Front Cover by Jerome Liebling
Chinua Achebe, Amherst MA, 1988
Courtesy of the PhotographerOrder a copy now
Front Cover by Jerome Liebling
Chinua Achebe, Amherst MA, 1988
Courtesy of the PhotographerOrder a copy now
Editor’s Note: In our Spring issue the Massachusetts Review is honored to feature the contributions to a recent symposium held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on October 14 and 15, 2015. “Forty Years After: Chinua Achebe and Africa in the Global Imagination” was hosted by the university’ Interdisciplinary Studies Institute, and its organizing group included Professors Joye Bowman, Sabina Murray, Britt Rusert, and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. The ISI’s director, Professor Stephen Clingman, chaired this committee, so we’ve called upon him to introduce this very special issue.
ON FEBRUARY 18, 1975, Chinua Achebe, regarded then and now as the father of African literature, presented a Chancellor’s Lecture on the University of Massachusetts campus titled “An Image of Africa”; the subtitle, “Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” was added later. It was one of those rare moments that changed the nature and shape of literary criticism; it was also a rare moment in which literary criticism changed the shape and perception of the world. It was always Chinua Achebe’s gift to do this — to conjoin disparate spheres of discourse, to shift perspectives, to change the conception of what it was not only possible but necessary to say. He had done so in his fiction, and here he was doing it in his social, cultural, and literary commentary.
The lecture had an instant impact in a quite literal respect. Some in the hall were shocked and horrified; others, as it dawned on them what Achebe was actually saying, were exhilarated. The Massachusetts Review published the essay, and the rest was not only history but a legacy for the future. Now you can barely find any discussion on Heart of Darkness which does not feature Chinua Achebe’s challenge. Much of the commentary in the voluminous Norton edition of Conrad’s novel derives from and revolves around the perspectives he introduced.
When Chinua Achebe gave his lecture, he was taking on one of the uncontested greats of English literature. It would have taken some courage to do so. Achebe was nothing if not courageous, nothing if not forthright; he was someone who permitted no gap between what he thought and what he did. Invariably what he did was elegant, graced with humor and inimitable insight. That was true of his lecture as well, although the humor may have been more pointed, more sardonic than usual. Achebe was saying what he urgently felt needed to be said. If there was courage, there was also outrage.
Of course it is quite possible to disagree with Chinua Achebe, or not to agree with him wholly. It is entirely in Achebe’s own spirit to say that there are many ways of seeing the world. As he himself wrote, “Where one thing stands, another will stand beside it.” Yet no matter how one regards the case he made on that day forty years ago, it is remarkable that he had to be the first to make it — that until then the question of racial representation in Heart of Darkness had been consigned to the collective unconscious of Western readers of the novel. In making his case, Chinua Achebe changed the framework in which works of art would be judged, and in which the discussion of Africa would be sustained. That in itself was an act of enormous significance.
Our symposium, “Forty Years After: Chinua Achebe and Africa in the Global Imagination,” drew together writers and thinkers from across Africa and its diaspora to address some of the questions, challenges, and commitments Achebe offered in his own time. The intention in hosting it was to honor and revere, but not to turn Chinua Achebe into a monument. Monuments don’t breathe, but Achebe’s legacy is a living one, and living legacies continue to shift and provoke. Our purpose then was twofold: to commemorate Achebe’s lecture, but also to bring the discussion into the present by reconsidering the shape of things now in terms of the issues he raised. When Achebe was in Amherst, he was one of a relatively small number of African writers in the United States, if the most authoritative. Now we have a new generation of writers and thinkers, female and male, who have their own perspectives and are reimagining the order of things. Forty years ago the question was how the Western world saw Africa; now it is also how Africa sees the rest of the world. We live in a globalized environment, in which images, perceptions, allegations, defenses fly around the ether in the blink of an eye. How, in these circumstances, are our eyes seeing? How far can we still draw on Achebe’s vision? That was part of the quest of our symposium to find out.
No doubt the question of humanity lies at the heart of it, for this was at the heart of Achebe’s lecture: how the human has been defined, how we might still define it. What is the role of literature, and of writers and thinkers in this regard? What might it mean to place Africa not at the periphery but at the core of our vision? In these pages you will read the contributions of our speakers and panelists. All of them showed their profound appreciation for Chinua Achebe and the extraordinary part he played as both writer and person. All of them have felt his deep influence in their work, even as the world around us has changed. Yet it remains true that 9 Introduction much in the world needs the kind of challenge Achebe extended.
Our objective in hosting our symposium was to take Achebe’s challenge seriously in our present day. If we are truly to follow in his footsteps, we must have his kind of courage, to take on the kind of debate of which we hope he would have approved. Here then are our offerings, which, drawing on Achebe’s inspiration, we hope will sustain the links and perspectives he established, and help create new ones across planetary space and time. If our gathering has one iota of the significance of the lecture which it commemorates, that will be significance enough.
for the editors
Speed of Light, a story by Paul Harding
FORTY YEARS AFTER: CHINUA ACHEBE AND
AFRICA IN THE GLOBAL IMAGINATION
An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of
Darkness, an essay by Chinua Achebe
WHERE ONE THING STANDS, ANOTHER WILL
STAND BESIDE IT
Where one thing stands, another will stand beside it,
an essay by Johnnetta Betsch Cole
Chinua Achebe: The Ironies of History Dancing
with the Politics of Literature,
an essay by Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
I HAVE CALLED YOU ALL TOGETHER
Goodwill Message, an essay by Denja Abdullahi
Achebe's Legacy, an essay by Jules Chametzky
The West's Most Undervalued Friend,
an essay by Chidi Achebe
IT IS THE STORYTELLER WHO MAKES US SEE
WHAT WE ARE
It is the Storyteller who makes us see what we are,
an essay by Caryl Phillips
A Tale of Two Books: A Forgotten Story and
Things Fall Apart, an essay by Chika Unigwe
WE INTEND TO DO UNHEARD-OF THINGS
Let no one be fooled. . ., an essay by
The Extended Family and the Trojan Horse,
an essay by Chuma Nwokolo
Unheard-of Things, an essay by Maaza Mengiste
Africa in the New Century, an essay by
* * *
Meditations, a story by Akil Kumarasamy
What He Saw, a poem by Amy Gordon
Photo and Photo and Photo, a poem by
Charm, an essay by Marianne Boruch
That Difficulty Increases Desire, a poem
by Brandon Lewis
Descartes, His Daughter, and Her Dog,
a story by Lynda Sexson
The Palace of the Soul, a poem by Corrado
Govoni, translated by Paula Bohince
Grayfish, a poem by Kathleen Hellen
Asfixia, an essay by Caroline Beimford
Barcelona Bombing, 1937, a poem by
The Storage Room, an essay by Marlene Olin
And the Temple of Doom Town, an essay
by Matt Salyer
St. Francis, a poem by Maxine Scates
Neither Here nor There: Remembering Seamus,
an essay by Shaun O'Connell
The Scent of Frangipani, a story by Nathan Go
Notes on Contributors
Denja Abdullahi is a Nigerian-born poet, playwright, theater director, and culture technocrat. He has published five volumes of poetry and a collection of plays. Abdullahi is with the National Council for Arts and Culture, Abuja-Nigeria, where he presently works as a Director, Performing Arts. He co-edited Themes Fall Apart But the Centre Holds, published in 2009 in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in 2008. He is a UNESCO certified expert and facilitator on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and is the National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), founded by Achebe in 1981.
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe (1930–2013), often called the father of the African novel, gave his Chancellor’s Lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975. The lecture was published by the Massachusetts Review in 1977.
Dr. Chidi Achebe is a physician-executive. He has degrees from Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale, and is the CEO of the Boston-based AIDE (African Integrated Development Enterprise). Dr. Achebe has dedicated his energy toward improving the health concerns of the global community situation, targeting issues such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and prostate cancer. He is the third son of Chinua and Christie Achebe.
Caroline Beimford is from Boston. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, and she is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Paula Bohince’s most recent poetry collection is Swallows and Waves, forthcoming from Sarabande in 2016.
Marianne Boruch’s ninth poetry collection, Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, will be out late summer 2016 from Copper Canyon Press, which also published her Cadaver, Speak and The Book of Hours, winner of the 2013 Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award. The author of two essay collections, In the Blue Pharmacy and Poetry’s Old Air, she’s also written a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler. Boruch teaches in the MFA Program at Purdue University, which she founded in 1987, and for many years in the low-residency Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
The last of the original founders of the Massachusetts Review in 1958–1959, Jules Chametzky served on the board in various capacities for twenty-seven years. He also lectured and taught in the U.S. and abroad.
Stephen Clingman is Distinguished Professor of English and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His fellowships include the Southern African Research Program, the African Studies Institute, the Society for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. His books include The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside and an edited collection of essays by Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics And Places. His most recent book, a memoir titled Birthmark, was published in 2015.
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole was appointed the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in March 2009. Since the mid-1980s, Dr. Cole has worked with a number of Smithsonian programs. She currently serves on the Scholarly Advisory Board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the construction of which will be completed on the National Mall by 2016.
Nathan Go was born and raised in southern Philippines. He was a 2012 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. A graduate of the Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, he is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He writes essays for the Michigan Quarterly Review Online.
Amy Gordon has published numerous books for middle school and young adult readers. Her most recent book, Painting the Rainbow, won the 2015 Paterson Prize for Young People. She runs an after-school theater program for kids in her hometown of Gill, MA. She is currently enrolled in the MFA Program for Poetry and Translation at Drew University.
Corrado Govoni (1884–1965) was a leading figure in the Crepuscular movement in Italian poetry, and a contributor to Futurism.
Paul Harding is the author of two novels about multiple generations of a New England family: the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tinkers and Enon. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he was a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat before earning his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Harding has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, MA.
Kathleen Hellen is the author of Umberto’s Night, winner of the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Her awards include poetry prizes from H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review, and the James Still Award, the Thomas Merton Prize for Poetry of the Sacred, and two Pushcart nominations.
Akil Kumarasamy’s fiction has appeared in the Boston Review and is forthcoming in Guernica and Glimmer Train. She was a 2013/2014 Charles Pick South Asian Fellow in fiction at the University of East Anglia and recently has received scholarships to attend the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan.
Brandon Lewis lives and teaches in New York City. He received an MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and his writing has appeared in journals such as Missouri Review, Salamander, Water-Stone Review, and Spork. This year he won Sundog Lit’s first poetry contest.
An MR editor and contributor for over forty years, Jerome Liebling (1924–2011) had his photographs exhibited throughout the United States, England, Spain, Germany, and Japan. His work has been the subject of many monographs, and can be found in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world.
Achille Mbembe is a Research Professor in History and Politics at Wits University. He is based at the Witwatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research. He is the author of many books, including On the Postcolony and Critique de la raison negre. His work has been translated into various languages. He is the editor of the online magazine The Johannesburg Salon and the convenor of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism.
Maaza Mengiste is a Fulbright Scholar, photographer, and the award-winning author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books. The novel was named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio Four, Granta, and Lettre Internationale, among others. She has won numerous prizes and fellowships, including an NAACP Image Award and an Indies Choice Book of the Year. She was a writer for the documentary Girl Rising, and her second novel is forthcoming.
Okey Ndibe is the author of the novels Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain, and co-editor (with Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove) of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. His memoir, Robbing a Bank and Other Misadventures, is forthcoming from Soho Press. He is a Shearing Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC online, and the Financial Times.
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr., is a Nigerian lawyer and writer, and the publisher of African Writing magazine. He is author of the poetry collection Memories of Stone, the serial Tales by Conversation, and many novels, including Diaries of a Dead African. He was writer-in-residence at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and his collection The Ghost of Sani Abacha is forthcoming. He lives in England.
Shaun O’Connell has been a member of the English Department at University of Massachusetts Boston since 1965. He is the author of two books: Imagining Boston: A Literary Landscape and Remarkable, Unspeakable New York: A Literary Landscape. He edited an interpretive anthology, Boston: Voices and Visions, and his essays have been collected in the New England Journal of Public Policy in Special Issue: Assembled Pieces. His teaching and writings focus on the sense of place upon writers who shaped our imaginations of significant places, particularly Boston and New England, New York, and Ireland.
Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the award-winning story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her honors include an O. Henry Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and finalist selection for the Young Lions, the Caine Prize, and the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Her stories have appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and Tin House, among other publications. She lives in New York.
Born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan, Marlene Olin is a contributing editor at Arcadia magazine. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in over forty publications, including Upstreet magazine, Steam Ticket, Vine Leaves, Crack the Spine, Poetica, Water Stone Review, Santa Clara Review, Broken Plate, and the Saturday Evening Post online. She recently completed a novel.
Caryl Phillips is the author of numerous books. Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize. His other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Lannan Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Crossing the River, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. He has written extensively for the stage, television, and film, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His latest novel is The Lost Child.
Matt Salyer is a Pushcart-nominated writer and assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Haven Review, Florida Review, New Madrid, Beloit Poetry Journal, and others.
Maxine Scates is the author of three books of poetry, Undone, Black Loam, and Toluca Street. She is also co-editor, with David Trinidad, of Holding Our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford. She lives in Eugene, OR.
Lynda Sexson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epoch, Able Muse, Copper Nickel, Carrier Pigeon, Black Warrior Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Fourteen Hills, Image, the Gettysburg Review, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and others. Her books are Ordinarily Sacred, Margaret of the Imperfections, and Hamlet’s Planets.
MR Contributing Editor Ekwueme Michael Thelwell was the founding chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thelwell was active in the civil rights movement, participating in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). His novel The Harder They Come has become a Jamaican classic, and his political and literary essays are collected in Duties, Pleasures and Conflicts.
Chika Unigwe is a writer of both fiction and creative nonfiction. She was born in Enugu, Nigeria. She has degrees from the University of Nigeria and the KU Leuven. She holds a PhD from the University of Leiden in Holland. She is the author of three novels, including On Black Sisters Street and Night Dancer. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals across the world. Her works have been translated into German, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, and Dutch. She won the 2012 Nigeria Literature Award, and is the recipient of many other awards and fellowships, including a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, a UNESCO Fellowship, and a BBC short story award.
Nicholas Wong is the author of Crevasse. His new poems can be found in Quarterly West, Southern Humanities Review, Ostrich Review, Los Angeles Review, The Margins, and Verse Daily. Based in Hong Kong, he is an assistant poetry editor for Drunken Boat.