A Tribute to Chinua Achebe

on the 50th Anniversary of Things Fall Apart
Michael Cunningham, Edwidge Danticat, Chris Abani, Colum McCann, Suheir Hammad
Francesca Harper Dance Project
Ha Jin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, Leon Botstein, Chinua Achebe

There should probably be no need to explain the importance of Achebe for the standing of world literature, but the truth is it does. That means, there’s no moral prerogative that demands it, no surely not, but it is justified to make such appeal. As the novel was published fifty years ago, it was the first truly African voice that spoke through such a western medium as the modern fictive novel. It catapulted Achebe into literary existence, and like Leon Botstein remarked with cynicism, it is a book whose title is better known than its author. So the literary scene that felt they needed to be there were there, for the man to be revealed.

Michael Cunningham was hired to read the advertisements. Was it embarrassment or humor, was it embarrassing because the humorous intent failed? It was only sympathetic to see Cunningham openly mock his own obligatory presence. But was it more humiliating than Danticat’s reading that dragged out an excerpt of the first chapter of Things Fall Apart? Did she understand the cruel force of the story she was reading as was it melodic love poetry, or was her voice the intrigue of standing on the stage speaking before the eyes of the beholder, Achebe? But any zenith comes about by a slow rise, and I was only impatiently consuming a tasteless appetizer.

Chris Abani is a speaker, who seems not raised in the back rooms of academics and he understands the magical mystery the word enraptures. He starts off by speaking to the audience in Ibo, one of the main dialects in Nigeria. The magic forces itself upon the audience as soon as it becomes clear that no translation will accompany his recital. There’s no dusty voice speaking when he talks, he is not an orator but he engages in a vocal dialog that transcends the volume of common speech. The personal is spoken with warmth, the drama is wrapped into the silk cover of comedy, the lightness of his words hides only the depth of his message. He needs not to search for words, his tongue delivers them to us. The meaning of words are not the words, it’s knowing how to enchant the girl you desire. The fever of one’s writing lies in the heat of this desire. And it is only through the recognition of the image, the image in the mirror, that a writer is born who loves the words that take the place of one’s desires. Things Fall Apart is that first recognition for the Nigerian writer.

Colum McCann started by reading the poem from which Things Fall Apart takes its title. Achebe’s epithet was taken from Yeats poem The Second Coming. Although I find little merit in such literary play-backing, McCann does not wait too long to make you see how brilliantly a talented author can create a artistic layer even within a short speech. The coming together of things that fall apart, as the audience and writers are here together, such is the power of a book, such is the force of art. And McCann as simple as effortless displays this art.

Suheir Hammad is a tall, beautiful New Yorker, born in Jordan and taken with her parents to Brooklyn, NY. She introduces herself by the point of being a Palestinian author. Now this claim is all good to me, it seems she is somewhat politically active to support her claim, but I find it audacious to claim the suffering of people as your own, if you do not share it. She is certainly audacious as she recites one of her own poems, and well, alas, maybe I should just say, hell why not? She is not so interesting in my book, she could be seen as a poet who claims (all these claims) rap for her literary voice, but to me it is rap disowned, rap mutilated, appropriated rap, second hand rap. I decided I don’t like her, maybe I, the white male, am intimidated by the beautiful smart brown woman.

Amid those who found a collective voice in the idea that the English language is a white language, and that a black man cannot speak a white man’s language without losing his color, Ha Jin spoke by his own voice. His voice, that of the immigrant writer, is mine too. There is essentially no color in sound, there is essentially no collective tone in a single man’s voice. The English language, says Ha Jin, for the immigrant writer is an acquisition.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is Nigerian and her speech reveals a relevant but also exhibitionist detail of her personal life. Growing up in the privileged bilingual world of Nigerian academics, her parents moved for no other coincidence than the seniority of their position into the very house Achebe once lived as well. Although the period is short and of a personal irrelevance, Adichie humorously explains how important this trivial detail becomes to her publisher and editor, who writes her whole author’s biography around this material fact of her existence. Ever since, the ghost in the house stayed with her and dictate story after story. The ghost of course is Achebe’s, and Adichie’s sense for comedy is well understood.

It is a petty not more writers were African writers, because this is were the meaning of Things Fall Apart, has found the most authentic echo obviously. It would have been interesting to hear a more diverse group of Africans testify to this. As it would be interesting to hear the two Nigerian female authors testify about the inner African struggle with the image and reality of the strong man in Africa. Is Things Fall Apart not also a criticism of this strong man? The lectures of praise themselves do not completely reflect in my opinion the way I at least read the book. And they also did not seek to connect to the Africa of our time. And as such it did not answer the question if the book is still relevant or if it is merely a monument to its own time? Perhaps this question was consciously avoided with the publication of a 50th anniversary version. But to hear the writer himself answer such more urgent questions would certainly have been worth something.

Toni Morrison, the icon of African-American literature and poster woman of black emancipation in America, speaks for black America as the African proxy. To see a black American speak as if they belong in Africa is not so evident as it may be to black Americans. Personally, I think the term African American is misplaced for more than one reason. It is estranging to hear them speak about Africa as one continent of one race, namely the black race, and thus export the American racial history to Africa as if it were a moral neo-imperialist product from America. But Toni Morrison is a voice of a generation, representing the old civil rights movement in America. Most of all however she is a great American writer and black scholar with an important voice in the current social debate in America.

She speaks as if the myriad of voices were one. In her introduction Toni Morrison displays her aura and mesmerizes the audience by her natural speech. The weight of her intellectual thought is expressed without effort and entertains easily. It is only when she starts to read from her essay about the language debate surrounding Things Falls Apart, that she deviates into a boring ivory tower debate of academics about the semantics and definitions of words. It is disappointing to see her go astray in the debate, although she is too respectful to lose her stature completely. Also, she reject Konrad’s Heart of Darkness fiercely and repeatedly as a non-African book, as an evil book, she renounces Konrad’s voice, she ridicules him by calling him a white Pole writing in English about Africa. But I can only wonder, is the racist arrogance of the colonizer not a part of Africa? When all confirm the impact of the colonial era, how can it be denied a part of African history on the ground that it represent the injustice of history?

To see Achebe, the writer of the book about the strong man, be wheeled onto the stage in a wheel chair, to see him make such a fragile and charming impression, is an irony of time and literature, that cannot have eluded many. His speech talks about the anecdote of how the book was almost lost in the indifferent void of an office. The manuscript was only saved from the typist’s desk thanks to the forceful action of a radio station colleague who happened to be traveling to London. Apart from this soft spoken story, reflecting without a doubt the humble decay of old age and much praise, Achebe did not or was not able to say much of interest. And that would have been archaic either way, because Achebe spoke when he wrote more than 50 years ago his first and most acclaimed novel, a novel that he says lived him.

Links:
PEN – A Tribute to Chinua Achebe
Town Hall NYC
Francesca Harper Dance Project

Other reports of the evening are found here, here, here, here, and here

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2 thoughts on “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe

  1. angelina

    This is an interesting post. However, I think you have made one mistake. Ms. Morrison was reading Achebe’s *own* essay.

  2. caprio Post author

    Ah excellent remark! I made that mistake, mistook it for her own, so thanks for your correction. Now, my image of Morrison is untainted again. I can only conclude that I am not so impressed by Achebe in that case, maybe he was lucky to publish at the right moment in time, surely there must be more brilliant and exciting minds in a continent that is so thrilling. It still was a very boring academic paper. Why would Toni Morrison do that? Be lazy and simply read another man’s work without mentioning it? It is nice of her to do, cause Achebe was too feeble to talk. Morrison is without doubt an original mind.

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