen. The problem is, when these outlets ask us for our opinions, for our sentiments, they tend to only be interested in our responses as relates to the narrative that they are constructing around the event. But our relationship to these icons is not always as simple as they would like. Yes, I am devastated by Achebe’s death – in part because I think the recognition he got was always skewed towards one book, when his achievements were far greater than that – but Achebe was never my ultimate inspiration. Like him, the reason I started writing was the impulses I got from reading European writers – that is simply what we have inherited. The idea of writing for print was seeded by those European authors, who practised in that small sliver of the greater culture of storytelling. However, my love for stories came from my family (what would be labelled my extended family in the West), my activism for communities and for representation in history, from being raised in a collective culture. It is only later that my inclinations, my tendencies to document the margins, were given structure and guidance by the examples of pioneers like Achebe, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Kwame Nkrumah and Margaret Atwood.

But this is not the kind of tidy narrative that works for the media. I know from experience that if I said this on pre-recorded radio or television, it wouldn’t make the final edit; for a newspaper, they might try to get me to edit to suit them until, realising my unwillingness to change, they would pay me for the content and not use it. How do I explain that in my home country, we do not only mourn, we eulogise and celebrate? I am no expert on Igbo culture, but I was so glad to see that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s response to Achebe’s death was an elegy in Igbo. It may be considered too sentimental for the New York Times, but it is apt and heartfelt. It is the right kind of public grief – a private-public expression of loss on her own terms, something you can’t fully translate to suit news headlines.

Yes, we are bereft. Achebe was a great writer, editor and mentor, a highly intelligent individual with incredible capacity for empathy and forgiveness (in my opinion, Biafra was a hard thing to forgive). He was also fearless; he went onto battlefields where few had dared tread and showed us what armour we would need for our future skirmishes. He bore a torch and raised it high so we wouldn’t trip over our own feet.

But there is a bigger truth underlying Achebe’s departure: we are at a point when many African countries are marking 50 or more years of post-European-colonial life – that means that many of our well-documented pioneers (I make the distinction because the notion of pioneers only existing after the European-colonial era is patently false), are in their late-70s and early 80s and we are likely to be mourning some more over the next few years. Sadly, we are still fighting some of the same battles Achebe fought, still trying to shift the image of Africa that Europe insists on perpetuating, still having to explain how and why our writing in English or French or Portuguese or Arabic is not a loss of self. And I guarantee, that in the next few weeks, you will see articles dedicated to seeking the ‘successors’ of Chinua Achebe in a way that no one sought the successors of Saul Bellow when he died. The articles will claim they are well-meaning, the contributors will be Africa scholars (or even African writers) but ultimately, I can’t see how they can be anything but patronising; we are living our lives and developing our art, we don’t need anyone to tell us where to look, thank you.

Oh, Chinua, thank you for the stories, for the guidance, for your clarity. Because of you, we can see how much work we still have to do. We mourn you, we mourn our sleep. Our writing lives are like the breaking of anthills – the ants rebuild if we ever dare to rest. This is our private grief.

 

Wole Soyinka & J.P Clark

Wole Soyinka & J.P Clark

ON THE PASSING OF CHINUA ACHEBE, Statement issued by J. P. CLARK and Wole SOYINKA

For us, the loss of Chinua Achebe is, above all else, intensely personal. We have lost a brother, a colleague, a trailblazer and a doughty fighter. Of the “pioneer quartet” of contemporary Nigerian literature, two voices have been silenced – one, of the poet  Christopher Okigbo, and now, the novelist Chinua Achebe.  It is perhaps difficult for outsiders of that intimate circle to appreciate this sense of depletion, but we take consolation in the young generation of writers to whom the baton has been passed, those who have already creatively ensured that there is no break in the continuum of the literary vocation.

We need to stress this at a critical time of Nigerian history, where the forces of darkness appear to overshadow the illumination of existence that literature represents. These are forces that arrogantly pride themselves implacable and brutal enemies of what Chinua and his pen represented, not merely for the African continent, but for humanity. Indeed, we cannot help wondering if the recent insensate massacre of Chinua’s people in Kano, only a few days ago, hastened the fatal undermining of that resilient will that had sustained him so many years after his crippling accident.

No matter the reality, after the initial shock, and a sense of abandonment, we confidently assert that Chinua lives.  His works provide their enduring testimony to the domination of the human spirit over the forces of repression, bigotry, and retrogression.

Chinedu Ikwudinma

What I admired most about Achebe was his selflessness. His desire to elevate others. His irreproachable courage. His words were always simple. His views were always consistent. His impact has always been profound. When it was not fashionable to promote or publish African writers, Achebe championed the African Writers Series, providing a platform for budding African writers who may otherwise have been lost in the wind. Such selflessness is uncommon and must be celebrated. Achebe invested his time and energy in elevating the African’s conception of himself. He was probably the most eminent writer to recognize and challenge the injustice of African stories being sifted through the biases and prejudices of other cultures; our traditions maligned as primitive, our essential humanity denied in some cases, our people depicted in cartoons as bumbling savages and near animals. Achebe’s writing changed all that. His forceful debunking of stereotypes, his open challenge to our political leaders to improve, his inimitable effort to dignify and elevate our cultures and highlight their intricacies, their humanity and their context. Because of Achebe, several generations of African writers have emerged, with their own voices, telling our own stories, truly proud of our heritage as Africans and the uniqueness of the value we bring. As a result, the African creative arts industry is flourishing; our films are transforming the landscape of popular entertainment, our youths now swing to our own music, and our models are increasingly African. Achebe was the ultimate model, and we are all ennobled because he came this way.

 

 

 

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4 Comments. Leave new

jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
March 23, 2013 5:13 pm

I remember reading Things Fall Apart for the first time. I must have been eight or nine. I stumbled on it on my father’s bookshelf after I had run out of reading material. Funnily enough, I identified with Ikemefuna. I remember reading it with my hands shaking. When Ikemefuna run to Okonkwo and cried father they are killing me…I threw it down. I cried, at night I struggled to sleep. I was relieved I had not been born in Nigeria. That is how real the novel was to me. I cursed Achebe for not writing fantasy like Europeans; all European stories were fantasy to me where everything ended happily. Unfortunately, I could not keep away from the book long enough I picked it up where I had thrown it and read again. I feared for Nwoye and twins. Yet when Okonkwo died I was heart broken.The problem was that Okonkwo’s world was my world and I was not ready to confront it in that way yet. I have reread and taught the novel many times and now I read it with a critical mind but that Okonkwo I first met with bush eyebrows, whose heels never touched the ground, who pounced on people, will always stay with me. For that reason, I loved Arrow of God! To me it is still the greatest African novel. You see Ezeulu was my grandfather and I fell in love with Obika.

I celebrate the passing of an African wise man whose knowledge is safely recorded in books!!!

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Emmanuel Monychol
March 23, 2013 11:14 pm

There is no book of Prof. Achebe’s which Africans will not identify with…from his generattional books to his more post colonial African political books, poems and essays.

What I admire is his honest and soft way of telling stories. His English is remarkably simple like that of his tragic character, Obi Okonkwo, full of is and was,for which he was derided by Umuofians. One day, I asked one of my lit. Teachers, why Prof. Soyinka’s other works, apart from The Lion and the Jewel, were hard in terms of the language in which they were written. Her reply was that Soyinka is the Shakespeare of Africa who does not write for the simple minded… But really? Anyway, much as Prof Soyinka is my William S….late chinua Achebe was my Thomas Hardy. His mission is accomplished… may his soul rest in peace.

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Safari Njema, dear Achebe! My greatest literary Icon. You have gone to the village to rest – not dead.

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Emmanuel Monychol
March 27, 2013 11:53 am

Where is dignity and integrity, when what we write is doctored to suit some place and ideology?

Oh Nii! Thank you…U have spoken Ur mind…U are truly a literary Militant — I hope they do not shy away from publishing you….as you are.

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