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A Tribute to Chinua Achebe

WASHINGTON DC, 6/2/2013 – It is a high honor and privilege to be asked to participate in this tribute to the great writer, and dearly beloved and admired friend, Chinua Achebe. I want to thank the entire Achebe family and the distinguished guests present, mistress of ceremonies Dr Johnnetta Cole, and my colleague and unparallelled Achebe expert Professor Michael Thelwell for all the insights into the Master’s work, and the support he has given me in preparing this talk. There have been and will be so many other tributes that I will keep mine short, focusing briefly on the transformative nature of his work and life; some personal memories and reflections; and conclude with a few extraordinary commentaries recognizing his significance as writer and national figure from two of his important countrymen.

First off, I can speak, as others have, to the transformative nature of Achebe’s work, not equaled, in my view, by any other writer in our time. The first and most lasting is what he achieved with the publication of Things Fall Apart, at the age of 26. The manuscript was published by Heinemann in London after receiving one of the most prescient and succinct reports by its reader, as “the finest first novel since the war.” (Of course he meant the second World War).

That book, sold in the millions since in eighty languages around the world, has been widely acknowledged as the beginning of the modern African novel. Most importantly, the characterization of Africans could no longer be cast in the same stereotypical and myopic view that held sway in most European and North American books about Africa.

The transformation he engendered was backed up by his essay in response to and sharp critique of the until then iconic view of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” a tale widely taught and almost revered in most schools and colleges when I was a student and early university professor. That view—of a wild brutal savagery that was Africa, told without nuance or empathy or knowledge of the real Africa—was changed by Chinua Achebe. Thereafter almost all non-colonial critics and writers could write about Africa and, indeed, about any of former colonial places around the world, now taking the stage of independence and speaking for themselves. Proudly I can say that essay was first published in the Massachusetts Review, the journal I helped to found more than fifty years ago (although the chief editor at the time, while I was abroad, was Lee Edwards). That essay has been the most reprinted in the journal’s fifty-four years.

So Achebe helped change all that. He also in his first book changed the language that could then be used by the new African and other former colonial writers from a variety of cultures and language. His was a confident blending of the old, in his case the Igbo language, with all the cultural richness of centuries that language embodied and carried forward, as well as what he had learned from his English education. That was the second transformation he achieved, a stylistic one—most writers I have known, studied and taught would be content with one transforming achievement! (Think Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison among American writers). Achebe had two!

But there are a few more personal recollections, fond and warm memories, that I cherish and would like to share.

Chinua and his family came to Amherst, as Professor Thelwell recently reminded me, through the efforts in the early ‘70s of the fine American writer Harvey Swados—then a Professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA program—whom I was involved in bringing  to UMass a few years earlier. Achebe came to my class where I taught Things Fall Apart to lecture on the Biafran War, a mystery to most of my students at the time. He spoke profoundly about the one million Igbos who died in that war—and with his dry irony, he added that the victors were surprised that 9 million, who had hidden in the forests, emerged and survived. In one of his stories after that he commented dryly, “I survived the war, but didn’t know if I would survive the peace,” with all the marauding, pillage and chaos that ensued. But he did. He knew Swados because Harvey had been among several American writers who had gone to Nigeria to report on and get support for the embattled Biafrans. One story he, or perhaps Leslie Fiedler, told me years ago: Several American writers were in a jeep going somewhere in the war, when an airplane was seen on the horizon coming in their direction. The driver stopped told them all to jump out into a ditch by the side of the road. An old Igbo man who had been traveling toward them on a bicycle saw them and the plane and jumped into the ditch with them. The plane passed with no incident. The old man looked at his companions, white men, and asked who they were. They told him American writers. Oh, he said: “Americans! My son is at Berkeley, where they are having all those student demonstrations. Do you think he is safe there?” A brave and resourceful people. Sadly, Achebe and I and my wife went together to Swados’s memorial service in New York.

Happier stories: in the late seventies or early eighties, when I was teaching for a semester in Europe, I invited the Achebe family to live in my house in Amherst. My youngest son Peter came home from Cornell in the summer, and found Chinua working in a study in one room, and Christie across the hall doing her work in another bedroom turned study. Both quietly happy at the arrangement. Christie told Peter that my wife Anne Halley had been very good to her; they seemed to resonate together, hit it off—at Christie’s seventy-fifth birthday in Providence I attributed that empathy to their both having been refugees, uprooted—Anne from the Nazis in 1938.

A last anecdote: At Achebe’s seventieth birthday celebration at Bard College there were illustrious speakers from America (Toni Morrison, e.g.) and elsewhere, including Wole Soyinka. Soyinka gave a nice talk, beginning with the observation that in various African venues, literary and otherwise, the question was often raised as to who was the best African writer—often the answer was, the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka—and, what was his best work?—Things Fall Apart!

Finally, I want to conclude with two tributes from Nigerian notables, both sent to the recent, May 20th Symposium on “The Life and Times of Chinua Achebe: Lessons for Nigeria,” at Abuja.

“Achebe, If you had been a lackluster storyteller in your last life, I would have asked you to borrow the tongue of a griot when you come again. But you told wonderful stories.

If you had been a traitor to your people, race, nation, I would have asked you to come again with their love flowing in your veins. But you were a patriot. If you had pounded your cultural foo-foo and eaten it alone while your fellow men wallowed in heritage hunger, I would have asked you to come back with selflessness. But you were a cultural philanthropist [and so on about his honour and integrity, concluding with:] So I shall ask you to come again the way you came before. Achebe! Come again, the world awaits your return.” 

-- Mallam Denja Abdullahi, Deputy Director,
       National Council for Arts and Culture, Abuja

And most moving and significant:

“Achebe’s frank, truthful and fearless interventions in national affairs will be greatly missed at home in Nigeria because while others may have disagreed with his views, most Nigerians never doubted his immense patriotism and sincere commitment to the building of a greater, more united and prosperous nation that all Africans and the entire black race could be proud of.”  

-- Goodluck Ebele Jonathan,
         President of Nigeria

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