Salutations and tributes to Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, a book of eulogy in honour of the departed master storyteller, provides a magnificent insight into Achebe the man, both his character and his work. Pusch Commey was at the book’s launch in Johannesburg and writes about it here.
Launched at the 40th African Literature Association Conference on 10 April in Johannesburg, the book attracted 49 eminent writers and academics from the African literary space including Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Nadine Gordimer, all paying a glowing tribute to the pioneering role played by Chinua Achebe.
One of the two editors of the book, Nana Ayebia Clarke, recalled: “The news of Achebe’s death in the US on the morning of 22 March 2013 in the middle of the 39th Annual African Literature Association Conference (ALA) in Charleston, South Carolina, sent shockwaves not only through the African Literary Community that was present at the conference, but also through the global literary World … I had the privilege and sadness of contributing to the African Literature Association tribute on behalf of my colleagues at the Heinemann African Writers series.
“It was suggested that Ayebia Clarke Publishers follow up with a book of tributes on the achievements of Chinua Achebe in the establishment of African literature over the last 50 years both by his own writing and by his work as founding editor of the African Writers Series.”
Nana Ayebia Clarke was for 12 years the commissioning editor of the famous African Writers Series, until she founded Ayebia Clarke Publishers in 2004 to champion African and Caribbean literature.
Eminent persons in the African literary space pay a glowing tribute to Achebe
Wole Soyinka’s tribute to Achebe was riddled with deep respect. In his elegy for a nation (Chinua Achebe at 70), Soyinka eulogises in poetry and evokes a brotherhood:
But we survived, Chinua. And though survival reads
Unending debt – for time, alas decrees us
Witnesses, thus debtors – earth alone remains
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o recalled how Achebe’s name had haunted his life. When he appeared in places he was often introduced as the Kenyan writer of Things Fall Apart.
It was Achebe in the 60s, as the founding editor of the African Writers Series, who was kind enough to have a look at the scribblings of a budding young writer, and guide him into publishing famous books in the series like Weep Not Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat.
Ama Ata Aidoo had a delightful anecdote of her first encounter with Chinua Achebe in his office in the 60s, as the big chief of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (director of external broadcasting).
After a frantic effort to get an audience with Achebe had finally succeeded, she exhaled and declared audibly that she had “indeed arrived at the shrine”.
She further recounted that as a student at the English Department of the University of Ghana, Legon (1961-1964) she had assumed that literature was only produced in England and by a group of writers who belonged to some sacred society called The Great Tradition.
That was until she encountered Things Fall Apart as a recommended text. It was the one book that debunked the European myth of African cultural inferiority, which was under full assault by colonial hegemony. It is the one book by which the whole World remembers Achebe.
After all, it has sold over 10m copies and has been translated into 50 languages. However, one of the 10 books Ama Ata Aidoo will take along when she gets marooned on a proverbial Desert Island will be Achebe’s Arrow of God.
A number of academics and literati agree that Arrow of God was Achebe at his best. His other well-known books include: No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, and Beware Soul Brother.
Achebe also published several essays as well as children’s books, a popular example of the latter being Chike and the River. He recalled that he was pushed into writing for children when he visited a major bookshop in London and could not find one children’s book written by Africans for Africans.
At the launch, speakers lamented the fact that Achebe’s books have not been adapted for children.
Nadine Gordimer praised Things Fall Apart as the founding creation of modern African literature. Toni Morrison recounted the impact Chinua Achebe had on her own beginnings as a writer thus: “My debt to Achebe is the best kind. Large, minus repayment schedule and interest-free.”
The man himself spent a considerable amount of time and effort on political writings, namely the Biafra story, and the future of Nigeria.
Helon Habila, in an interview with Achebe published in Africa Report and Sable Lit Magazine in 2007, revealed the great man’s constant preoccupation with the state of his beloved country.
Asked where he saw Nigeria in 15 years (in 2022), and about the prediction that it would break up like some of the Eastern European countries, his response was: “I have to confess to you that I am really quite superstitious. I hope Nigeria doesn’t break up in 15 years, so I prefer not to prophesy.” (They laughed.)
Ultimately the tribute that Achebe himself cherished most came from none other than Nelson Mandela, who predeceased him by some eight months. Said Mandela: “There was a writer named Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell.” It was the one tribute Achebe hung on his wall.
“Let the hawk perch and let the eagle also perch,” Achebe said, as an illustration of the necessity for tolerance and co-existence. It is thus no wonder that he and Nelson Mandela were kindred spirits.
Chinua Achebe, Tributes and Reflections is a beautifully published book that must take pride of place in every bookshop, and in every academic institution. Great credit must go to Ayebia Clarke Publishers, without whom the memory bank of great African Writers was in danger of being forgotten.
As Achebe said, “If you don’t like someone’s story, you tell your own.” And Africans should not wait for tributes to their heroes to be told by others, as encapsulated in Achebe’s memorable proverb:“If nobody will praise me, I will praise myself, said the Lizard which fell from the high Iroko tree.” Many would have witnessed that the lizard, on falling, nods its head repeatedly in appreciation of its feat.
In that sense, the Iroko tree will in modern times be Ayebia Clarke Publishers, on whose branches the hawks of African literature will perch, and the eagles also. And as for the lizard, it will have to live to fight another day.
Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, edited by Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey, available at www.ayebia.co.UK
Source: New African Magazine